Introduction | Sculpture | Painting | Literature | Bibliography


The knight's taleWhile Beowulf and the Song of Roland dealt with glorified and flawless heroes, later literature was less perfect character-wise. Unlike the Old English works preceding it, The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer is a collection of short stories written in Middle English. The protagonists of the stories are not the perfect people of old; instead they are debauched and flawed. Where the older works were usually allegories in which a hero with a specific mission would go on a journey and be victorious, these tales deal with every kind of people in every status. The stories are often about adultery, religious wrongdoings and courtly love. The Canterbury tales are a collection of stories framed in the context of pilgrims having a storytelling contest. This sort of contest was common at this time as poetry and stories were the main forms of entertainment. Originally, Chaucer intended each character to tell 4 stories (2 each way of the journey) but he died after finishing a mere 24. Still, it is one of the best surviving works from this time and is useful to contrast with older works.

Theatre in the Middle Ages is not particularly well known. Many performances would be outdoor and those watching them would be illiterate. For this reason, we do not have a large record of plays. We do, however, know that the church was often strongly opposed to them and banned them at times. This was generally because the old Roman plays were deemed to be over the top and excessive. For this reason, and the fact that it was no longer economically possible to keep up chariot racing and gladiatorial sport, Roman theatre gave way to different kinds of performances. These church-approved performances would be used to teach the public about religion by using scare-tactics of the day. Witches and other superstitions were used against the uneducated public to convince them of the church's beliefs. Page one of EverymanPart way through the 13th century, however, plays moved away from town squares and more into large fields and plays had somewhat more freedom from the church. It is important to note, though, that at this time the church still had a very all-encompassing impact on life. Even plays that weren't technically endorsed by the church would have moral lessons. A famous morality play was called Everyman, written by a Flemish playwright. Popular stories were ones such as Robin Hood which were exciting, not explicitly religious but had a moral while appealing to the poor masses. Today, plays are still written to make a point, just as most literature is. However, such obvious moral lessons are no longer appealing to today's audience and such points are hidden in most complex and symbolic plotlines.

One of the reasons we know so little about literature, theatre and life in the Middle Ages is that making books was extremely time consuming and expensive, not to mention controlled by the clergy. Scrolls, made from papyrus were an early way of storing information. Later, using the hides of animals would become more common. This was a complicated process done my skilled workers which involved using various chemicals and tools to stretch and dry the skin into a very thin, paper-like material. Actual paper came about later and moved into common usage in the 16th century. This paper was made of linen scraps, unlike the wood-pulp paper we use today. Pens were made of bird feathers and each individual scribe would make their own pens to use with their gluey version of ink. At this time, there was no printing press so each book still had to be copied out by hand. This required desks, supplies, a book to copy from, and literate people with a lot of time on their hands. It makes sense, then, that bookmaking would usually be done in monastaries. This explains why so many widely copied books were of a religious nature.

books being copied