Medieval French Literacy

Donny Setiawan
5 min readNov 22, 2023
Photo by Carlos Torres on Unsplash

Middle Ages in France

What is meant by the Middle Ages is the period starting from the fall of the Roman empire in the west (476 AD) until the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire (1453 AD).

The social situation in France at that time was divided into two classes, namely the nobility which included the rulers and vassals (subordinates), and the people which included the bourgeoisie and workers.

Sometimes the rulers tried hard to attract the nobles, who were their vassals, to enter the palace so they could be easily controlled. Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie who were still among the people could move freely in society at that time. However, thanks to the strong influence of rulers in the Middle Ages, the bourgeoisie continued to work under the hands of the palace.

Before the discovery of Gutenberg’s printing press (1450 AD), which later entered France in 1470 AD, books were written by hand. So if someone wanted to copy a book, they had to hire a scribe.

French Education in the Middle Ages

Talking about literacy in France cannot be separated from the development of education.

Education in France before the Enlightenment (Renaissance) had a ‘very narrow and sterile’ education system. What is meant by ‘very narrow and sterile’ is that at that time students were still fed only standard knowledge, without being equipped with critical thinking methods to develop their reasoning.

It was different when France during the Age of Enlightenment (Renaissance) had an education system that encouraged students to move actively using their intellectual abilities which emphasized the value of human reasoning and culture (Humanism), both regarding moral elegance, manners, manners, and art and creative thinking. This of course cannot be separated from the influence of Greek and Roman literature, which at that time was very much under attack to replace the outdated education system.

The influence of the ‘Crusades’ on France in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages were very synonymous with its political situation. There were several political situations that greatly influenced France at that time, namely the Crusades (1095–1270) and the Hundred Years War (1337–1453).

These two major events apparently unwittingly built the national consciousness of the French people. The Crusades were a religious war between Christianity and Islam or west and east. The Hundred Years’ War was a war between France and England.

This also influences the use of French as a form of national awareness of the French people. After the beginning of the Romance language which was officially used by King Hugo during his reign in 987 AD.

Other influences of the ‘Crusades’ on France included the development of intellectual activity in the fields of theology, philosophy and literature.

During the 1000s, the first universities began to appear in France, such as what is now known as the University of Paris (1200 AD), then a college or Faculty of Theology at the Sorbon by Robert de Sorbon.

French Literature in the Middle Ages

The situation of literary circles has never been free from the influence of the social situation that occurred in France. The nobility had their own literary characteristics, as did the people.

Literature in France in the Middle Ages can be divided into two, into Aristocratic Literature and Bourgeois Literature.

Aristocratic literature contains stories of heroism, refinement of behavior, elegance, love full of manners, and religious devotion.

Meanwhile, bourgeois literature contains stories that are both satirical and humorous, realistic and religious.

The Development of Literature in France During the Middle Ages

  1. Chanson de Geste (11th Century)

It is a literary work that tells a story of heroism filled with war and fights against disloyal people.

This work is sung to the accompaniment of Vielle — a three-stringed violin. Players often go from palace to palace, field to field, or fair.

Geste itself means action or action.

The nature of this work is:

  • In epic form
  • Heroic story
  • Upholding honor
  • Loyalty in superior-subordinate relationships or between lovers
  • Religious and state devotion (patriotism)

Notable works include:

  • Chanson de Roland
  • Chanson de Guillaume
  • Pelerimage de Charlemagne

2. Literature Courtoise (Aristocratic Literature)

It is a literary work that tells the story of an ideal figure (knight) who is ‘courtoise’ (mannered), brave, and willing to fight for the woman he adores.

This work is in the form of sung lyric poetry and romance.

The nature of this work is:

  • Tells the story of an extraordinary event
  • A glorious victory
  • The main character is a knight
  • There are cowards and traitors
  • Themed ‘love’ and ‘women’

Famous works are:

  • Erec
  • Cliges
  • Lancelot
  • Tristan and Iseult (1170 AD)
  • Aucassin and Nicolette (1200 AD)

Notable authors are:

  • Chretien de Troyes (1165–1190 AD)

3. Roman de Renard (Bourgeois Literature)

It is a literary work that tends to take the form of fabliaux or animal tales.

This work is in the form of a narrative essay.

The nature of this work:

  • Satirical
  • ‘Naughty’
  • Realist
  • (Sometimes) contains a moral message
  • Fabliaux (funny animal fables or moral animal fables)

His famous works:

  • Roman de Renard

4. La Litterature Didactive (Didactic Literature) 14th to 15th centuries

It is a literary work written to teach the reader something, both moral and scientific. This work usually covers all social boundaries.

This work can be in the form of poetry or narrative essay (prose).

The nature of this work is:

  • Contains a moral message
  • Contains social and philosophical values
  • Love and affection
  • Patriotism

Notable works are:

  • Le Roman de la Rose

Notable authors are:

  • Guillaume de Lotis
  • Jean de Meung
  • Charles d’Orleans (1394–1465)
  • François Villon (1431–1463)

5. Early Writing of French History

It was also in this century that writing of French history began. In the period before the Crusades, many writers only wrote about the lives and activities of famous rulers, but during the Crusades, written works were more diverse, especially themes about travel to the eastern world which contained the author’s memories or reports which were often still subjective.

Famous authors are:

  • Villehardouin
  • Joinville
  • Froussart.***

Ida Sundari, H., dkk. (2020). Pengarang Prancis Sepanjang Masa Abad XV — XXI. Jakarta: Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia