By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
The democratization of access to reading and writing, which were two very separate skills in the premodern world, made it possible for at least some men and women to secure a livelihood through the work of literary composition during the Middle Ages. Read on to know how it all came together.
How Book Became Popular
The rebirth of the book as an easily portable codex made them more durable and easily accessible. Meanwhile, the fragmentation of the Roman Empire and subsequent decentralization of government led to more opportunities for artists and intellectuals. They were needed in the courts of Europe’s new barbarian kings and those of the Christian bishops who took over the governance of many cities in the former western Roman Empire.
Plus, the high status accorded to women in Celtic and Germanic cultures meant that there was a new class of female patrons and a new audience for books.
The Need for Books
The need for books to fuel the intellectual and spiritual lives of monasteries was another factor in play. The Rule of Saint Benedict of Nursia, founder of a monastery at Monte Cassino in central Italy in the middle of the 6th century, required all monks to be literate and to be both the producers and consumers of writing.
Thus, many monks devoted their entire careers to authorship in a huge variety of genres: schoolbooks for young boys, lyric poetry, hymns and liturgies, histories, sacred drama, saints’ lives, treatises on mathematics and astronomy, biblical commentaries, comedy and satire. The earliest named medieval playwright was Hrotswitha of Gandersheim, a 10th century canoness (a type of professed nun).
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval Legacy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Development of Language
With this new wave of scholarship, Latin was now freed from the formal shackles of classical literary convention and blended with vocabulary and grammatical structures borrowed from the vernaculars with which it was coming into closer contact. It continued to be a living language throughout the Middle Ages. To be sure, some of these new stylistic features would probably be regarded as vulgar by classical rhetoricians; but reaching a larger public—vulgus means “crowd”—was precisely what was needed in this new world.
The careers of three early medieval contemporaries help to illustrate these points: Cassiodorus Senator, Venantius Fortunatus, and Isidore of Seville, all of whom flourished in the 6th and early 7th centuries.
Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus was a member of the old Roman patriciate, and he made a career in the service of Italy’s new Ostrogothic ruling class. As secretary to King Theodoric the Great, Cassiodorus produced histories of Rome and of the Gothic tribes who had partly conquered it, authored poetry and panegyrics for performance on state occasions, and kept up the king’s correspondence with fellow rulers.
Two of his works in particular capture the breadth of his enduring contributions: The Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning, which was a massive syllabus that laid out the canon of classical (pagan) and Christian writings that would, thereafter, shape the ways that ancient literature was read and interpreted; and On the Arts and Disciplines of Liberal Learning, defined what we still call the liberal arts, or the humanities.
In his thirties, Venantius Fortunatus decided to strike out for the new kingdoms north of the Alps. He moved to the city of Tours, whose bishop, Gregory, was a prolific historian and collector of saints’ lives. In addition to the patronage of Gregory, Fortunatus enjoyed the favor and friendship of the Frankish queen Radegund.
Alongside a huge body of praise songs, lyrics, pastoral poetry, and odes, Fortunatus also composed prose saints’ lives for the laity and beautiful hymns which are still sung as part of the liturgy of the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches.
Fortunatus’s Good Friday Meditation
The “Pange, lingua, gloriosi”, (Sing my tongue the glory) is a very moving Good Friday meditation on the crucified Christ, which compares his tortured body to a triumphal banner carried into battle, and a tree bearing divine fruit that also cradles Jesus in its boughs. A translation based on that by the 19th century Anglican John Mason Neale captures its startling imagery beautifully.
However, its use of rhyme—a later medieval convention—is more pronounced here than in the Latin original.
Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle;
sing the ending of the fray.
Now above the cross, the trophy:
Sound the loud triumphant lay!
Tell how Christ, the world’s redeemer
As a victim won the day.
Faithful cross! above all others,
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be;
sweetest wood and sweetest iron,
sweetest weight is hung on thee!
Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory!
thy relaxing sinews bend;
for a while the ancient rigor
that thy birth bestowed, suspend
and the King of heavenly beauty
gently on thine arms extend.
Isidore of Seville
Isidore of Seville was born around 560 and is, thus, the younger contemporary of both Cassiodorus and Fortunatus. He was also the direct beneficiary of the educational innovations of Cassiodorus, which were taught at the cathedral of Seville, in Visigothic Spain, where Isidore grew up. A teacher and later bishop of Seville, Isidore’s main authorial intervention was the first attempt at a compendium of all knowledge—a summa, or encyclopedia, called the Etymologies.
Isidore was fascinated by the origins of words and their meanings, but many of his attempts to trace Latin concepts back to their roots are sometimes laughably incorrect or willfully misleading, to serve his own political and theological agenda.
For example, Isidore claimed that the word for woman, mulier, derives from mollitia (softness or weakness); this became a textbook definition that helped to undergird much medieval misogyny. Yet, despite its shortcomings, this work inspired a whole new genre of encyclopedic compilations and was also the most frequently copied anthology for a thousand years. It was still prized by the humanists of later medieval Italy, and there were at least 10 editions in circulation during the first decades after Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, in the 1450s.
Common Questions about Some Early Professional Authors of the Middle Ages
The rebirth of the book as an easily portable codex; the need for books to fuel the intellectual and spiritual lives of monasteries; and more opportunities for artists due to the fragmentation of the Roman Empire made writing a popular profession.
The Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning and On the Arts and Disciplines of Liberal Learning are two of Cassiodorus Senator’s significant works.
Isidore’s main authorial intervention was the first attempt at a compendium of all knowledge—a summa, or encyclopedia, called the Etymologies.