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Medieval Latin literature

The Monastic Tradition

From the 6th cent. on, learning was preserved mostly in the monasteries (see monasticism), and almost all writers were clergymen. The Latin used in the Church services, based on the simplified language, was therefore preserved long after all Latin was replaced in common speech by the vernacular tongues. The bulk of prose writing was given over to theological treatises, homilies, sermons, pastoral instructions, and devotional works. Some of it is of great force and beauty, as in writings of St. Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I).

Sporadic efforts were made to revive classical learning, but these were successful only in promoting learning in general and establishing educational standards. By far the most important was the Carolingian revival in the late 8th and early 9th cent. Charlemagne persuaded an Englishman, Alcuin, to establish a court school. The writers, such as Einhard, were medieval rather than classical in spirit, but the effects of the revival were lasting. The effects of the movement can be found in works of the writers Paul the Deacon, Rabanus Maurus Magnentius, and John Scotus Erigena; the poets Walafrid Strabo and Gottschalk, and Waltharius; and the dramatist Hrotswith von Bandersheim.

Abelard, outstanding theologian and competent poet, was primarily a schoolman and his school was the precursor of the Univ. of Paris, one of the great medieval universities (see colleges and universities). St. Bernard of Clairvaux, vigorous opponent of Abelard, is usually considered one of the greatest of medieval writers. Perhaps more renowned as a theologian than Bernard was the learned St. Anselm, and certainly more vociferous in polemics was Hugh of St. Victor.

Among the mystical writers Richard of St. Victor is ranked by many as a peer of St. Bernard. The volume of writing was steadily growing and was of truly universal Western authorship. Secular poetry and prose were being composed for sheer enjoyment. Chroniclers and historians were found in all lands—Bede, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Matthew Paris, Walter Map, Suger, and William of Tyre are examples—and many monasteries had completely anonymous chronicles such as those of St. Gall.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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