Medieval storytellers

By the 13th century, the stories about King Arthur achieved a level of popularity in Europe comparable to that of the blockbuster moves of our generation. Here, a portrait of the legendary king in a 13th-century manuscript, Paris, Arsenal, Ms-3325 f.1r.

The 12th century was arguably the most ‘storytelling’ century of the medieval period. If the Dark Ages – which were not dark at all – were centuries busy consolidating the inheritance of Rome and its literary fusion with Christianity; and the late medieval period showed a renewed interest in classical culture across the board, one of the leading characteristics of the long 12th century was its high literary creativity.

Between around the 1070s and the 1250s, almost everyone who was writing in the West couldn’t stop telling stories. Many of these stories are still part of the European imagination. Think of King Arthur and his court, Merlin, Tristan and Iseult, Roland, Perceval (the ancestor of Wagner’s Parsifal) or El Cid.

Many of the stories told at the time soon became widespread legends. A romance (story written in a Romance-language vernacular), such as Chrétien of Troyes’ Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, was circulating across the continent, not just in the Anglo-French regions where Chrétien had written it, but all the way to Spain, Italy and Germany. For most of the 12th century, Western Europe seemed also united by the tales its storytellers had been spinning.

Even historians couldn’t avoid becoming some of that century’s best storytellers. At one end, we have William of Malmesbury (died around 1143), one of the best historians that age produced, the author of two histories of England which are still readable today. But despite William’s sharp historical acumen, he also dabbled in folktales and fanciful anecdotes, such as miraculous births, unusual discoveries and other vignettes that whetted the appetite of a nascent European readership. At the other end, we have the equally brilliant Geoffrey of Monmouth (died around 1155), perhaps the single most creative mind of his generation. Geoffrey’s challenge was this, why stop short of telling tales as fiction when you can also tell stories as fact? The effect his masterpiece, The History of the Kings of Britain, had was to divide its readers. Some appreciated the originality of his stories. Others, however, complained that he blurred the lines between history and fiction and made a mockery of the former by dissolving it into the latter.

The littérateurs and historians were not the only storytellers. Theologians and moralists joined the game and were telling their own stories, often in allegorical form. We have theologians and thinkers like Hugh of St Victor, Alan of Lille Bernard Silvestris or Henry of Andeli who conveyed eternal truths or ridiculed ther own age under the veil of allegory and satire in gripping narratives, such as Henry of Andeli’s Battle of the Seven Arts, composed around 1230.

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