The Early Middle Ages - Short Fiction Summary


The early Middle Ages (for the purposes of this discussion c. 476-1050) represent a time of transition and readjustment from the declining Roman, classical era to a culture that more and more clearly defined itself as a new age in the West (medieval scholars considered themselves modern men). This period saw the gradual development of the romance languages from Vulgar Latin and, especially as social conditions stabilized in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, the development of an increasingly varied body of literary work.

It is only fair and necessary to assume literary continuity in this transitional time. The great Latin writers, Ovid for example, were recopied as well as imitated, and Latin versions of the fables of Aesop continued to be produced and read. There was a considerable body of oral fiction, but this study will be confined to such exemplars of short fiction that have survived in written form. It will be necessary, especially for the early centuries of the period, to abstract our exemplars from works that are not fictional as such. Many of the writings of the late classical and early Christian periods were grammatical or historical, and early Christian writings were primarily dogmatic treatises. Furthermore, the Church fathers tended to distrust pagan literature even when their own writings betrayed their classical educations in every sentence, as an examination of the works of St. Jerome or St. Augustine easily shows. Later, although the Church was responsible for the suppression of much pagan literature, notably the Germanic heroic works, remnants of which survive in Old Icelandic (Old Norse) versions, the accommodation of the literary impulse to the Christian ethos would produce a significant body of hagiographical literature and, in the later Middle Ages, the various romance cycles in which the didactic element does not overwhelm real literary merit.

The Etymologiae (partial translation in An Encyclopedist of the Dark Ages, 1912) of Saint Isidore of Seville, provides a contemporary definition of story (fabula): Story does not speak of things done (res factae) but of things created in speech (res fictae de loquendo). The emphasis in this study will be on the latter point, “things created,” because even in historical or quasi-historical works, authors such as St. Gregory the Great or Gregory of Tours would break the flow of their narratives to develop or expand upon a striking episode, making of it more a vignette than a...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In bringing together an extended discussion of the forms of short fiction in the Middle Ages, a danger exists of oversimplification or of a too-pat schematic view of diverse developments. The period of the early Middle Ages was an unsettled time. Necessary social and economic adjustments to the collapse of Roman domination in the West threatened the preservation of the classical tradition of education. The number of surviving works of fiction seems small beside the compendiums of rhetorical, historical, or doctrinal works, but at no time did the art of fiction lapse, certainly not as far as oral transmission and development was concerned, as the complicated history of the Goths, Burgundians, and their heroes clearly shows. Often, however, “story” was put to work in sermons or in histories without losing the essential crafted nature that sets a work of fiction apart from mere sequential reportage. Many of the independent stories never ceased to engage their audiences, and storytellers adapted them by retelling or forging ever more complex combinations of the tales, some with the range and scope, for example, of the Theodoric stories. Although many of the gems of early medieval fiction remain buried in little-read histories or in collections primarily of interest to scholars, others, some of which have been discussed here, are now receiving the scholarly and critical attention they have deserved as literary works.