Genes and genius

A French manuscript illumination from 1396 depicting the Greek fabulist Aesop writing at his desk, Paris, BnF, Français 312 f.124r

The genius of the medieval period, among all the ages of European history, is that it explored and experimented, innovated and playfully manipulated all the literary genres, styles and modes we have and conceive of today – the (super)heroic-epic, the lyric, the dramatic, the burlesque, the historical account & chronicle, the panegyric, the satire, the novel, the novella, the rythmic poem, the blank-verse, the vulgar, the obscene, the irreverent as well as the most solemn and ceremonious.

Name one style, and you’ll find it roaming in the enchanted forests of medieval Europe.

Some styles were inherited from the ancient period, which was itself unspeakably prolific, others were created in the thousand years or so which, conventionally, separate Late Antiquity from the Renaissance.

The medievals didn’t perfect any of these styles. They brought them into existence, and set letters on a completely different path. The Renaissance and the humanism on which it was founded claimed to recover the ancient world – which in so many ways it did. But fundamentally, it was a reaction to the medieval culture which it attempted to denigrate, not least by describing it as medieval, an uncomfortable intermission between two glorious acts, the distant past and the all-too-near, all-too-self-imposing present time.

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