The number of texts we can define as specifically literary in this period of the use of Latin in Britain is relatively small as Latin was primarily used for practical purposes rather than for texts that had an entertainment value or an inherent value as well-crafted works of art. Still, many practical texts show important inherited or innovated literary features in their form or style.

Since it was the Christian church which became the chief education provider from the early Middle Ages, the curriculum was inevitably dominated by study of the Bible and of the works of the Church Fathers, such as Jerome and Augustine. And yet familiarity with some of the great products of Classical Latin literature, such as the works of Vergil, Ovid, or Juvenal, did not die out since such texts were often used not only to teach about various literary forms and to provide elegant Latin phrases but also for education about ancient myths, historical figures, and ethics, all of which could be used by the Latin writers of the Middle Ages.


It is true that we have few examples of attempts to emulate the epic poetry of Ovid, Vergil, or Lucan, or the witty love poetry of Ovid, or the satirical poems of Juvenal, partly because such poetry would have been regarded as largely irrelevant to the lives of those who were sufficiently educated to write it and read it. We do, however, have such epic poems as the retelling of the Trojan War in by Joseph of Exeter and the recasting of contemporary events by Guy of Amiens in his poem about the Battle of Hastings.

In later years we also have satirical works of poetry and prose directed against traditional subjects such as women, marriage, and human weakness and also against specific targets within the church — in a few anonymous Goliardic poems and in works by Walter Map, Nigel Wireker, Gerald of Wales, and Laurence of Durham, for example. And we have works of urbane anecdotal amusement, such as the De Nugis Curialium (‘Courtiers' Trifles’) by Walter Map and the Otia Imperialia (‘Recreation for an Emperor’) by Gervase of Tilbury.

Among shorter verse forms, we find several collections of riddles from the Anglo-Saxon period. Much other verse throughout the medieval period was composed for some practical purpose, for instance epitaphs, hymns and other devotional texts.

One notable development in Medieval Latin poetry was in the form of the verse used. Writers continued to use the most popular Classical Latin verse forms that depended on the weight of each syllable, the dactylic hexameter and the elegiac couplet, while occasionally introducing slightly different rules for their usage. Interest in verse forms is demonstrated from an early stage in the medieval period by such detailed handbooks on the subject as Aldhelm's De metris and De pedum regulis and Bede's De arte metrica. Alongside this quantitative form of verse, rhythmical verse, formed from combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables, became increasingly popular. The use of rhyme, after a slow start, exploded onto the scene from the eleventh century, with a variety of end-rhymes and internal rhymes employed for example by writers of religious verse such as John of Howden and Walter of Wimborne, and by writers of satirical verse, as in the rhyming, punning attacks of Michael of Cornwall on his fellow poet Henry of Avranches.

Saints' Lives

If, however, we look at literature as something beyond an elegant leisure-time pleasure we see that many literary genres that had developed in classical antiquity were successfully adapted to the new social and religious context, often by way of literary developments in late antiquity. For example, the writing of biblical and allegorical epic by Sedulius and Prudentius influenced the work of the twelfth century writer of the Architrenius while the biographies of desert saints and early ascetics by such writers as Athanasius, Jerome, and Sulpicius Severus inspired the numerous lives of British saints active in Britain or in Europe written in both prose and verse throughout the medieval period, works such as the Life of St. Cuthbert, the Life of Guthlac, or the adventures of St. Brendan.

Rhetoric and sermons

The study of rhetoric continued in the medieval curriculum, as can be seen not only in the production of rhetorical handbooks such as the works of John of Garland and Gervase of Melkley or works on the art of preaching by Thomas Chobham and John Bromyard, but also in the writing of powerful sermons, such as those of Bede, or (in the twelfth century) Gilbert of Hoyland, Ailred of Rievaulx, Baldwin of Canterbury, and John of Ford and works of theological discussion, such as the dialogues between Christians, Jews, and pagan philosophers by Gilbert Crispin.


Not surprisingly, the writing of letters provided an opportunity for the production of works of a high literary standard, while also being of a personal nature, even when the letters also served a practical purpose: the collection of St. Anselm’s letters offers many examples of pieces of exquisite intellectual and literary beauty. The letters of Alcuin, Gilbert Foliot, John of Salisbury, and Peter of Blois are also full of historical, theological and literary interest.


Another classical genre that thrived in the Middle Ages was that of the writing of history, often in a highly elegant and literary style, from the work of Gildas in the sixth century, through the great histories — whether of recent events or of times long gone — of Bede, William of Malmesbury, Orderic Vitalis, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Matthew Paris.

Devotional and mystical literature

An important area of literary activity which is perhaps less clearly connected with classical literature is that of devotional and mystical literature, works of spiritual direction or records of personal mystical experience, of which there is an abundance in the later Middle Ages, such as the meditations of St. Anselm, some of the writings of Ailred of Rievaulx, the meditations by a solitary of Farne, and the writings of Richard Rolle.