During that long period of time, Italy developed a literature that, on one hand, was no longer in Latin but, on the other, was not yet in Italian. This language maintained the appearance of Latin but was quite different from classic Latin; it was the Latin used by the Roman Catholic Church and by educated people, a language that, after the fall of the Roman Empire, spread throughout Europe as the cultured language and remained as the official language of science until the modern age. Medieval literature, however, was not developed extensively, and its quality, from an artistic point of view, was rather limited.
During the Middle Ages, the Church had become the major source of knowledge and culture, and it had inherited from Rome its characteristic of universality. The major documents of medieval Christian thought profoundly shaped the values of the new vernacular literature; particularly influential were the works of the Scholastic philosophers, among whom towers Saint Thomas Aquinas and in which one can find the vital roots of Dante’s writings.
Italian vernacular poetry began in the thirteenth century with the simultaneous flowering of written literature in several of Italy’s competing dialects. In the twelfth century, it had appeared that the Sicilian dialect was going to acquire the status of a national language; Sicily, at the time of Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), had become an important center of cultural life and art. This Sicilian superiority was ephemeral, however, vanishing after the death of the emperor. It was instead the Florentine tongue that, for several reasons, became the national language. The Florentine dialect prevailed primarily because, during the period of assertion of the vernacular, some of the greatest masterpieces of Italian literature were written in that dialect.