The History of Medieval Europe

By Lynn Thorndike; James T. Shotwell | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXI
MEDIEVAL LITERATURE

WHILE Latin scholars, despite their occasional experiments and original ideas, were devoting most of their time to rehashing the opinions of past Christian authors and to absorbing the recently acquired science of the Greeks and Arabs, popular writers in the new languages of western Europe and the artists in the service of the Church were engaged primarily in new creations. The new society which had developed as an outcome of the fusion of Teutons and Romans was now ready to express itself. There were also the Celts whose folklore and imagination do not seem to have come to the surface in Latin literature when they were provincials of the Roman Empire. There were the Germanic and Norse invaders with their new myths and legends. There was the feudal aristocracy of innumerable knights, always fighting, jousting, and crusading, until at last it wore itself out under the spurring of its own superabundant vitality.

A new society calls forth a new literature

"For the sword outwears its sheath
And the soul wears out the breast."

There were the men of the rising communes, crude as yet in manners and not overrefined in sentiment, but ambitious and industrious, and some of them artists and inventors. Now, the vast majority of the Celtic and Germanic and Norse population of Europe neither spoke nor understood Latin, and the same was true of the feudal aristocracy and the townsmen. Literature intended for them must be written in the vernacular speech of their daily life. With a few exceptions, we first find it so written in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. Let us first see what the languages were in which this literature was written; then we will return to the literature itself.

The Celtic languages survived to some extent into the

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