12th Century Literature

From Cunnan
Revision as of 18:28, 17 August 2005 by Tiff (talk | contribs)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)
Jump to navigationJump to search


Reading was a favourite pastime of nobles, especially women (who were likely to be better at reading than knights). Several romances depict happy family scenes where a daughter or wife reads a book aloud to her whole family. The popularity of the romance tales can been seen in the sudden surge of romances being written.

A partial list of 12th century Literature (fiction and non-fiction) can be found at: 12_Century_texts

Also available would have been many earlier tales, however the popularity of the romance in France and England was that it was written in the Old French vernacular. While most English and French nobles would have learned to read in Latin as well as Old French, only scholars could be guaranteed to have the practise that made such reading easy. 12th century literature sees a wave of (populary demanded) translations of material in various languages (Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Greek, Welsh) into the readily accessable Old French. Similar actions are happening in Germany, as we see German translations of very popular French works produced within only a decade or two (very fast for the time).

Oral poems

Such oral poetry forms designed to be recited by troubadours existed all over Europe. In the 12th Century, a large number of these poems began to be written down. It is not entirely known if this was intended to aid in their transmission to greater numbers of troubadours or to also be read aloud by non-musicians to their friends.

The Chanson de Geste was a French language form of recited poem. The addition of cryptic one-word instructions on many manuscripts which are believed to relate to the performance method (arguments are over if they are markers of stress in the vocal performance or musical accompaniment) makes it more likely such manuscripts were intended for professional musicians.

On the other hand, in the early 13th century, collections of oral tales such as la Roman de Renart(a witty satirical set of tales about a fox, that parody courtly life), are available as popular manuscripts, spread far and wide, and additional tales added. The sheer number of manuscripts argue for these stories being read directly by the non-performer.

The many varied versions of Tristan and Isolde, which are self contradictory, begin to be written down in the 12th Century.


An increasing number of books appear to have been created specifically as a book intended to entertain the literate populace (Raffel 198?). Examples of this include the Romances of Chretien de Troyes and Marie de France, some of which even preface themselves with an introduction to the reader. The romance genre was revolutionary - instead of the dry battle stories of the Chanson de Geste it told of the loves and lives of only slightly larger than life men and women. Tales of illicit love, unrequited or hidden love and lust, this genre formed the early ideas of courtly love. Given the increasing literacy of the noble populace, or more particularly of noblewomen (for many knights were too busy training as boys to aquire more than basic literacy), these themes pandered to their audience with escapist romance with considerable sucess.

By the late 12th Century these themes of courtly love had begun to influence other genres of writing - Chanson de Geste began to speak of the man behind the heroic deeds and incorporate more momentus deeds at court than on the warfield.


The lavishly illustrated versions of some bestiaries produced show us that this was intended as a medium of entertainment for the rich literate nobility. Despite the moral lessons of the text, many noble ladies would enjoy reading about beasts of strange far away lands, real but so strange as to seem impossible and imaginary. (insert ref to ladies reading bestiaries)


There are a variety of other works that seem to have pandered to the popular taste. Marie de France's Fables moralise directly for a wide audience of minor nobility, and were immensely popular in their day.

Marie also translated Latin texts into the Anglo-norman dialect, to make them available to a wider audience, than the scholars (mostly in the priesthood) who could read Latin much more fluently than the common noble. St Patrick's purgatory (a description of a vision of purgatory) is such a work, clearly written for a lay audience, and showing the facination of lay audiences for information on spiritual matters.