31 Days of Medieval Manuscripts · Medieval Art and Architecture

Vernacular Literature – Day Sixteen of Medieval Manuscripts

The Knights of the Round Table from BNF 112, a manuscript of the prose Lancelot attributed to Walter Map (Gaultier Moap) or Michel Gantelet c.1470. By Evrard d’Espinques (Gallica) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Today’s post builds off my of most recent one. I want to talk about manuscripts containing vernacular literature, or popular stories written in the commonly-spoken language of a country (perhaps French or German), rather than in scholarly or sacred languages such as Latin. In this category were romances, epics, poems, adventure stories, legends, and other works of literature read for pleasure rather than for religious, practical, or scholarly concerns. Many had their roots in popular songs, travelers’ tales, crusaders’ legends, and minstrels’ or troubadours” performances (de Hamel 142-148). They are often called songs (chansons) or romances (romans). The Roman de la Rose is but one of the more popular examples, as were the Crusaders’ story Chanson de Roland, tales of King Arthur and his knights, and the works of Dante and Chaucer (see de Hamel 142-167). Though these stories were enjoyed by a diverse audience in the Middle Ages – I vividly remember one of my college professors calling them “medieval bestsellers” – the often-luxurious manuscripts seen here were owned primarily by upper-class readers. In de Hamel’s book, they are included in the chapter “Books for Aristocrats”.

Opening folio of the Hengwrt manuscript of the Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, early 15th century. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Source: de Hamel, Christopher. A History of Illuminated Manuscripts. London & New York: Phaidon Press Limited, 1994.

14th Century Manuscript of the Chanson de Roland. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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