Medieval Literary Genres

The literature of the Middle Ages was rich and varied and, not surprisingly, so were the audiences. How would we break down those audiences? Well, we could talk of the religious audience, the courtly audience, the learned, and the popular audience. Different genres might appeal more to specific audiences. For example, you can imagine that the religious audience would be interested in such pieces as Piers Plowman, The Anchoress’ Rule, The Pearl, Holy Maidenhead, and The Wyclife Bible. The courtly audience would be attracted to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Brut, The Lover’s Confession, and The Testament of Cresseid. Stories such as King Horn, Robyn and Gandelyn, and The Fox and the Wolf would appeal to the popular audience, while The Owl and the Nightingale and The Regiment of Princes would be of concern to the learned audience. In other words, just as writers today write for targeted audiences, medieval writers had specific audiences in mind.

In terms of genre, we can talk about lyric poetry, mystery plays, liturgical plays, morality plays, fabliaux, sermons, debate, rules for living a religious life, beast fables, bestiaries, and romance. That by no means exhausts the list.

Dame Sirith is an example of the fabliau, a comic bourgeois genre that arose in France between 1150 and 1320. Chaucer uses fabliaux in Canterbury Tales. Perhaps, the most well known of Chaucer’s fabliaux is “The Miller’s Tale”.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an example of the genre of the romance, where you have a hero who is the paragon of bravery and a master of the art of courtly love. In this genre, the hero is always on a quest wherein he is faced with many obstacles and difficulties. The author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is also considered to be the author of another poem called The Pearl. The Pearl represents the genre of dream vision in which questions of religious importance are considered.

Plays were also of importance in the Middle Ages. A very useful website that contains information about medieval plays and other literature of that era is Luminarium. One important genre within the genre of plays was that of the Mystery Play. These plays were generally performed in the streets, often at the time of such religious festivals as the feast of Pentecost when there would be fairs. The mystery plays retold the stories of the Bible, whether it be the story of Noah and his ark or the death of Jesus. The following website contains modern translation of the N-Town Cycle of plays. The cycle begins with God’s creation of the world and ends with the Last Judgment.