fairy and dragon
fairy and dragon

The Middle Ages, if compared to the age of the great Viking invasions, can be considered a time of relative stability that favoured artistic development. The general atmosphere of the Dark Ages is centred on the important role assigned to religion in the life of medieval people. They believed that everything had a scope and that man’s life was determined by God’s will and that all things were to fit in the great plan that God had devised for man. Life was, then, considered as a metaphorical journey leading to heavenly salvation.

Furthermore, medieval man’s ideas and thoughts were conceived in the shape of images, they were to be made visible rather than being coherently spoken in words, this was true even for feelings and inner thoughts. Consequently visual art’s purpose, at this time, was to show how the human mind perceived reality, as opposed to what reality really was thus; architecture adapted, for instance, the proportions of a cathedral to represent a model of the universe. The same happens in literature, at first it was considered as a useful instrument to show the way and had didactic purposes.

Bodiam Castle, East Sussex, UK
Bodiam Castle, East Sussex, UK

Similarly to Saxon literature, during the Middle Ages as well, oral poetry was best appreciated by a population that was for the most part illiterate. The very first lyrics were of religious content, but eventually there was also a flourishing of secular lyrics inspired by three main different sources. The first one originated in France and regards the Charlemagne cycle and its courtly love; the second was influenced by Roman and classical literature such as the conquest of Troy; while the third was closer to English taste and cultural heritage, it refers to the tales in verses of the Arthurian cycle and combined the heroic deeds of king Arthur’s knights of the round table, including courtly love with fairies, giants, dragons and wizards. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight of an unknown author is till this day the most famous poetic romance of English literature in the Middle Ages.

As far as prose writing is concerned it was still used mainly to convey simple information, instructions and exhortations. Clergymen wrote the lives of saints or translated from Latin the Bible with commentaries on vices and virtues to be used as models to follow or to avoid. It was only in the 15th century that the first prose romances appeared, including La Morte d’Arthur written by Sir Thomas Malory and published in 1485. Geoffrey Chaucer is undoubtedly the most important poet of the Middle Ages.

The Medieval Ballad and the Medieval Narrative Poem

The two main poetic genres that dominated this time were the Medieval Ballad and the Medieval Narrative Poem. The former was originally meant to be sung at the communal ring-dance. Its structure consisted of a four line stanza that followed the ABCB rhyming pattern; or in couplets with an alternating refrain dividing the different parts of the story, which were sung by the chorus. The repetition was meant to build up the rhythm. The language was generally simple, as was the audience; the vocabulary related to everyday activities and was conventional. The narrative also included dialogues, there can often be found speaking animals, and among other characters, also fairies, witches and ghosts.


The narrator usually related the story in the third person, unless he or she was a character too. Finally, these poems have no moral teaching to pass along and they focused on the following main themes:
Ballads of magic which had strong imaginative power since they were tales of supernatural and great transformation;
Border ballads dealt with stories of rivalry among the English and the Scots;
Ballads of love and domestic tragedies
Ballads of outlaws regarding Robin Hood’s adventures.

Robin Hood
Robin Hood

The Medieval Narrative Poem, unlike the previous one, did mean to instruct as well as entertain, in fact it told a story to transmit the conventional morality of the time or illustrate the social changes that were underway. In addition, its narrator spoke in the first person and offered a description of the setting, including time, of the other characters, their lifestyles, experiences and psychology. The following are some examples of narrative poems:
The “exempla”, parables or fables with a moral intent inspired by true or invented stories;
The “romance”, related a tale centred on wars or courtly love;
The “fabliau”, often anti-clerical, contained several comical situations or remarks regarding sex.

Medieval Theatre – Miracle Plays and Morality Plays

Poetry, though, was not the only literary genre favoured by the English, the theatre had always been popular and even during the Middle Ages it played an important role in their culture. The first plays, just as the first lyrics, were of religious content, they were called Miracle Plays, and they took place in the naves of churches, acted out in Latin generally by monks and were meant to honour great Christian events, they proved to be a very efficient method to convey Christianity among the people. During the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries these plays progressively moved out to market places, or in front of town hall, by the bishop’s residence and were called Pageants. Latin was replaced by English and the actors were lay members of the trade guilds who were now paid for their services. The content was still religious, regarding stories taken from the Bible such as the creation of Adam and Eve, the Resurrection or the Last Judgement. The pageants were actually moveable stage wagons open on all sides; a different fragment of the same episode was performed on each side allowing people to move from one side to the other to see the entire play.

A pageant stage wagon
A pageant stage wagon

They were soon replaced by the Morality Plays which were no longer concerned with religious issues but on the contrary, for the first time, they performed man’s historical evolution from ancient times to their present day. The stories were all invented and the characters were human personifications of vices and virtues providing the audience with what would later be developed in terms of psychological insight. The Morality Plays employed professional actors belonging to acting companies or associations and were often under the patronage of important aristocrats. Generally the first performance took place at their patron’s mansions and afterwards they toured the country. Finally, the Interlude, which first appeared in the 15th century, consists of a short play performed at a Lord’s house by a small acting company. The interlude was both serious and comic, through disguises the actors would give life to misunderstandings leading to humorous situations; moreover the interlude also used a “Vice”, a character whose sole purpose was to arouse the audience’s hilarity through clever puns.

street stage
street stage

Images taken from Google image search


© L. R. Capuana


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