Medieval Literature

The word “medieval” refers to anything that comes from the time in history called the “Middle Ages.” Because the Middle Ages is such a huge fraction of history, giving a full description of its literature isn’t exactly an easy task – but there are several factors that combine to make the field a worthy subject of study.


When did people learn to read?

For starters, because the spread of literacy in Europe was concentrated in the Middle Ages, medieval literature was the first artform in history that was widely accessible and possible to recreate – once somebody learned to read and write, they could contribute to the number of books available by writing their own. This made it the possible for information was easily spread from country to country, and even between continents!

However, the spread of literacy didn’t truly become significant until the 15th century. Although written language had been popular for many years, it was only in the 1400s that the education required to read and write in Latin or the common tongue was provided to regular people. Before that, medieval literature was largely spread through oral storytelling.

During the Middle Ages, oral storytelling was the most popular form of entertainment for commoners. Because of this, books were only really used for research and the collection of information.

The oral storytellers were among the first of the middle age population to embrace the use of writing as a means of recording their own stories – there are records of middle age storytellers writing out their stories on paper so that they could later learn them off. Many of these stories were later recorded and resold when the printing press became better developed and literacy spread.

When was the printing press invented?

Johannes Gutenberg is credited with development of what would become the world’s first printing press. Gutenberg’s printing press was invented in the 15th century and devised originally to mass distribute the Christian Bible to the public. Gutenberg’s Bible was the first book to be printed in this way, and quickly spread across the continent of Europe through its network of churches.

What are some important works of medieval literature?

The single most important piece of medieval literature was the Bible. Due to the spread of religion during the Middle Ages, the Bible became an important tool in spreading the fate of Christianity. The Bible was the first book to be printed and mass produced, as well as the book many people learned to read from.

The first books produced all written in Latin – this is because, at the time, Latin was the language of the educated classes. Over time, books became available in the vernacular – meaning, the language of the common people. This enabled peasants with simple education to learn more about the world.

The oldest recorded story belonging to the Middle Ages is the story of Beowulf, which has its origins in the sixth century – though the story itself is likely much older. Many of the stories from the Middle Ages featured comment – romance, chivalry (bravery), and honor were the most common concepts explored in medieval literature and poetry.

Though the Middle Ages do not have many famous writers or specific stories that are still famous, many writers like William Shakespeare and the philosophers of the New Age took direct inspiration from medieval literature in the writings.

Literature of the Middle Ages invented the concept of the chivalrous knight and the strict system of morality that went with it. This concept was widely used in the years after the Middle Ages, particularly in stage dramas and plays.

Facts about Medieval Literature:

  • Medieval literature was the first field of art that could be contributed to by the common folk.
  • Although storytelling was always a popular form of entertainment, it was only during the Middle Ages that these stories were first written down.
  • Literacy spread in the Middle Ages around the 15thcentury, after the invention of the printing press.
  • Johannes Gutenberg was the inventor of the European printing press.
  • The first book printed and mass-produced was Gutenberg’s Bible.
  • The first books were all written in Latin, but over time, began to be printed in the common tongue (vernacular) of the people.
  • Beowulf is the oldest surviving piece of Medieval literature.
  • Medieval literature gave birth to many popular concepts (chivalrous knights, fated romance) that were used in the works of Shakespeare and other writers of the centuries afterward.


  1. Around what century did literacy spread?

– The 15th.

  1. Who invented the printing press?

– Johannes Gutenberg.

  1. What was the first book to be mass-produced in the Middle Ages?

– The Bible.

  1. Name one piece of medieval literature listed in this article.

– Beowulf/the Bible.

  1. What language were books first written in?

– Latin.