When we read a text how do we think of ourselves in relation to the text? For most of us, if taken literally, we probably do not think that the “I” even has a role– if we read a book, then it is merely our perception and reception of the narrative which matters. In other words, it is a purely personal affair.
This was not the perception of medievalists, however, who never experienced literature as a solo affair. Because few people were literate, in order to hear of a written narrative, people would need to find a bard, or other such professional performers, to recite and perform the narrative. This much we know, but it, of course, go deeper than a mere dialectic between audience and performer.
Stories in medieval times reflected something about the community that they were aimed toward. We still see this today in terms of genre: content reflects the target audience. But during the medieval period, textual content mattered a great deal. Stories from Arthurian romances to religious sermons served first and foremost, as a defense against evil. People would orient their consumption of texts not as mere entertainment but as primers on how to live more Godly.
To take an example, we should consider what we now perceive as the hagiographic genre of literature. Gaining widespread appeal during the 12th to 15th centuries, hagiographic texts were records, usually fictionalized in some aspect, of the lives of Saints; they told of the saint’s grand exploits and moral preservation against the forces of evil.
For aristocratic young men and women, such narratives were actually required reading. Indeed, so popular were they, that it was not uncommon for them to be read aloud at church during certain events. Elaine Treharne suggests that so enjoyed the narratives in these texts, that it denotes a desire to participate in the stories themselves and share the burden and delights of the narrative (63, Medieval Literature: A Very Short Introduction). Thus, readership was more than consumption. It was, as I remarked, about the integration of the personal into the pre-personal, the community.
Such integration is exemplified by the hagiographic texts depicting the lives of female saints. Women readers, especially interested in how to better their own existence and connect it to the Lord, consumed any and all texts on their behavior in an effort to mimic their actions and better their community; a text, South English Legendary, was a widely read text on the lives of womanly saints (though it was not a text exclusively focused on woman saints). So popular were these texts, that sometimes aristocratic women would become anchoresses— people, all women, who shut themselves away from the world in order to contemplate God. Inspired by the Katherine Group of saints lives, their principal guiding text was called the Ancrene Wisse and inspired the participants to correct their behavior in accordance with saintly conduct (64).
Not everyone during this period was isolated, however, for the desire to tether the public and the private consumption of literature also motivated the performance of the most communal form of literature, drama. Such dramas were usually accounts of the life of Christ put on by the laity for the laity (with guildsmen usually responsible for different parts). Two surviving dramatic plays survive from medieval Dublin– The Play of the Sacrament, as well as the English morality, play The Pride of Life (65). Other plays, mysteries, also existed and usually emphasized multi-linguistic histories with scripts often scripted with several tongues to offer translations for varied performers.
So, to conclude, though we tend to only think of ourselves in relation to a text if we subscribe to a kind of fandom– such as writing fan fiction, live-action role-playing or cosplay, or adaptation– medievalists truly integrated the texts into their lives and values. Which just goes to show, that contemporary regulation of literature to the field of either abstract academics or juvenile fandom, is not only a product of our own economic situation but also something which was once alien to entire communities.