Medieval literature extends over a wide geographic area and a long span of time, so it is difficult to identify characteristics that apply to all or even most literature of the Middle Ages. That said, though, we can identify some elements that people often think about when they consider medieval literature.
The first such element is allegory. Allegory is an extended metaphor in which various characters, settings, objects, and events exist on two levels: a literal one and a symbolic one. For example, the medieval play Everyman tells the story of the character Everyman, who encounters other characters like Good Deeds, Wisdom, and Beauty. Clearly, the literal story points to something beyond itself (i.e., the characteristics of these traits and normal people's interaction with them). Everyman stands for all of us and shows us how we, too, must strive after virtues and shun vices.
Another element of medieval literature is the chivalric romance of courtly love and knightly adventures. In these tales, often poetic but sometimes in prose, knights ride off on quests and proclaim their undying love and devotion to the ladies they leave behind. We are caught up in descriptions of supernatural enemies, mysterious castles, and fantastic tournaments as we sigh at lovers to go to their deaths rather than betray their love. The tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are prime examples of this kind of medieval literature.
Woven into both of these elements is a third characteristic of medieval writing, which is religion. Catholic Christianity stands at the very heart of the literature of the Middle Ages. God, the saints, and even the devil appear as characters in medieval morality plays, for instance. Devotional writings and religious poems abound. Religious themes wind their way through tales of chivalry as knights seek the Holy Grail or commend themselves to the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The writers and readers of these texts were Christian, and their faith stood at the center of their lives, so it was bound to take center stage in their literature.