What do we think of when we think of medieval literature? Probably texts which are dry and filled with moral and religious platitudes; maybe though we will think of Arthurian literature, however, and be filled with a bit more enthusiasm for adventure and courtly love. No matter what we view of medieval literature, however, there is far more to this epoch’s texts than meets the eye and Elaine Treharne’s ‘Very Short Introduction’ masterfully elucidates that ‘more.’
If we wanted to get straight to the heart of the matter, I supposed we could call attention to the difference between medieval literature and contemporary literature, specifically, how they were produced and how from that production came socially defined measures of print culture. Whereas in contemporary times texts are able to be mass produced with modern printing presses and digitally compressed, thus making for an unprecedented access to texts of all varieties, back in the medieval period this was not the case.
Medieval texts were crafted in what was known as scriptoria’s, or, enclaves of religious learning primarily manned by monks and other learned individuals. As such, most texts followed religious instruction—they were either sermons or homilies, theistic instruction or moral entertainment. Since most texts followed such lines, their usage was meant primarily for priests and other such preachers associated with the church.
The average person would not have any hope of procuring a text for themselves due to the expensive nature of production. Only royal households and those close to kingly bloodlines found themselves in possession of books. Since scarcity was an issue, it was the job of poets, people with well-trained memories, to memorize entire narratives and perform them for an audience. Hence, texts during the medieval period were social contracts as much as they were religious or cultural artifacts. Poets, in fact, would compete amongst themselves to recite in royal halls and for the chance to praise the great leaders of men of their time; succeeding meant wealth and a career as lords and kings would find the aid of a talented poet—bard, skald, etc.—much in the same manner as a government agency would have need of imaginative propagandist; the social role of poets was to influence as much as it was to inspire.
But this is not to say that all texts were purely about praise or religious instruction. Like in contemporary times, there was a variety of different texts for a variety of purposes. Some texts were political pieces meant to argue for a specific historical or religious view. Others still were cultural which often functioned as pieces of demagoguery where exclusion was utilized as a means of community building (often disguised in anti-Semitic language, unfortunately). Texts often depicted mystical and otherworldly realities while disseminating treatises on love, hatred, monstrosity, and divine judgment.
Literature and textual production and performance, accordingly enough, were vital cornerstones to what it meant to be English, Welsh, or French; with many competing but fusing influences, no text—corporeal (manuscripts) or incorporeal (the oral tradition)—lasted long in isolation thanks to the ever deepening means of socialization; as the church and civil hierarchy became more sophisticated and attempted to define and regulate everyday customs and living, textual relevance became more important than ever, especially as technologies developed which slowly allowed more and more groups access to texts and so participate in their continued growth.
In all, the importance of literature to the medieval world was something which today overshadows our own conception. Though a controversial statement, to some, it is an undeniable fact that literature and its study is seen in contemporary times as an obsolete or airy subject; something perused by intelligent but otherwise lackluster individuals who do not contribute to the sciences or mathematical fields. Today, literature does not define a social or cultural identity any more than conceptions of scientific theories. Today literature is seen as either entertainment or educational and has little value in regards to regulating and evolving social bodies.
Perhaps this is a virtue, though maybe it is not. Regardless of where you stand on literature today and how it stands up to its reception centuries ago, one thing which is undeniable is Treharne’s very short introduction—concise, well worded, and able to take the newcomer on a tour of medieval literary life—is something which should be read by every medieval novice.
Medieval Literature: A Very Short Introduction
141 pages. Published by Oxford U.P. $8.29 (paperback), $5.19 (Kindle). 2015.