Everyday Life

Medieval Manuscripts: A Literary Journey Through Time

The European medieval period witnessed a remarkable flourishing of manuscripts, illuminating the intellectual and cultural achievements of the era.

Books and manuscripts played a crucial role in preserving knowledge, documenting history, and capturing the imagination of readers. From illuminated bibles and chronicles to captivating folk stories and poetry, the written word evolved and thrived throughout this transformative period.

Here we explore the rich literary traditions of the Saxon, Viking, Norman, and later medieval periods, offering a glimpse into the diverse literary landscape of medieval Europe.

Saxon Period (5th-11th Century)

During the Saxon period, the production of religious manuscripts, particularly bibles, became widespread. These illuminated manuscripts were often crafted by skilled scribes and adorned with intricate decorations and illustrations. The Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Durrow are notable examples, showcasing the fusion of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon artistic styles.

The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals that traces the history of England from the early 9th century to the 12th century. It offers a year-by-year account of significant events, such as Viking invasions, battles, and the reigns of kings. It serves as a valuable historical record of the period.

Saxon Law Codes: During the Saxon period, several law codes were written to govern various aspects of society. One of the most significant is the “Laws of Æthelberht,” attributed to King Æthelberht of Kent in the early 7th century. It provides insights into Saxon legal practices, social structure, and the role of the king in administering justice.

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Poetry and Elegies Saxon poetry, such as “Beowulf,” captured the imagination of readers with its tales of heroic deeds, battles, and mythical creatures. These epic narratives offered insight into the cultural values and traditions of the Saxon people.

Chronicles and Historical Works

Saxon chroniclers like Bede and Asser contributed to the preservation of historical accounts and the recording of significant events. Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” stands as a seminal work. It chronicles the early history of England and its conversion to Christianity.

The “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” was written by the Northumbrian monk and scholar, Bede, in the early 8th century. This historical work chronicles the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity and provides a comprehensive account of English history up to Bede’s time. It is considered one of the most important sources for understanding early medieval England.

Viking Period (8th-11th Century)

Sagas and Heroic Legends The Viking period brought forth a rich oral tradition of storytelling, which later found its way into written manuscripts known as sagas. These sagas, including the “Saga of the Icelanders” and the “Njála Saga,” chronicled the lives of legendary heroes. They contain their exploits, and the struggles of Viking society.

The Sagas are a collection of prose narratives that recount the history, legends, and exploits of the Viking Age. These sagas were written in Old Norse and include both historical sagas and legendary sagas. The historical sagas, such as the “Saga of the Ynglings” and the “Saga of the Greenlanders,” provide accounts of real events and people, while the legendary sagas, like the “Saga of the Volsungs” and the “Saga of the Icelanders,” contain mythological and heroic elements.

Runestones and Inscriptions: The Vikings left behind runestones and inscriptions as a means of commemorating their achievements and recording historical events. These inscriptions, often carved into stones, served as valuable sources of information about Viking culture, religion, and societal norms.

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Skaldic and Eddic Poetry: Skaldic poetry, composed by skilled skalds, celebrated the deeds of Viking warriors, kings, and gods. Eddic poetry, on the other hand, delved into the mythology and creation narratives of the Norse gods. The Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda are seminal works that preserve this rich poetic tradition.

Norse Verse

Also known as the Younger Edda, the Prose Edda was written by the Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century. It serves as a guide to Norse mythology, including the creation of the world, the exploits of the gods and heroes, and the apocalypse. The Prose Edda provides valuable insights into Viking cosmology, religion, and storytelling traditions.

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The Poetic Edda is a collection of Old Norse poems that date back to the Viking Age. It is believed to have been compiled in the 13th century, but the poems themselves are much older and represent an important source of Norse mythology and heroic legends. The Poetic Edda contains mythological stories, heroic narratives, and insights into Viking society and beliefs.

Norman Period (11th-12th Century)

Legal Manuscripts: The Norman period witnessed the compilation of legal manuscripts, such as the “Domesday Book,” which recorded the landholdings and taxation in England. These manuscripts played a vital role in establishing legal frameworks and documenting societal structures.


The Domesday Book: The Domesday Book was commissioned to assess and document the extent of landownership and resources in England. It aimed to provide William the Conqueror with an accurate picture of his new kingdom’s wealth, revenue potential, and administration. The survey covered most of England and recorded information on landowners, tenants, resources, and the value of properties

The Domesday Book consists of two volumes. The Great Domesday and Little Domesday. Great Domesday contains detailed records for most of England, while Little Domesday covers areas like Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk. The book includes information on landowners, tenants, population, agricultural resources, livestock, mills, fisheries, and more. It provides a comprehensive snapshot of medieval English society and economy.

Romances and Courtly Literature: Courtly literature, including chivalric romances like “Tristan and Isolde” and “Arthurian Legends,” became popular during the Norman period. These tales of love, honour, and knightly valour captivated audiences and inspired a new wave of literary expression.

“Roman de Rou”: Written by Wace, a Norman poet, in the 12th century, the “Roman de Rou” chronicles the history of the dukes of Normandy, focusing on the life of Rollo, the founder of the Norman dynasty. It combines historical accounts with fictional elements and provides valuable insights into Norman history and culture.

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“Tristan and Iseult”: The story of Tristan and Iseult became popular in Norman literature during the medieval period. This romantic tale of forbidden love and tragedy was widely circulated in various forms, including poems and prose versions. One of the most notable adaptations is the Norman-French poem “Tristan” by Thomas of Britain.

Latin Chronicles and Historical Works

Latin chronicles, such as the “Gesta Regum Anglorum” by William of Malmesbury, provided detailed accounts of historical events, offering valuable insights into the political, social, and religious landscape of the time.

Later Medieval Period (12th-15th century)

Gothic Manuscripts and Psalters: With the rise of the Gothic style, illuminated manuscripts became increasingly intricate and ornate during the later medieval period. Psalters, in particular, gained prominence as devotional texts adorned with intricate illuminations and decorated initials. The Lambeth Psalter and the Luttrell Psalter are renowned examples of this period.

Religious and Devotional Works: The later medieval period witnessed a surge in religious and devotional literature. Books of hours, such as the “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry,” became popular among the affluent, featuring prayers, psalms, and miniatures depicting scenes from the life of Christ.

Arthurian Romances and Courtly Love: The Arthurian legends continued to captivate readers, inspiring a wealth of literature. Works like Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” compiled these tales into a comprehensive narrative, celebrating the ideals of chivalry, courtly love, and the quest for the Holy Grail.

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Vernacular Literature and Poetry: As literacy spread, vernacular literature gained prominence. Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” written in Middle English, showcased a collection of stories told by a diverse group of pilgrims, offering a vivid portrayal of medieval society and its complexities.

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Allegorical and Moralistic Works: Allegory and moralistic literature became popular during the later medieval period. John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” employed allegorical narratives to explore moral and spiritual themes, providing readers with guidance and enlightenment.

The Page has Turned

Books and manuscripts played a pivotal role in shaping the literary landscape of medieval Europe. From religious texts and chronicles to epic poetry and romances, each period brought forth its own unique contributions.

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The Saxon, Viking, Norman, and later medieval periods all left a lasting legacy of written works, providing us with invaluable insights into the history, culture, and imagination of the people who lived during these times.

The preservation of these manuscripts allows us to appreciate the rich tapestry of medieval literature and the enduring power of storytelling across the ages.


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