This period in literary history produced some of the earliest and most foundational texts for the modern cannon. The historical timeframe is measured between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Renaissance. It is interesting to note that while this time period has been called the “Dark Ages” mostly because of social catastrophe like the Black Plague, the rest of the world, especially the Middle East, was thriving and saw some of its most exciting developments during this period. For the sake of the modern English cannon, we will focus on Europe during this time period, but it is well worth questioning our most beloved literature if the rest of the world was producing equal if not superior work at the same time that many in the West have never fully come to appreciate.
Often called the “Dark Ages” this epoch in European history was anything but depressed with respect to its literary creations.
The literature and language of this time period flowed from the melting together of traditional Celtic mythology and the language and ideas spread by warring Germanic tribes. These tribes were stirred into generations of intense migrations thanks to constant conflict with the Roman empire until its fall, marking the beginning of the Medieval Period. This melting pot of people and perspectives would create the earliest examples of Old English that would evolve over this period from into Middle English and toward more modern English.
This evolution was aided by the fact that many of the earliest written texts were written only to be read aloud. In fact, many of the documents we have from this period today were nothing more than notes for an oral retelling of ancient tales that continue to influence our culture.
A number of interesting elements helped shape the literature of this period and consequently our culture today. For example, many of the Germanic tribes were formed around individual “Strong Men” that could rally rogue fighters to form bands of marauders and these figures influenced the idea of successful leadership, evident as much in our corporate culture as it is in our media today.
Because the Roman Empire never succeeded in fully conquering Ireland and Scotland pagan celtic ritual and lore soaked into the evolving foundation of what would become the English literature we know today and the Arthurian legend as well as Beowulf owe much to the blend of celtic culture and mythology.
After the fall of the Roman Empire the spread of christianity would cement many of the evolving ideas in Europe as monks copied down stories in the first mass movement of literature and documentation.
Following this fertile flow of ideas and peoples throughout Europe, the Norman Conquest would settle down much of the movement, establishing the monarchy system we often associate with the middle ages. The English monarchy rose and fell alongside the Black Death that killed enough people in the cities to prime access to health wealth and education that would create the Renaissance. Just before this period began the Medieval Period would end with Chaucer, the poet Gawain and Langland to name a few figures that have dominated English literature for generations. Their retelling of the classic quest stories and heavy religious references influence much of our modern storytelling i.e. the hero’s journey of the Marvel franchise, the Dark Knight, Interstellar, and more!
The Germanic Strong Man turned Saint
Beowulf + Christianity + Time = Captain America
Because the germanic tribes depended on individual strongmen to unite small bands of violent warriors, the leadership of the strong man became a cultural ideal preserved by literature and express in modern media and even the successful Wall Street executive.
Captain America is an excellent example of modern culture that demonstrates the lingering influence of the Medieval Period. He embodies a germanic idealism blended with the superpowers of celtic mysticism, deified by Christian values which the Christian monks were able to add to previously pagan text and then distribute more broadly than any other literally movement to that date. Captain America is the perfect product of the Medieval Period, a Christian Beowulf that literally beats the bad guys with his bare hands!
Another flavor of heroism that tracks its cultural origins back to Beowulf, the and the Medieval ideal of the questing hero is Batman and James Bond. Darker and more mysterious than Captain America they still owe their cultural significance to the vision of manhood and heroism born in the Medieval Period and maintained by our organization of the Cannon of English Literature.
The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings are just two examples of a genre of literature deeply rooted in the Christian idealism designed to be educational allegories as much as entertainment. The genre was born in the Medieval Period as Christianity took hold of pagan texts and spread their Christian alternatives. There is a reason Lord of the Rings feels like a classic – it was written in a Medieval style!