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 CassiodorusCassiodorus
(Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator) , c.485–c.585, Roman statesman and author. He held high office under Theodoric the Great and the succeeding Gothic rulers of Italy, who gave him the task of putting into official Latin their state papers and
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 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. JeromeJerome, Saint
, c.347–420?, Christian scholar, Father of the Church, Doctor of the Church. He was born in Stridon on the border of Dalmatia and Pannonia of Christian parents (although he was not baptized until 366); his Roman name was Sophronius Eusebius Hieronymus.
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, St. AmbroseAmbrose, Saint
, 340?–397, bishop of Milan, Doctor of the Church, b. Trier, of Christian parents. Educated at Rome, he became (c.372) governor of Liguria and Aemilia—with the capital at Milan.
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, St. AugustineAugustine, Saint
, Lat. Aurelius Augustinus, 354–430, one of the Latin Fathers of the Church and a Doctor of the Church, bishop of Hippo (near present-day Annaba, Algeria), b. Tagaste (c.40 mi/60 km S of Hippo). Life

Augustine's mother, St.
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—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 monasticismmonasticism
, form of religious life, usually conducted in a community under a common rule. Monastic life is bound by ascetical practices expressed typically in the vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience, called the evangelical counsels.
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), 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 IGregory I, Saint
(Saint Gregory the Great), c.540–604, pope (590–604), a Roman; successor of Pelagius II. A Doctor of the Church, he was distinguished for his spiritual and temporal leadership. His feast is celebrated on Mar. 12.
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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, AlcuinAlcuin
or Albinus
, 735?–804, English churchman and educator. He was educated at the cathedral school of York by a disciple of Bede; he became principal in 766. Charlemagne invited him (781?) to court at Aachen to set up a school.
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, to establish a court school. The writers, such as EinhardEinhard
or Eginhard
, c.770–840, Frankish historian. Educated in the monastery of Fulda, he continued his studies at Charlemagne's palace school in Aachen and rose to high favor with the emperor. Emperor Louis I made Einhard tutor or adviser to his son Lothair.
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, 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 DeaconPaul the Deacon,
c.725–799?, Lombard historian. He received a good education, probably at Pavia, and he learned Latin thoroughly and some Greek. He lived at Monte Cassino and at Charlemagne's court.
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, Rabanus Maurus MagnentiusRabanus Maurus Magnentius
, c.780–856, German scholar and theologian. His name appears also as Hrabanus and Rhabanus. A student under Alcuin, he was later abbot of Fulda (822–42); his zeal for learning and his excellent administration made the school and library at
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, and John Scotus EriugenaEriugena or Erigena, John Scotus
[Lat. Scotus=Irish, Eriugena=born in Ireland], c.810–c.877, scholastic philosopher, born in Ireland.
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; the poets Walafrid Strabo and Gottschalk, and Waltharius; and the dramatist Hrotswith von Bandersheim.

AbelardAbelard, Peter
, Fr. Pierre Abélard , 1079–1142, French philosopher and teacher, b. Le Pallet, near Nantes. Life

