Experiencing medieval literature

Experiencing medieval literature

Literacy rates in the Middle Ages were low, but those who were unable to read could experience literature through ways other than private, silent reading. Tom White explains how 'illiterate' individuals encountered literary texts and traditions through textiles, wall paintings, sculptures and listening to works read aloud.

We mainly think of the medieval period by way of its surviving manuscripts. Hundreds of years old, they offer a tangible record of the medieval past. Digitisation projects by libraries and universities continue to make these manuscripts increasingly accessible: from the screens of our tablets and computers, we can read the work of medieval authors, as well as the various ways their texts were remade over time by scribes. We can also see the signs of wear and tear, or more deliberate alteration, that remind us that many manuscripts have led eventful lives during the centuries separating the Middle Ages from the present day.

However, for medieval people, the experience of literature was not necessarily dependent on the kind of private, silent reading we now primarily associate with books and e-readers or tablets. ‘Aurality’, the act of listening to a text read aloud, was particularly important in an age during which levels of literacy were relatively low and books themselves were not as readily available as they would later become. Read aloud, the text might be ‘shaped differently in each performance by the particular conditions of the moment’.[1] Literary or narrative materials could also be incorporated into other formats, such as textiles, wall paintings and carved wooden panels and furniture. The experience of medieval literature encompassed private reading, but also the shared, communal experience of aurality, as well as various forms of material culture.

William Caxton's illustrated second edition of The Canterbury Tales

Caxton's Canterbury Tales 2nd edn

Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales consists of a series of tales, which are told aloud by different pilgrims as the group travels to Canterbury.

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The period between 1350 and 1500 saw an increase in the production of tapestries. In Paris and Arras, already known as centres for weaving, tapestries were produced on a larger scale, incorporating scenes from religious or secular history, or were organised into narrative sequences.[2] Unfortunately, few examples of medieval textiles from Britain survive: the damp, humid northern climate has certainly not helped the preservation of these materials! However, we can turn to documentary records, inventories and wills for some indication of their use and prevalence. Jean Froissart, for example, records that for the 1399 coronation of the Duke of Lancaster as king of England, the streets of London ‘were all handsomely decorated with tapestries and other rich hangings’.[3]

While large-scale tapestries could only be afforded by the very wealthiest in society, smaller painted or stained cloths provided a more economical alternative. The account book of the Brewers’ Craft, London, includes a reference to ‘þe Steyned hallyng’ [‘wall hanging’] in their hall.[4] Similarly, the inventory of textiles owned by Sir John Fastolf (1380–1459) lists numerous ‘clothe(s) of Arras’ and ‘Tapstre warke(s)’, many of which are described as incorporating ‘rolles’ or banners containing writing.[5] These textiles served multiple functions: they were decorative, but also functional, helping to insulate domestic spaces and prevent draughts.

We can also turn to medieval literary texts and manuscripts for an indication of how medieval authors might have written with a textile format in mind. A note in one of the manuscripts of John Lydgate’s Bycorne and Chychevache, a poem written around 1425 about two fabulous beasts, records that it was commissioned by a ‘werþy citeseyn [‘worthy citizen’] of London’, and was to be realised not just as a written text in a book, but also as a ‘desteyned’ [‘stained’] cloth to be displayed in a hall or chamber. This copy of the poem includes seven headings that appear to describe the accompanying images to be painted on the cloth. As well as containing the text of the poem, then, it also provides directions on how the textile version should be made and displayed.[6]

Other literary works establish a more complex relationship between woven and written materials. The 14th-century romance Emaré tells the story of a princess banished from her home and then separated from her husband as a result of a plot by her malevolent step mother. Accompanying Emaré during her ordeal is a richly decorated woven cloth. The cloth of Emaré self-consciously invokes the shared origin of the words ‘text’ and ‘textile’ in Latin: textus (that which is woven) and texĕre (to weave). This cloth is a compilation of other romance texts with which the medieval readers of Emaré would have been familiar: it contains depictions of ‘Ydoyne and Amadas’, ‘Trystram and Isowde’ [‘Tristran and Isolde’], and ‘Florys and Dam Blawncheflour’. The cloth is an important part of the fictional world of the poem (Emaré and her young child shelter beneath it when they are cast adrift in a rudderless boat, for example), but it also prompts the reader to compare the unfolding events to other poems of the same genre.

Wall paintings

Many of the most complete surviving examples of medieval wall paintings can be found in churches. These paintings include a range of religious materials: scenes from the lives of saints and the infancy and early life of Christ were popular subjects, as were depictions of the Last Judgement. New layers of paint were often added to older images, updating them as the interpretation of scriptural materials developed, or as aesthetic tastes changed. Many of these paintings were lost during the Reformation of the 16th century, when church walls were whitewashed or plastered over. However, modern conservation work has retrieved many medieval wall paintings, and remarkable new discoveries are still being made.

