The medieval Canterbury Tales

What do we mean by ‘medieval'?

The word ‘medieval' refers to ‘the Middle Ages', the period from c.500 to c.1500. This era lies between the achievements of the ancient classical world and the new ways of thinking which came with the Renaissance in Europe. 

One church

The medieval era is also a period before the Protestant Reformation. Since the sixteenth-century Reformation there have been various types of Christianity co-existing and sometimes conflicting in the John Wycliffworld. However, medieval Europe was a wide community of one catholic (universal) Church, referred to as Christendom. There were many conflicts within the Church, such as the reform movement inspired by John Wycliff and the spectacle of two rival popes. However, the peoples of Europe still had a sense of being a unified community. Secular rulers exercised power over their subjects, but always (in theory at least) under the higher rule of the Church and the Pope. Latin, the language of the Church, was the universal language of learning throughout Europe. 

Modes of learning

In Europe, printing had not yet been invented for the majority of the medieval period, arriving only in the second half of the fifteenth century. When books had to be written by hand, they were less common and more expensive to produce, owned only by a few. Instead, people's knowledge came much more from the visual and the spoken, whether in paintings, sermons, plays, or the oral performance of writings—including works such as Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.


Until around 1300, learning and education was under the control of the Church, and all conducted in Latin, with only texts written in Latin available. However, from around 1300 onwards (known as the late medieval period), there developed increasing use of vernacular languages — Italian, French, English, Spanish and so on — for literature and even for learned books (history, for example). This meant that speakers of ‘the common tongue' could begin to enter areas of intellectual life previously dominated by educated clerics. The development of an increasingly large number of literate, usually upper-class, laymen and women is reflected in the ever-increasing appearance of serious books in the vernacular on both religious and secular subjects.

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