Medieval Latin literature

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Medieval Latin literature

Medieval Latin literature, literary works written in the Latin language during the Middle Ages.

The Decline of Rome

With the slow dissolution over centuries of the Roman Empire in the West, Latin writing dwindled and changed like the rest of Roman culture. It was formerly conventional to say that in the 6th cent. the De consolatione philosophiae of Boethius was the last great work of classical Latin and that Boethius' younger contemporary Cassiodorus was the first notable figure of medieval literature (though he wrote in classical form). However, the transition was, in fact, so gradual as to be imperceptible.

One of the main characteristics of the emerging literature was the fundamentally Christian tone; the other was the use of a simpler and more flexible Latin, which drew from the common speech of Rome and the provinces. The Christian tradition had already been firmly established by early Christian writers—St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine—using exact classical language. Notable poets wrote Christian hymns, which, when joined to music and shaped to new poetry with accentual rhythm and rhyme unknown to the classics, became one of the glories of medieval literature.

The Monastic Tradition

From the 6th cent. on, learning was preserved mostly in the monasteries (see monasticism), and almost all writers were clergymen. The Latin used in the Church services, based on the simplified language, was therefore preserved long after all Latin was replaced in common speech by the vernacular tongues. The bulk of prose writing was given over to theological treatises, homilies, sermons, pastoral instructions, and devotional works. Some of it is of great force and beauty, as in writings of St. Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I).

Sporadic efforts were made to revive classical learning, but these were successful only in promoting learning in general and establishing educational standards. By far the most important was the Carolingian revival in the late 8th and early 9th cent. Charlemagne persuaded an Englishman, Alcuin, to establish a court school. The writers, such as Einhard, were medieval rather than classical in spirit, but the effects of the revival were lasting. The effects of the movement can be found in works of the writers Paul the Deacon, Rabanus Maurus Magnentius, and John Scotus Erigena; the poets Walafrid Strabo and Gottschalk, and Waltharius; and the dramatist Hrotswith von Bandersheim.

Abelard, outstanding theologian and competent poet, was primarily a schoolman and his school was the precursor of the Univ. of Paris, one of the great medieval universities (see colleges and universities). St. Bernard of Clairvaux, vigorous opponent of Abelard, is usually considered one of the greatest of medieval writers. Perhaps more renowned as a theologian than Bernard was the learned St. Anselm, and certainly more vociferous in polemics was Hugh of St. Victor.

Among the mystical writers Richard of St. Victor is ranked by many as a peer of St. Bernard. The volume of writing was steadily growing and was of truly universal Western authorship. Secular poetry and prose were being composed for sheer enjoyment. Chroniclers and historians were found in all lands—Bede, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Matthew Paris, Walter Map, Suger, and William of Tyre are examples—and many monasteries had completely anonymous chronicles such as those of St. Gall.

The Flowering of Medieval Culture

The quality of writing and of scholarship was steadily rising, and the way was being prepared for the great flowering of medieval culture in the 13th cent. Most notable was the full development of scholasticism by St. Bonaventure, St. Albertus Magnus, and St. Thomas Aquinas, together with Duns Scotus, William of Occam, and others. The simple Latin dialogues on the mysteries of Christ's life had become the miracle play.

Secular poetry had since the 11th cent. given rise to well-wrought and exquisitely rhymed lyrics and satires commonly called the Goliardic songs. The type of encyclopedic compendium popular since St. Isidore of Seville's 7th-century Etymologiae was represented by the work of Vincent of Beauvais. The lives of saints were collected in The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine. Other genres were also represented in Latin: the mock epic, the fabliau, the romance, the beast tale, the folk story.

The Decline of Medieval Latin

Many literary genres were already being taken over by writing in the vernacular, which had begun in the 10th cent. This advance of the dialects, which were already being formed into the modern European languages, doomed the older "learned" literature. Meanwhile the revival of classical learning and the scholarship of the Renaissance moved to undermine Medieval Latin literature. Dante's precise Latin writing could scarcely be called medieval in its form, and the humanists with their Ciceronian prose and Vergilian eclogues were setting out to destroy, not to reform, Medieval Latin. Except for the persistence of Church Latin, they succeeded.


See E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (tr. 1953); F. J. E. Raby, A History of Christian Latin Poetry (2d ed. 1953) and A History of Secular Latin Poetry (2d ed. 1957); W. T. H. Jackson, The Literature of the Middle Ages (1960).

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