What are some Medieval literary forms and their differences?

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The Middle Ages produced many literary forms, both in England and on the continent. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a repository of many of these.

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The Medieval period produced a plethora of literary forms, both in England and in continental Europe. Quite frankly, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio's Decameron are repositories of many of these. In many medieval works, we find considerable anachronism, lack of classical unity in favor of a vast synthesis, and a distinct mingling of tragic and comic elements.

The frame narrative is common, allowing authors to lend coherence to a variety of tales. Focusing on Chaucer's work, the frame serves as an Estates Satire, allowing him to critique society and individuals's failure to live up to the values of their estate in society.

The work goes on to include epic and mock-epic parodies, which imply a certain determinism in human events. In France, The Song of Roland is a notable epic, celebrating Charlemagne, denigrating Muslims, and providing propaganda for the Pope's call to go on Crusades.

Chaucer's work also contains many romances, which suggests a more open-ended potential in human affairs. Many others wrote romances as well, often focusing on King Arthur's court.

Dream visions were popular as well, as Dante's Commedia and The Roman de la Rose illustrate. These offer a more fantastic set of possibilities in terms of setting and plot.

The fablieau mocks some of the idealizing assumptions in both forms, turning the elevated impulses explored in high literature into a parallel but baser and almost pornographic equivalent. These were especially popular on the Continent.

We also find apologias, or explanations of one's life, such as the Wife of Bath tells, hagiography (saints's lives as models), and encomiums (praise of another as an exemplar). Chaucer's The Book of Good Women contradicts the many misogynistic texts in Medieval society. Early chronicles created stories of English history, sifted with a grain or two of national pride.

Within performing arts, the morality play was popular, offering highly didactic lessons (miracle and mystery plays did the same using stories from the Bible or saints' lives). Troubadours brought romantic lyrics and tales of courtly love to Europe.

Perhaps the major distinction in these various forms, as is true in all eras, is the larger intent the work addresses. Tone varies between epic and fablieau, for instance, though many basic plot points are common.

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The Medieval period in British literature produced some of the most important literary works in the Western literary canon; the literary forms vary greatly. Epic poetry like Beowulf differs from other kinds of poetry from the medieval period, like The Canterbury Tales, the satirical narrative in poetic form. Another form of literature that was popular during the medieval period were histories of Britain by Bede and Geoffrey of Monmouth.

The epic poem of Beowulf was passed down orally, until a scribe wrote the poem down and added some Christian imagery and messaging. Just this detail sets Beowulf apart from many other poems of this time period, which were written down in manuscript form from its first moments of creation. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are a unique work of satire in and of itself, and its only similarities to Beowulf involve the poetic form and the medieval time stamp; The Canterbury Tales are renowned for illuminating the corruption and hypocrisy of the time, a very different subject matter from the heroic tales immortalized in Beowulf.

The histories of Britain by Bede and Geoffrey of Monmouth chronicled the heroes of the oldest times in British history. In The Histories of The Kings of Britain, Geoffrey Monmouth wrote about King Arthur and as well as the Britons and the Romans who were involved in the earliest settlement of the country.

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There were a variety of literary forms at play during the Medieval Era. Many were religious, including confessions, revelations, and prayers. Confessions, like those of St. Augustine, are stories of personal experience and read like memoirs often do today. Revelations occur when people write what they understand to be the word of God (remember that the medieval world, generally speaking, interpreted religion more literally than we do today). Prayers are similar to poems in that they are meditative writings in which the speaker attempts to commune with the divine. 

Often religious but not always, allegories were also a common literary form. Allegories are instructional stories intended to convey what is right and wrong behavior.

There were also secular writings at play. In royal courts, troubadours entertained with their songs or extended lyrical poems. Similarly, sonnets, stories, and theatricals were also performed for the amusement of the courts. In English, the most oft-cited example is Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.

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