Spanning over roughly a thousand years, the Middle Ages brought forth a relatively large volume of literature and literary traditions. This body of medieval literature features various genres. While some genres have become lesser known over time, others have been important to the development of subsequent literary traditions and have helped shape contemporary understandings of genre.
One genre that has defied the test of time is the romance. Romance is a rather broad category, and many different subgenres of romance have appeared and disappeared over time. There is no critical consensus about what can be considered the most important features of the medieval English romance; this disagreement emerged, in part, because there are so many different conventions and subgenres (Whetter pp. 16; 36). However, some conventions are more universally agreed upon than others. First, earlier romances tend to be in verse, while later romances tend to be in prose and lack a fixed length (Whetter p. 63). The second convention, and one of the most important features of the romance, is the quest, which can be sought out on one’s own or given as a challenge (Marti p. 178; Whetter p. 64). A third feature of romance is the happy ending (Whetter p. 64). Lastly, the portrayal of love, in a variety of forms, is paramount to romance (Whetter p. 64).
Vernacular medieval romances were very popular, and medieval society as a whole seemed to have been aware of the conventions of the romance to some degree (Whetter p. 47). The popularity of romance writing was partly due to the changing interests of the nobility in terms of chivalric values and other matters of courtesy (Whetter p. 62).
Among all subgenres of romance, the Breton lay stands out as being particularly important . There is much discussion surrounding the exact characterization of this genre (Furnish p. 87). However, there are a number of universal features that are agreed upon by scholars in the field. In Middle English, a Breton lay is a shorter version of a romance narrative, written in verse, which takes its subject matterdirectly from Celtic lore ( Furnish pp. 86-87). Its plot is concerned with the development of the protagonist and family dynamics (Furnish p. 86). Moreover, it often alludes to the twelfth-century French literary tradition from which it is said to originate: courtly literary writing ( Furnish pp. 86-87).
Marie de France is a key figure in the development of the Breton lay, and she is often associated with the genre’s origins. Marie wrote twelve lays, and these are widely considered to be the most famous examples of the genre (Furnish p. 86). While Marie’s lays are among the earliest to have survived, it is worth noting that lays likely circulated before this time, since the genre stems from an even earlier oral tradition. Indeed, the term ‘lay’ reflects this oral tradition, which involved the original lays being sung to music (Furnish p. 86). In many Breton lays, the narrative takes place in Brittany, a region in the north-west of France that is the native land of the Celtic Bretons. Indeed, a reference to Brittany is often considered to be a distinguishing characteristic of a Breton lay.
The French tradition, including the works of Marie de France, inspired many of the later Middle English Breton lays,
which were largely written during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; some Middle English lays are direct
translations from French originals, while others take the subject matter of French originals as their basis (Furnish p. 86). One famous medieval English Breton lay that is likely to have been based
on a French original is
Sir Orfeo (Treharne p. 550). The
earliest of the Middle English Breton lays, including Sir Orfeo, can be found in the Auchinleck
manuscript, which is dated to the fourteenth century (Furnish p. 86).
Another notable medieval genre is the proverb. Simply put, a proverb is a short, memorable saying. Proverbs appear in a wide variety of language registers (Deskis p. 5). During the medieval period, they circulated in collections and were also embedded in literary texts. They were popular both in written and in oral traditions; this popularity is due to their memorability, allowing even those who could not read to enjoy them and learn from them (Deskis p. 1). The proverb as a genre is highly adaptive. It evolved over time and across changing linguistic circumstances, and adopted a variety of different functions in literature ( Deskis pp. 1-2). Medieval proverbs can be found written in both prose and verse, and occur within many types of literary writing, including religious writing and romance.
In the medieval period, proverbs circulated in both the vernacular and Latin (Deskis p. 1). Proverbs were used as a tool for instruction and education, including for the teaching of Latin, because they could convey both moral and social guidance (Deskis p. 1). Over the course of medieval English literary history, the proverb retained a prominent position among literary works. In the Old English period, proverbs exhibited alliteration as a result of the influence of the Germanic oral tradition (Deskis p. 2). Middle English proverbs are generally written in verse, but many also contain alliterative elements (Deskis pp. 2-3).
In medieval literature, and in medieval English literature in particular, the dream vision was a popular genre.
Modern scholarship notes that the dream vision is a genre that often features characteristics of other literary
genres; these literary conventions can easily be incorporated into the framework of a dream (
Marti p. 178). A dream vision is usually centered around a quest that takes place in the dream world (Marti p. 179). This quest often features a vision of heaven as well as an individual
journey made by the dreamer (Marti p. 179). Generally, the dreamer experiences turmoil
in their own life and their art as a result of their narrow, earthly view of life and the world (Marti p. 179). The dream alters this view and the poetry that recounts the dream reads
like a witness account of the dreamer’s transformation (Marti p. 179). Many dream
visions present the dreamer with a guide, who aids the dreamer in resolving their troubles by helping them understand
the error of their way of thinking (Marti p. 180). The landscape of a dream vision is
generally idealized and abstract, and often contains a garden or a meadow (Marti p.
180). Medieval English examples of dream visions inclyde
The Dream of the Rood and Chaucer’s
four dream visions: The Book of the Duchess, The Parliament of Fowls,
The House of Fame and the prologue to The Legend of Good Women (Marti p. 181).
The medieval literary canon contains a wide variety of religious literature, which can be divided into multiple genres. Important genres include hagiographic writing, the homily, and the elegy. A hagiographic text is a piece of instructional writing that focuses on saints, their lives, the worship that they should receive, and legends (Brinegar p. 277). Legends featuring Adam and Eve and the original sin, the cross, the afterlife, Jesus, and especially Mary also occur frequently (Brinegar p. 277). The description of miracles is a standard feature of a hagiography (Brinegar p. 279). The hagiography is prominent in both Old and Middle English literature. Hagiographies may be universal and feature universally known and worshipped saints, but may also be local and feature local saints. In the later Middle Ages, hagiographic texts often appeared in collections, which are known as "legendaries" or "passionaries" (Brinegar p. 279).
The medieval homily is, in its simplest form, a text that instructs people on how to adapt their daily lives to the
teachings of the Bible through the allegorical interpretation of Christian symbols and themes (Brinegar pp. 279-280). Many medieval religious texts contains homiletic aspects, since
instruction on biblical material was a key aspect of many genres of religious writing. The final category of religious
literature worth noting here is the elegy. Elegies, within a medieval context, are usually religious or carry
religious overtones, and many were written in verse. One characteristic of the elegy is a speaker who contemplates the
meaning of life and spiritual development (Treharne p. 60). Earthly delights, such
as wealth, are often criticized to some degree, and human mortality and the transience of life are emphasized in order
to help the reader see the importance of being more moral and being a better Christian (
Treharne p. 60). Examples of medieval English elegies are the Old English poems
, The Wanderer, and Deor. Much like the homily, aspects of the
elegy are often incorporated into texts of other genres.