Medieval Literature vs. Renaissance Literature

25 Oct

Medieval and Renaissance literature were influenced by two completely different eras in human history.  During the Middle Ages, (A.D. 1066- 1500) the toils of daily life affected the mindset of those at this time.  As a result, these ideas found its way into the making of Medieval literature.  However, after the great rediscovery of the classical civilizations during A.D. 1500- 1660, men began creating what is now looked upon as Renaissance literature.  Though they are both forms of writing, their history as a part of society greatly differed from contrasting philosophies of life, leading to two different personalities.

Medieval Literature

During the Middle Ages, a great emphasis was placed on the blend of fantasy and reality.  Though characters were given human characteristics, their personalities transcended  to those of fictitious figures (God, Saints, and revered leaders).  Additionally, these stories incorporated the codes of romance and honor, reliving the ideals of chivalry in writing.  Furthermore, there was a religious overtone hidden in these works.  Because only monks could hand- copy these manuscripts in monasteries, only a few were made available to the rich and noble.  As for the peasants, the only way to pass down these stories from generation to generation was by words of mouth.

For example, Geoffrey Chaucer (1343- 1400), the famous author of The Canterbury Tales, practiced these forms of writing in his narration of the social classes at this time.  He was later known as one of the best medieval writer of all time.


Renaissance Literature
In contrast to the religion- driven aspects of literature found during Medieval times, Renaissance thinkers reverted back to the idealism of classical civilizations during A.D. 1500- 1660.  Instead of focusing on the dreams of the future, Renaissance men and women were concerned with the “here and now”.  During this period, feelings and emotions were key to illustrating humanism, with the story more oriented on the character rather than the adventure.  In addition, Renaissance literature revolved more around having a real humanistic protagonist with a real story to tell.  These basic ideals evolved from a humble place in life to a materialistic dream steeped in luxury.  Moreover, with the invention of the printing press in 1440 by Johann Gutenberg, manuscripts were no longer needed to be meticulously hand- copied, and were able to be printed and delivered to the mass public inexpensively and swiftly.  With more men and women educated due to the indirect results of the printing press, literature became widespread throughout Europe.
For example, John Milton (A.D. 1608- 1674), in his notorious epic poem Paradise Lost, illustrated a more humanistic and prideful Lucifer who craves power in Heaven.  This represents the change in ideas from the religious Medieval literature into the secular themes of Renaissance literature.
“John Milton (1608-1674).” Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature. 26 Dec. 2006. Web. 25 Oct. 2010. <;.
“Medieval Literature.” Medieval Life and Times. Web. 25 Oct. 2010. <;.
“Introduction to the Renaissance.” 29 Mar. 2009. Web. 25 Oct. 2010. <;.
“Medieval Literature.” Medieval Life. Web. 25 Oct. 2010. <;.



Posted by on October 25, 2010 in Thomas More's Utopia


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6 responses to “Medieval Literature vs. Renaissance Literature

  1. Adele

    October 26, 2010 at 5:24 am

    The most critical distinction between Medieval and Renaissance culture was in spiritual character, most eminently expressed in the literary and visual arts, particularly through the motif of journey and self-discovery. While Middle Ages featured communal society and a feudal relationship between knight and king, Renaissance society grew increasingly mercantile and gave rise to individuality, a growth of humanistic thought, and a return to the classics as a perfect model for living and learning.

    Medieval ideals of courtly love and honor were replaced in Renaissance by the classical notion of Platonic love and were much parodied and satirized in Renaissance literature and theatre. Examples are Boiardo’s “Orlando Inamorato,” Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso,” and “Don Quijote de la Mancha.” Playwright Aretino and writer Castiglione both found humor in their satiric representations of humanity, pointing out man’s fallible and imperfect nature. These
    works both feature mystical self-journey or pilgrimage, stressed with a fantastic use of the supernatural as Orlando trooped through military strife and courtly love romps in a perpetual search for happiness.

    A return to classicism was characterized by new ideals of beauty in art. Alberti’s treatise on art expounded new dimensions of linear perspectives in all genres of art, those which artists strove to emulate through their creative works. The ideal of beauty included man’s refined knowledge of the classical languages and texts, as well as a material wealth to learn and cultivate classical knowledge and emulate the physical perfection of his natural environment. Indeed, Politian was the first poet to break away from such a dynamic tradition.

    Thus paintings and theatre, for instance, no longer re-enacted the drama of the Biblical Passion Cycle. Man was no longer fixated on the duties of avoiding temptation and guaranteeing the Salvation of his soul; Renaissance man could now find his own solutions to problems through trial and error in a new venture of self-discovery through the five senses. Therefore the artist became a vehicle of cultural and national expression, particularly after the invention of print. The Virgin Mary lost her stereotypical grief as Renaissance painter Raphael gave her personality an element of poetic grace and inner strength, as well as a brand new sense of intellectuality. While mythology surmised much thematic content in Renaissance art, such poetic expression shaped Renaissance ideals as a focal point.

    It became fashionable to commemorate members of the signoria, royalty, and donors of art through poetry, painting, and the novella, for example. The invention of the formal voice in narrative in the “cornice” of the novella was a sharp contrast to the illuminated manuscript and the oral traditions of the Middle Ages. The portrait was related to dedicational art.

    The portrait, which originated in northern Europe, corresponded to such a formal note. Da Vinci’s portrait of Ginevra di Benci, and Pietro della Francesca’s double portraits of Duke of Montefeltro and Battista Sforza’s triumphs are examples of such commemorations; indeed these works reinforce the Renaissance ideals of human quality. Certainly these included a travelled worldliness, military skill, grace, beauty, and intelligence.

    Self-portraiture was another invention which was directly related to the elevated significance of human intellect in the Renaissance. An emphasis on the head and hands echo the humanist concept that man’s beauty lay in his own creative ability. A most striking instance of such logic is emphatic in German Albrecht Durer’s mystical “Self-Portrait at 28.” This amazingly true to life self-portrait stirs the Renaissance motif of pilgrimage to life and truly immortalizes the artist, who died of fever in 1528. An indexed finger pointing to himself in recognition, traced to a tiny triangular white speck on his bosom indicates a discovery of the Holy Spirit out of a voyage from within.

    Therefore, the medieval motif of pilgrimage in Renaissance art truly captured the universal essence of man’s quest for purpose and happiness in life. Although newer ideals continuously transform our millenium’s interpretation of Renaissance man, our link to him remains permanent through an eternal quest for truth. The message is still the same: to find the right path, one must first begin with an introspective view at one’s self.

  2. Sydney

    October 26, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    Adele, your comment you left was very interesting and educational. It sparked my interest on how you are so educated on this topic. Are you a professor or is this topic just one that interests you. We trully appreciate the comment and for the information on Medieval and Rennaissance we otherwise never would have known. Thank you so much for your comment!


  3. Heera Sen

    March 3, 2013 at 6:19 am

    Thank you so much for all this information. It was particularly helpful to me. and i probably would never have been able to complete my huge project if it weren’t for you guys!!

  4. kelly

    November 23, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    hello. i’m so happy about reading this topic ,, thank you very
    much ,,

  5. mouna

    January 7, 2014 at 3:57 pm

    hi i m seriously interested in learning more about medival and renaissance literature thank you

  6. mechel

    January 26, 2015 at 5:04 am

    thank you for the information 🙂


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