Medieval English wall painting from St Stephen's Chapel

Medieval English wall painting from St Stephen's Chapel

Example of a surviving medieval wall painting that combines image and text.

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Held by© Trustees of the British Museum

Though surviving examples are rarer, wall paintings were also an important aspect of domestic settings. The walls of the Great Chamber at Longthorpe Tower, Peterborough, for example, are covered from ceiling to floor with a mix of religious and secular images. Again, we can also turn to medieval literature itself for a sense of how domestic spaces might incorporate literary or narrative materials. In Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess, the narrator falls asleep reading a book. In the dream that follows, he awakes in a room in which the ‘story of Troye’ is ‘ywrought’ [‘wrought’] in the windows and the walls are ‘peynted’ with the ‘text and glose’ [‘gloss: explanation’] of the ‘Romaunce of the Rose’, a popular medieval poem (ll. 327–34). We should be careful of reading medieval literary works as a completely transparent record of everyday practices, but when read alongside surviving medieval wall paintings and textiles the painted chamber of Chaucer’s poem seems to offer a fairly accurate account of the type of literary materials that could adorn a domestic space.

A number of carved wooden panels depicting scenes from popular narratives also survive from the later medieval period. A striking example, dating from around 1410, is held at the Museum of London. In this panel, which would have been the front section of a large chest, scenes from Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale’ (one of The Canterbury Tales) are depicted. Considered alongside wall paintings and textiles, these carved panels suggest that what we might now think of as interior decoration could incorporate a range of literary materials.

Panel depicting scenes from Chaucer’s ‘The Pardoner's Tale'

Panel depicting a scene from the Pardoner's Tale

A carved wooden panel depicting scenes from Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale’.

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The multimedia Middle Ages

The oral or dramatic performance of a text could also be combined with visual media. The Danse Macabre [Dance of Death] tradition provides the best example of this kind of ‘multimedia’ experience. Emphasising the universality of mortality, whatever one’s station in life, the Danse Macabre may have been encountered in particular ‘site-specific installations’ that combined oral performance and ‘bodily movement’ with painted murals, textiles and sculpture.[7] John Lydgate’s English version (c. 1426) was the basis for a large mural in St Paul’s Cathedral, unfortunately now lost.

Fresco depicting a Danse Macabre

Fresco depicting a danse macabre

The dead stand among the living in this mural painting of a scene from a Danse Macabre.

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I noted above that levels of literacy in the medieval period were relatively low. However, both medieval aurality and the various forms of medieval material culture incorporating literary subject matter should caution us against judging medieval people too rigidly by modern standards. Individuals that we might now consider to be ‘illiterate’, in the sense that they could not read or write, could still possess sophisticated and detailed knowledge, not only of religious materials, but also of literary texts and traditions. They might listen to a text read aloud, ‘read’ a narrative sequence in a tapestry, wall painting or carved panel, or, as in the Danse Macabre tradition, a combination of two or more of these elements.


[1] Joyce Coleman, ‘Audience’, pp. 155–70 in A Handbook of Middle English Studies (Oxford: Wiley, 2013), p. 157.

[2] Claire Sponsler, ‘Text and Textiles: Lydgate’s Tapestry Poems’, pp. 19–34 in Medieval Fabrications: Dress, Textiles, Cloth Work, and Other Cultural Imaginings (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 21.

[3] Jean Froissart, Chronicles of England, France, Spain, and the adjoining countries, from the latter part of the reign of Edward II to the coronation of Henry IV, trans. by Thomas Johnes (London: 1848), pp. 698–99.

[4] A Book of London English, 1384–1425, ed. by R W Chambers and M Daunt (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931), p. 150.

[5] The Paston Letters, A.D. 1422–1509, ed. by James Gairdner, 6 vols (London: Chatto and Windus, 1904), Vol. III, pp. 178–79.

[6] Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.3.21, f. 278v. Quoted in Sponsler, ‘Text and Textiles’, pp. 27–28.

[7] Seeta Chaganti, ‘Danse Macabre and the Virtual Churchyard’, Postmedieval, 3 (2012), 7–26 (p. 7).

Banner credit: © Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images

  • Tom White
  • Dr Tom White is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow at Oxford University, where he works on medieval and early modern literature and culture, the history of media and critical theory. He is also currently working on a project examining medieval and early modern horticultural manuals, with a focus on the connections between practical writing, literature and natural philosophy. He is contributing editor of the Glasgow Review of Books and contributes to a number of other magazines and websites.

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