I’ve often wondered who I would be if I lived in the Middle Ages. I’m a writer. It’s in my soul. But were there writers in the Middle Ages? More importantly, were there women writers?
Well, the answer to that is a resounding YES. But depending on when and where you were it took a different form.
From the earliest days of the Middle Ages, those good old days when the Roman Empire was collapsing as Germanic tribes moved in and everyone’s way of life changed, there were storytellers. In fact, there isn’t a time in all of human history when there were NOT storytellers. As long as there have been people there have been stories. In ancient cultures storytellers were revered as shamans and magicians. The oral tradition meant that stories were passed down from generation to generation. When the written word was invented, be that cuneiform, hieroglyphics, or runes, it was considered powerful magic. It meant that the storyteller could miraculously tell their stories without even being present. The stories would live on long after they did. It was a miracle.
This oral tradition was what kept a lot of stories going in the Early Middle Ages. Up until about the year 1000 there really wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity to write things down. But the oral tradition, from stories told around the family hearth to bards and theatrical troupes performing in noble courts, was alive and kicking. These court performers represented a combination of literary and theatrical tradition. Depending on where you were, their stories could be anything from high-minded lessons in morality to bawdy tales that would make the faint of heart blush.
But none of this was particularly organized, nor was it written down. In the Early Middle Ages the Church had the market cornered on the written word. As you might expect, they were a little too busy copying and preserving the Bible and other religious tracts to spend any time writing down frivolous stories.
That all changed at the dawn of the High Middle Ages.
As early as 1050 manuscripts begin to appear that have nothing at all to do with religion, the Church, or Latin. And remember, this was still a time before the introduction of the printing press, so these books and manuscripts involved a lot of time and effort. The fact that suddenly it was seen as important to put the time and effort into creating them is key to understanding the development of the medieval mind.
This new literature was written in the vernacular. It’s subject matter was secular. And in the early days a lot of it was written by students at the newly formed universities of Europe. The earliest of these universities were the University of Bologna (1088), the University of Paris (mid-11th century), and the University of Oxford (1196)*. Granted, in a lot of cases those students were there to study religion, and law and medicine and science, but the point is that these schools were not monastic.
The students wrote about the kind of things that students wrote about. They wrote about how much they hated their classes and professors, about their sexual conquests, and about beer. Well, more or less. The point was that they were writing, their work was being shared, and it was not stories about the high ideals of the Church and the spiritual life. Although in the end a lot of these student stories came back around to hoping that God would forgive them for their excesses and take them up to Heaven where they could be with the angels.
So that was one kind of new High Medieval storytelling. Another of great importance was the emergence of the troubadour tradition in the south of France.
This is where the introduction of the concept of “courtly love” happened. Of course, as just about any Medieval scholar will tell you, there’s a huge debate about what exactly “courtly love” means and whether it was practiced in reality or not. The troubadours wrote and sang love songs in the vernacular. But some of the stories were about pure and chaste love of a knight and his lady and some were explicitly sexual about affairs and the like. Also, some of the troubadours were women. Yes they were. And quite often they would sing about their unrequited love or affairs that had gone wrong.
In the north of France (which includes England as well, seeing as post-Norman Conquest the nobility of England spoke French) a slightly different take on storytelling emerged. Born out of the same tradition as the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf (which I was forced to read in high school) came the adventure-romance. These are stories like The Song of Roland and El Cid. They usually involved an epic hero on a quest for a great monarch, frequently Charlemagne, who gives his life for his goal. Again, secular but with a religious bent, told in the vernacular at court. These stories were organized and formulaic.
There is a lot of evidence that these new forms of storytelling came to the West through its contact with the Muslim world through the Crusades and trade. The traditions of romantic stories had existed in the Arab world for ages. Think Arabian Nights.
But then something happened that was truly special. Eastern influences met the southern French troubadours and their “love songs”. The troubadour tradition spread north and bumped up against the heroic adventure tales. Suddenly the flowering culture of the High Middle Ages developed a thirst for more. They demanded a story that was both heroic and romantic and infused with spiritual elements. They demanded literature that pulled even further away from the controlling Church and invested idealism in the individual and their personal quest.
Their demand for something more began to be answered by a secular clerk writing under the patronage of the bishop of Lincoln, Geoffrey of Monmouth. His revolutionary work published in 1136, History of the Kings of Britain, was actually a compilation and retelling of stories from Geoffrey’s homeland of Wales. And with the introduction of his most important character, King Arthur, a whole new world of storytelling and thought was born.
But more about that next week.
*These are the dates that people began teaching at these universities, although the University of Paris and the University of Oxford weren’t officially incorporated and recognized until a few decades later