In literature, as in science and in social and economic life, Latin continued to be the language of the church and of learned communication everywhere in western Europe. All the churchmen—John of Salisbury, Abelard, Bernard, Aquinas, and the rest—wrote Latin even when corresponding informally with their friends. Children began their schooling by learning it. It was also the language of the law and of politics; all documents were written in Latin. Sermons were delivered in Latin, and church hymns and popular songs were written and sung in it.
But if Latin was widely used for all learned purposes, the period after the eleventh century marks the gradual triumph of the vernacular languages all over Europe for the literature of entertainment, of belles-lettres. Whereas Beowulf was the only important literary vernacular poem during the early Middle Ages, now such poems began to appear in ever greater numbers. A particularly celebrated one in Old French is The Song of Roland, whose earliest surviving manuscript probably dates from a little after the year 1100.
The poem deals with a historic episode far in the past, the defeat of Charlemagne’s rear guard by the Muslims in 778 in the mountain pass of Roncevaux in the Pyrenees. In The Song of Roland the landscape has brightened; a more intense Christian piety softens some of the worst violence. The highest virtue in the poem is loyalty to one’s lord—a quality that was the first necessity in a feudal society where. In Roland’s deep loyalty to his lord, Charlemagne, there is something new—a patriotic note of love of country.
As the knight was always defined as a mounted man, the unwritten code that came to govern his behavior was called chivalry, from the French word cheval, a horse. The literature of chivalry and courtly love developed with particular complexity at the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who left Henry II of England in 1170 to live with her daughter Marie, countess of Champagne, at the court of Poitiers in western France, where the two became patrons of writers and poets. The hopes of aristocratic women were revealed through the tales of courtly love.
The most distinguished court literature was the work of Marie de France, Chretien de Troyes, and Andrew the Chaplain. De Troyes’s Chevalier de la Charette expressed the doctrines of courtly love in their most developed form, and his work has been called “the perfect romance” for its presentation of a Lancelot who would cast aside all conventions for the love of Queen Guinevere. Marie wrote simpler tales about the physical attraction exerted by youth and beauty, while Andrew wrote, in De Amore, a most extensive treatise on courtly, carnal, profane, and platonic love and the attitudes of the church toward the subject.
These stories, like The Song of Roland, were told, sung, and written in cycles, added to by troubadours (wandering minstrels) as they spread the tales to other lands. Perhaps the best-known were the stories that evolved around King Arthur of Britain. The exploits of Arthur’s knights (of whom Lancelot was one) became part of the vernacular literature in most of western Europe. Taken up in France, these stories were passed in the thirteenth century into Germany, where Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote a long poem about Arthur’s knight Sir Percival. Writers of both elite and popular culture drew upon the Arthurian cycle.
Courtly love flourished through lyric poetry. The code of courtoisie (from which would develop modern concepts of “courtesy”) required that the singer’s lady almost always prove unattainable. The wife of another, made inaccessible by the obligations of feudal vassalage, the lady was to be worshiped from afar. The singer celebrated in ecstasy even the slightest kindness she might offer him. Her merest word was a command, and her devoted knight undertook without question even the most arduous mission she might propose to him, without hope of a reward. But a lady who failed to reward him, at least to some degree, was not playing by the rules of this elaborate and artificial game.
Needless to say, few medieval nobles behaved according to the code, and yet some of the ideals fostered by the troubadours did become part of the developing notions of chivalry. St. Louis was as close to a truly chivalrous figure as may have existed.
In Italy, the original home of Latin, a vernacular language was somewhat slower to develop. But here, too, at the sophisticated and cosmopolitan court of the emperor Frederick II in Palermo, some of Frederick’s chief advisers began to write love poetry, and soon the fashion spread northward. It was not until somewhat later, with Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) of Florence, that the vernacular Italian tongue scored its definitive triumph. For his greatest work, The Divine Comedy, he chose Italian.
Among writers in the Western tradition, Dante belongs with Homer, Vergil, Shakespeare, and Goethe as a supreme master. As a towering intellectual figure, he heralds the new age of rebirth. But The Divine Comedy was a medieval book, in some ways the most typical of all medieval literary expressions.
Lost in a dark wood, in his thirty-fifth year, “halfway along the road of our human life,” Dante encounters the Roman poet Vergil, who consents to act as his guide through two of the three great regions of the afterlife: Hell and Purgatory. Descending through the nine successive circles of Hell, where the eternally damned must remain forever, the two meet and converse with souls in torment, some of them historic persons like Judas or Brutus, others recently deceased Florentines of Dante’s own acquaintance, with whose sins he was familiar.
In Purgatory less sinful human beings are being punished before they can be saved. The souls of the great pagan figures. born too early to have become Christians, are neither in Hell nor in Purgatory, but in Limbo—a place of rest on the edge of Hell where Vergil himself must spend eternity.
When the poet comes to the gates of Paradise, Vergil cannot continue to escort him; so the guide to the final region of the afterlife is Beatrice, a Florentine girl with whom Dante had fallen desperately in love as a youth but whom he had worshiped only at a distance. Here Dante was consciously transforming one of the central experiences of his own life into literature in accordance with the traditions of the code of courtly love. In Paradise he finds the Christian worthies and the saints, and at the climax of the poem he sees a vision of God himself.
This voyage through the afterlife is designed to show a traditional Christian concept: that people’s actions in this life determine their fate in the next. From the lost souls in Hell, who have brought themselves to their hopeless position, through those who despite their sufferings in Purgatory confidently expect to be saved, to those whose pure life on earth has won them eternal bliss, Dante shows the entire range of human behavior and its eternal consequences.
Another late medieval giant was Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400). By Chaucer’s day the vernacular had long since recovered in England, and the Old English of the pre- Conquest period had evolved into a new form of the language usually called Middle English. An experienced man of affairs who served his king at home and abroad, Chaucer left behind many literary works, including a long and moving poetic narrative love story, Troilus and Criseyde, deriving its characters from the Trojan War stories then fashionable in western Europe.
His most celebrated work, however, is The Canterbury Tales—tales told by a group of pilgrims on their way to the tomb of Thomas a Becket, the sainted archbishop of Canterbury murdered under Henry II. The pilgrims come from all walks of English life except the high nobility and include a knight, a squire, a prioress, a clerk, a monk, a friar, a sailor, a miller, and others. On the way from London each tells at least one story.
The knight tells a romantic story of chivalric love. Two cousins fall in love with a maiden whom they have barely glimpsed from the window of their prison cell. Deadly rivals thereafter, they cherish their mutual strife, in prison and out, without the lady’s being aware of them. In the end, one kills the other and wins the lady as his own. The miller tells a raw story of a young wife’s deception of her elderly husband with a young lover.
The prioress tells a saint’s legend, the squire an unfinished story full of semi- scientific marvels, and so on. Chaucer does not hesitate to satirize his churchmen. The fourteenth century was a period of much discontent with the English church, and the poet was striking a note that was sure to be popular. The sophistication, delicacy, power, passion, and humor that Chaucer commands put him in the same class with Dante and with no other medieval writer in any country.