Abelard went (c.1100) to Paris to study under William of Champeaux at the school of Notre Dame and soon attacked the ultrarealist
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, 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 universitiescolleges and universities,
institutions of higher education. Universities differ from colleges in that they are larger, have wider curricula, are involved in research activities, and grant graduate and professional as well as undergraduate degrees.
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). St. Bernard of ClairvauxBernard of Clairvaux, Saint
, 1090?–1153, French churchman, mystic, Doctor of the Church. Born of noble family, in 1112 he entered the Cistercian abbey of Cîteaux, taking along 4 or 5 brothers and some 25 friends.
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, 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. AnselmAnselm, Saint
, 1033?–1109, prelate in Normandy and England, archbishop of Canterbury, Doctor of the Church (1720), b. Aosta, Piedmont. After a carefree youth of travel and schooling in Burgundy he became a disciple and companion of Lanfranc, the famed theologian and prior
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, 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—BedeBede, Saint
, or Baeda
(St. Bede the Venerable), 673?–735, English historian and Benedictine monk, Doctor of the Church, also called the Venerable Bede. He spent his whole life at the monasteries of Wearmouth (at Sunderland) and Jarrow and became probably the
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, Geoffrey of MonmouthGeoffrey of Monmouth
, c.1100–1154, English author. He was probably born at Monmouth and was of either Breton or Welsh descent. In 1152 he was named bishop of St. Asaph in Wales. His Historia regum Britanniae (written c.
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, Matthew Paris, Walter MapMap or Mapes, Walter,
c.1140–c.1210, English author, b. Wales. A favorite of Henry II, he traveled with the king and became archdeacon of Oxford.
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, SugerSuger
, 1081–1151, French cleric and statesman, abbot of Saint-Denis from 1122, minister of kings Louis VI and Louis VII. Born into a peasant family and educated at the abbey of Saint-Denis, Suger was noted for his financial ability and his talent for conciliation.
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, and William of TyreWilliam of Tyre
, b. c.1130, d. before 1185, historian and churchman. Born in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and possibly of French extraction, he received his education at Antioch and in Europe.
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 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 scholasticismscholasticism
, philosophy and theology of Western Christendom in the Middle Ages. Virtually all medieval philosophers of any significance were theologians, and their philosophy is generally embodied in their theological writings.
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 by St. BonaventureBonaventure or Bonaventura, Saint
, 1221–74, Italian scholastic theologian, cardinal, Doctor of the Church, called the Seraphic Doctor, b. near Viterbo, Italy. His original name was Giovanni di Fidanza.
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, St. Albertus MagnusAlbertus Magnus, Saint
, or Saint Albert the Great,
b. 1193 or 1206, d. 1280, scholastic philosopher, Doctor of the Church, called the Universal Doctor. A nobleman of Bollstädt in Swabia, he joined (1223) the Dominicans and taught at Hildesheim, Freiburg,
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, and St. Thomas AquinasThomas Aquinas, Saint
[Lat.,=from Aquino], 1225–74, Italian philosopher and theologian, Doctor of the Church, known as the Angelic Doctor, b. Rocca Secca (near Naples).
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, together with Duns ScotusDuns Scotus, John
[Lat. Scotus=Irishman or Scot], c.1266–1308, scholastic philosopher and theologian, called the Subtle Doctor. A native of Scotland, he became a Franciscan and taught at Oxford, Paris, and Cologne.
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, William of OccamWilliam of Occam or Ockham
, c.1285–c.1349, English scholastic philosopher. A Franciscan, Occam studied and taught at Oxford from c.
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, and others. The simple Latin dialogues on the mysteries of Christ's life had become the miracle playmiracle play
or mystery play,
form of medieval drama that came from dramatization of the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. It developed from the 10th to the 16th cent., reaching its height in the 15th cent.
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Secular poetry had since the 11th cent. given rise to well-wrought and exquisitely rhymed lyrics and satires commonly called the Goliardic songsGoliardic songs
, Late Latin poetry of the "wandering scholars," or Goliards. The Goliards included university students who went from one European university to another, scholars who had completed their studies but were unable to buy benefices (ecclesiastical offices), unfrocked
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. The type of encyclopedic compendium popular since St. Isidore of SevilleIsidore of Seville, Saint
, c.560–636, Spanish churchman and encyclopedist, bishop of Seville, Doctor of the Church. Born of a noble Hispano-Roman family from Cartagena, he spent his youth under the supervision of his brother St.
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's 7th-century Etymologiae was represented by the work of Vincent of BeauvaisVincent of Beauvais
, c.1190–c.1264, French Dominican friar. He was the author of three of the four parts of the Speculum majus, of great value as a summary of the knowledge of his time. The part entitled "Morals" is of unknown authorship, but is not by him.
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. 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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References in periodicals archive ?
As Ralph Hexter has pointed out in The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Latin Literature (Oxford University Press, 2011), what is considered to be the classical canon was not consistent over the centuries.
Formal doctoral students of hers at the Centre for Medieval Studies and Department of English at the University of Toronto recognize and celebrate Frank's contributions to the field by focusing on her abiding interest in cultural and linguistic exchange in Old Norse, Old English, and medieval Latin literature. Their topics include incarnation as revelation in Old English literature, courtroom drama in the homiletic monologues of The Vercelli Book, the education of Beowulf and the affair of the leisure class, and prophetic dreams and visions in the sagas of the early Icelandic saints.
Her own specialization in medieval Latin literature did not conflict with her passion for modern literature.
He is noted in the history of medieval Latin literature for two poems: De planctu Naturae (Plaint of Nature), a clever satire on human vices, and Anticlaudianus, a lengthy allegory concerning the creation and perfection of the human soul.