The Formation of Western Literature


This paper researches the formation of Western literature of the Middle Ages. The aim is  to analyze the following questions: what made a great influence on the formation of medieval literature, how can the literature of the Middle Ages be characterized, what are the most significant works of that period. The author of the report is going to give their personal view of the development and formation of Western literature and offer some interesting facts about that period.

Keywords: Middle Ages, Western literature, formation, significant.

The Formation of Western Literature

The formation of the medieval literature began in the IV - V centuries. We can call this period the beginning of the rebirth of literature. It was a very difficult time for Europe - time of Germanic invaders, Romanization and strong Christianity impact. The survived towns lost their civilization, and the right to intellectual education was at liberty of monks and priests, so it got a theological nature. Churches constantly suggested the ideas of asceticism, penance, contempt for earthly blessings and implicit obedience to the temporal power. All these factors had a great affect on Western literature. Together with it, a lot of genres of the medieval literature are of the ecclesiastical origin.

At the same time literature of that period was diverse, and it was the result of different, even conflicting, sources.

Although the period is often described as the “Age of Faith,” the commitment to Catholic  Christianity was neither uniform nor lacking in an understanding of its complexities and contradictions.

The period is also described as the “Age of Chivalry.” The code of chivalry stressed  generosity and concern for the powerless, and a capacity for experiencing selfless and passionate romantic love. ("The Middle Ages. Overview", 2006)

So we can divide medieval literature into two main stages - literature of the period of ordinary system decomposition and feudalism appearance (V - X centuries) and literature of the developed feudalism stage (XI - XV centuries). The first period is rather barbaric; it is characterized by the folk poetical works, and in the second period national, chivalrous and clerical literature in the vernacular appeared.

The most significant works of the medieval period are St. Augustine's Confessions, the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, The Song of Roland, Thorstein the Staff-Struck, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Boccaccio's Decameron, and, of course, Dante's Divine Comedy.

The Confessions is an autobiographical work, which consists of 13 books. It was written by St. Augustine of Hippo between AD 397 and AD 398. Augustine's motives to write this work are not clear, but there are at least two causes:

First, his contemporaries were suspicious of him because of his Classical, pagan-influenced education; his brilliant public career as a rhetor; and his status as an ex-Manichee… One purpose of the Confessions, then, was to defend himself against… criticism, by explaining how he had arrived at his Christian faith and demonstrating that his beliefs were truly Christian.

Another motivation may have been a bit of correspondence between Augustine's close friend Alypius and a notable Christian convert, Paulinus of Nola, a Roman aristocrat who had renounced the world and his immense family fortune upon converting to Christianity. Alypius wrote to Paulinus and sent him some of Augustine's works. Paulinus wrote back to ask Alypius for an account of Alypius' life and conversion. ("About St. Augustine's Confessions", n.d.)

He wrote about his faith, his beliefs, about his attitude to Christianity, about his life and journeys, about religion and relationship with God. God is perfect, and people are small and weak. God is everything. Augustine was truly resigning himself to God and he thanked God for his body, his life, his senses; he regretted his sins: his believing in astrology, his sexual sins. Augustine was praying to God in his books. He shows us a struggling world, where people lost themselves and were trying to find the divine, the only way to peace and contentment.

Augustine's Confessions became a model for writing medieval works of literature. I suppose that his books greatly influenced Christian writers of the Middle Ages, and we can notice some reflections of his works in his followers' ones. He was one of the authorities on theological literature up to the middle of the XIII century. Moreover, even now, when we read his books, he makes us think about God and about what is right, and what is not.

It is impossible not to mention about Dante Alighieri (1265-1361). He was born in Italy. His most famous work is The Divine Comedy; originally called Commedia (later Boccaccio called it Divina). Dante was named "The Father of Italian language" because he chose to write his poem in Italian, but not in Latin. In addition, after that Italian became the literary language in Western Europe for several ages.

