Medieval, which means "middle age," roughly describes the millennium kick-started by the fall of the Roman Empire and halted by the invention of the printing press (a starling new technology that kindled a fresh cultural explosion known as the Renaissance). After... [more]
Medieval, which means "middle age," roughly describes the millennium kick-started by the fall of the Roman Empire and halted by the invention of the printing press (a starling new technology that kindled a fresh cultural explosion known as the Renaissance). After the defeat of Rome at the hands of audacious barbarians, the Holy Roman Empire was in ruins. The Pax Romana had collapsed, along with the civic values of a public, educated life.
As a result, the task of maintaining cultural records was left in the hands of the monasteries, the only remaining bastions of literacy. Cloistered monks with a surfeit of time and faith on their hands crafted biographies of saints and illuminated manuscripts of uncommon beauty. Gone were the expansive plays and poems that had explored and gloried in the human experience -- in their place stood stilted tableaux that extolled the miracles of saints and condemned the fate of a corrupt humanity. Early medieval literary efforts gloomily depict an age of intense Christian orthodoxy, a faith held as a talisman against a vulnerable world torn into scattered, piecemeal estates.
But while the written word stagnated, a new vernacular literature had a chance to germinate. Oral literature flourished in the freshly feudal fiefdoms. In the face of all this newfound barbaric muscle, the epic revived as an oral tradition. Both "The Song of Roland" and "Beowulf" were retold by the blaze of bonfires as non-literate peoples took center stage. Troubadours spread lyric poetry throughout Europe as they wandered the countryside, selling their labors for a song.
By the High Middle Ages, societies based on a sharply stratified aristocracy gave birth to the romance. Stories by Christian de Troyes and Marie De France popularized the now-famous Arthurian legends and instructed the new nobles on the ethics of courtly life. Late in the era, Dante's "The Divine Comedy" and Geoffrey Chaucer's hilarious, humane "Canterbury Tales" signaled a new sensibility. These works, rather than forcing conformity to an idealized biblical mold, shared a compassionate regard for human frailty that added levity and sympathy to the human condition. [show less]