Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature

Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature

Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature

Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature


Often misleadingly called the Dark Ages, the period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance was a time of great creativity. The Middle Ages gave rise to some of the world's most enduring and influential literary works, including Dante's Commedia, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and a large body of Arthurian lore and legend. This reference is a comprehensive guide to literature written between 500 and 1500. While the volume is primarily devoted to the early literature of England, it also includes entries for historical persons and subjects of cultural relevance which would have been discussed in literary works or which might have affected their creation. Multicultural in scope, the book also covers Islamic, Hispanic, Celtic, Mongolian, Germanic, Italian, and Russian literature and culture of the Middle Ages.

Longer entries provide thorough coverage of major English authors such as Chaucer and Malory, and of entire genres, such as drama, lyric, ballad, debate, saga, chronicle, and hagiography. Shorter entries examine particular literary works; significant kings, artists, explorers, and religious leaders; important themes, such as courtly love and chivalry; and major historical events, such as the Crusades. The entries are written by scholars and each entry concludes with a brief bibliography. The volume closes with a list of the most valuable general works for further reading.


ABELARD, PETER (1079-1142). A philosopher and theologian, Peter Abelard openly disagreed with many of the foremost contemporary scholars, generating some innovative ideas and dialectic techniques. Abelard was born in Pallet, a village about ten miles east of Nantes in Brittany. He began his career as a wanderer, gathering knowledge from scholars he encountered during his travels, most notably Roscelin the Nominalist. He became a permanent pupil of William of Champeaux at the Cathedral School in Paris, but soon separated from him because of a heated difference of opinion. This argument effectively banished him from Paris. After returning to his native land to recover his failing health, he returned to France and established schools at Melun and later at Corbeil in 1101. His next project was to found a school at Mont Sainte-Geneviève in 1108. His fame as a teacher spread after he accepted a position at the Cathedral School in Paris. He detailed this situation in his Historia Calamitatum, or the Story of my calamities. People flocked to hear him speak, but his ego grew in proportion to his renown. Abelard's divergent doctrines and his opinionated personality led him to many disputes with authority throughout his career. These disagreements only enhanced his reputation.

As a result of his outspoken nature, Abelard's next controversy involved the Benedictine monks at the Abbey of St. Denis; he had taken the vow of this order after his doomed love affair with a woman named Heloise. Abelard criticized the name of their patron saint, and the astonished monks banished him to a “branch” monastery. There he again challenged the authorities, especially on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Abelard was finally summoned to appear before a papal council at Soissons in 1121. This council, headed by the bishop of Prantese, sentenced Abelard to burn his book on the Holy Trinity and to subsequent imprisonment in the Abbey of St. Medard. Instead, Abelard fled to a desert near Troyes and successfully resumed his teachings.

In 1125, Abelard's stature as a monk was renewed, and he accepted a post as the abbot of the Abbey of St. Gildas de Rhuys in Brittany. The monks there were unaccepting of Abelard and even allegedly attempted to poison him. Driven from the monastery, Abelard began to teach in Paris again, reviving some of the fame and popularity he had experienced twenty years earlier. Some of his more famous pupils included Arnold of Brescia and *John of Salisbury.

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