Dante Alighieri wrote The Divine Comedy for almost thirteen years (1308 - 1321). It consists of three parts: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Heaven). The first of the volumes, the Inferno, is the best known, and it "describes the afterlife for the wicked, where hell is comprised of nine descending circles and there is no forgiveness" (, 2000). The second and the third volumes continue Dante's travels through the afterlife worlds. Each volume is divided into 33 cantos (except Inferno - it has 34 cantos). Dante wrote cantos in tercets (groups of three lines). We can notice, that the number 3 figures everywhere. It may be a symbol of the Hole Trinity because it is a divine comedy, so the Holies were very important for the author. The three symbolizes the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The greatness of the Divine Comedy lies in its construction as a summa, or a summation of knowledge and experience. Dante was able to weave together pagan myth, literature, philosophy; Christian theology and doctrine, physics, astrology, cartography, mathematics, literary theory, history, and politics into a complex poem that a wide audience, not just the highly educated, could read. (eNotes, 2012)

We can see that Dante was very intelligent, smart and knowledgeable. He tried to share his experience with his readers. He wanted to lead us to a better understanding of human place in the world; he tried to prepare us to the life after death.  In his poem one can clearly define allegory: the author's journeys through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven represent the soul's travel to God.

In conclusion it is worth mentioning that The Divine Comedy is one of the greatest works not only of the Middle Ages, but of the whole world literature of the post-medieval time. This poem influenced many famous writers, such as Giovanni Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Blake, Victor Hugo, James Joyce and others. It set us thinking about the sense of life and life after death.

Besides autobiographical works, hagiographies were also very popular in religious literature. According to the Applied History Research Group (1997), hagiography is "the writing of the lives of saints, frequently idealized and embellished to present moral lessons and extremely popular throughout the Middle Ages." One of such works is the Golden Legend of Jacob de Voragine.

An example of the literature of the "age of chivalry" is the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1370 - 1380). The unknown poet wrote it. It is one of the well-known Arthurian stories. It shows old British chivalry traditions. The main themes of this work are:

- The nature of chivalry;

- Letter of the law;

- Fidelity.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is written in the alliterative romance genre and in the bob and wheel stanzas, (it is "a group of typically five rhymed lines following a section of unrhymed lines, often at the end of a strophe. The bob is the first line in the group and is shorter than the rest; the wheel is the quatrain that follows the bob.") (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2012).

The central conflict of the poem is a struggle between the  nature and the human society. Therefore, the author wanted to tell us, that nature is the power, and we should not be afraid of death because it is a natural process - everything is born, grown, matured and eventually it will die. Other important themes are the viability of chivalric values and faith in God. The main hero Gawain found that the chivalric code was not perfect - it was shaken. On the contrary, Gawain found his guidance in God. Nevertheless, the poem represents the dual nature - pagan and Christian. People, who lived in the British Isles before the Roman and Anglo-Saxon arrivals, had a strong body of pagan belief, and as the Middle Ages progressed, Christianity became more dominant, but such pagan myths and beliefs were often preserved in the British folklore and literature (Eng.Fju.Edu, n.d.).

Thus, summing up, I can say that this masterpiece is still popular in modern time. It founds its reflections in works by J.R.R Tolkien, Simon Armitage and others, as well as in books, films and stage adaptation.

The foundation of the French literary tradition was The Song of Roland. It is one of the most important medieval French epics, which reflects the mythology that grew up around the figure of Charlemagne (Evans, 2012). The poem is based on the Battle of Roncesvalles in 778, when Charlemagne was reigning. It clearly reflects the religio-military culture of Western countries of the Middle Ages.

The analysis of the above-mentined medieval works leads to the counclusion that the literature of the Middle Ages was not primitive and dismal - it was complex, multiform, and contradictory. Western medieval culture became the new qualitative phase of the European literature. Many different factors were discovered about the aspects that influenced its formation, such as invasions, religion, chivalry and others. Medieval literature - both, clerical and secular - had a number of general characteristics that made it entire. It was literature of traditionalistic type. During its whole existence, it developed on the basis of constant reproduction of the limited sets of figurative, ideological and compositional structures - cliches. Writers expressed such cliches in epithets permanence, motifs steadiness and constancy of canons for the portrayal of heroes (a young man in love, a Christian martyr, a knight, a beautiful woman, an emperor or a citizen). Nevertheless medieval authors displayed originality not through their unique comprehension of the human, but through their own way of making a story, novel or poem interesting and readable. Further, their works became masterpieces. Literature of the late Middle Ages was the great foundation for the Renaissance literature. The vernacular languages continued their development in the post-medieval culture.

At the end of the paper, it is worth underlining that   Western literature of the Middle Ages is a source of the subjects, themes, images, moral values for the following literature development and it affected many further generations. It gives us the examples of excellent manners, true faith, fidelity and love. It is important to study such literary works to be well-educated and well-developed personalities. They enlarge students' knowledge and make people more wise and informed. When a person knows the history, he will not repeat last mistakes. 

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