The art of reading in the Middle Ages

Among knights and troubadours

Courts and court culture

Two medieval knights fighting on horseback

Rex illiteratus est quasi asinus coronatus ('The king who cannot read is like a crowned donkey') is a medieval Latin proverb of the High Middle Ages (c. 1050-c. 1250 CE). It highlights two important things. Firstly, it was important that members of the aristocracy in the Middle Ages - kings, queens and noblemen - should be able to read. Secondly, the language they should be able to read was Latin. This language was the only cross-border medium for oral and written communication (lingua franca) in the European Middle Ages. Its spread throughout Europe was essentially due to the spread of the Christian faith. Monastic and cathedral schools were founded in many places through the establishment of monasteries and dioceses, but there were also members of the clergy at the medieval courts. Among other things, they took care of services, taught children of nobility, and often took care of the production of written documents.

Beginning of Psalm 1 and comment below „Cist psaultiers fuit mon seigneur saint leoys qui fu roys de france ou quel il aprist en senfance [sic]“ ("This psalter belonged to my lord Saint Louis, who was King of France and from whom he learned [to read] in his childhood.") This text refers to the king Louis IX of France, 1214–1270.

What we call court and court culture today can mean very different things. A royal court around 900 was different from a royal court around 1200. In addition, not only kings and queens cultivated court culture, but also dukes and other members of nobility. Furthermore, the relationship between the nobility and royalty changed several times over the course of the Middle Ages - and here, for example, the situation in French-speaking territories can differ from that in German-speaking territories.

Celebrations at king Arthur’s Court

In addition to the courts of the kings and queens, there were also important courts of the high nobility in the Middle Ages. Such important courts in France were among others those of Aquitaine, Burgundy, Flanders and Champagne. But a court was so much more than just a place where a noble family, their noble entourage and servants lived. From the 12th century onward, a particular culture evolved in the circles of the high nobility. It was characterised by courtly manners, clothing and cultural endeavors. For example, hunting became an activity that was no longer just about getting food. Hunting with dogs and falcons became an integral part of court culture across Europe. At the same time, the courtly tournament was invented. During the competition, the aim was not to kill the opponent; rather, the fight was ritualised as a kind of knightly art and competition. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the courts of France and the Anglo-Norman kings were the trendsetters in medieval Europe. This is evident in other European languages: the English word tournament, the Dutch toernooi, and the German Turnier derive from the old French word tornoi (or tornoiement) and its use in this particular courtly context.

Besides the aspects of court culture already mentioned, education became increasingly important for the high nobility as well. The art of reading was one part of it.

The writing culture of the high Middle Ages was based on Latin. The nobles also learned to read with Latin books. The court clerics were very often the facilitators of reading skills. One first learned to read with Latin religious texts, for example with the Pater Noster, the Credo and the Ave Maria. The psalter was added later, among other texts. This also explains the magnificently arranged prayer books that were often made for the courtly reader. A very beautiful example can be found above: The psalter of King Louis IX of France.

Women also learned to read at court. Some particularly beautiful prayer books bear witness to this. We also know of some aristocratic ladies who were both supporters and patrons of courtly literature. So it is not surprising that in a German manuscript from the early 13th century, Heinrich von Veldeke’s Eneasroman, the noble Latin princess Lavinia is depicted as a woman who can read and even write.

Below: Folio with two different scenes; Lavinia writes a letter to Eneas (top) and Lavinia gives the letter attached to an arrow to an archer (bottom).

Folio with two different scenes: Lavinia writes a letter to Eneas (above) and Lavinia gives the letter attached to an arrow to an archer (below)

The new courtly literature was part of the new court culture of the 12th century. This literature was mainly created and written in the vernacular. Here, too, noble women played a decisive role. For instance, Eleanor of Aquitaine and her eldest daughter Marie de Champagne are known to have been supporters of the poets.

The writing of courtly songs and courtly romances originated in French-speaking countries. Troubadours in the south (Langue d'oc) invented, among other things, new forms of love songs, which were accompanied by a specific stylisation of love. The troubadour began a kind of service to a noble lady of high social status, who was often married and therefore 'distant'. He submits to the will of the always inaccessible women and sings to obtain their favour. This kind of mainly fictional love created through these relationships was referred to as fin’amors (what we call ‘courtly love’ today). Courtly songs technically precede the romances that proliferate in the north (Langue d'oil) which were inspired by concepts of the troubadour poetry. Some of the troubadour’s songs and some of the courtly romances were even translated into other vernacular languages. Whenever they were adopted in other languages, their content was always changed and adapted to the new cultural context.

Courtly songs and romances quickly became part of the trans-European court culture of the 12th and 13th centuries. They were then always written in the language of the poets and their recipients.

Miniature from a manuscript illustrating Der Kürenberge, Middle High German poet (on the left) with a royal figure (on the right).

Marie de Champagne, living at the court of Troyes, also promoted the French poet Chrétien de Troyes whose works became so important to European literature. Chrétien de Troyes was the first to write romances about knights at the court of King Arthur such as Erec and Enide, Yvain or the knight with the lion, and The story of the Grail or the Romance of Perceval. These texts (and many other romances such as Béroul’s Tristan et Iseut) were translated into various vernacular languages as part of the trans-European court culture. The poets have also integrated these courtly texts in their own cultural context. In this way, vernacular literature, and especially courtly romance, was given its own status for the first time.

The Beginning of Yvain le chevalier au lion by Chrétien de Troyes - manuscript with a miniature of a knight in the top left corner

In particular, the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes had a strong influence on European literature in the Middle Ages. A few decades after the first adaptations to the various vernacular languages, independent stories about knights at the court of King Arthur emerged. One example is the mid-13th century Dutch romance Walewein. This romance written by Penninc and Pieter Vostaert presents Walewein (aka Gauvain or Gawain) as a knight of king Arthur's court, confronted with a floating chessboard, that leads him into several adventures.

Knight on a horseback on a red background

Medieval courtly romances had a big impact on European culture – not only in the Middle Ages. Romances like Perceval / Parzival, Tristan or Walewein were adapted by authors, composers, filmmakers and even computer game designers in the 19th, 20th and even the 21st century.

Just as the French courts were the model for the European nobility, court culture soon became a model for the life of the urban upper class in the 13th and 14th century. This also included - among other things - courtly literature. A good example of this is the Codex Manesse from the beginning of the 14th century. Made for the Swiss patrician family Manesse, it contains one of the most important collections of German minstrel songs. It is very likely that this book was compiled and written in Zurich.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, scribal workshops in cities became increasingly important. They produced books that were bought and read in monasteries, at noble courts and by the upper class of the city. In the next chapter, the output of these workshops and the different types of readers will be discussed.