Medieval European literature is both broader and deeper in its basis than what is usually offered in literary histories with their focus only on a narrow canon and on vernacular languages. One way to see this bigger canvas is to consider technical and statistical book-historical factors together with the authority of the two Roman Empires (Western and Eastern) and of their religious hierarchies (the papacy and the patriarchate). A coordinated reading of developments in the Latin West and the Greek East—though rarely directly related—brings out some main features of intellectual and literary life in most of Europe. With this focus, a literary chronology emerges—as a supplement to existing narratives based on either national or formal (genre) concerns: the period c. 600 to c. 1450 can be considered a unity in book-historical terms, namely the era dominated the hand-written codex. It is also delimited by the fate of the Roman Empire with the Latin West effectively separated from the Greek Empire by c. 600 and the end of Constantinople in 1453. Within this broad framework, three distinctive phases of book- and intellectual history can be discerned: the exegetical (c. 600–c. 1050), the experimental (c. 1050–c. 1300), and the critical (c. 1300–c. 1450). These three headings should be understood as a shorthand for what was new in each phase, not as a general characteristic, especially because exegesis in various forms continued to lie at the heart of reading and writing books in all relevant languages.
Lars Boje Mortensen
The term poetics designates both a field of study and the practice of a particular author or group of authors. Aristotle’s Poetics, the most important work of literary theory in the Western tradition, undertakes to describe in systematic fashion the major forms of literature, the components of each, and how these elements contribute to the effects desired. Aristotle proceeds on the assumption that there is a comprehensive structure of knowledge attainable about poetry, which is not the experience of poetry, but poetics. Such a poetics treats literature as an autonomous object of knowledge, whose major genres or forms it seeks to analyze. This is an explicit poetics; but we also speak of the poetics implicit in the work of an individual writer, or of a group of writers, or of the literature of an era, as in The Poetics of Dante’s Paradiso, or even The Poetics of Postmodernism, which focus on the characteristic techniques, compositional habits, and ways of treating subjects in the literary practice under consideration. As the latter title indicates, the term poetics is used even when the literature treated does not include much poetry. Poetics can be distinguished from literary history, in that it focuses on literature as a system of possibilities rather than as a historical sequence or a practice in history, although categories from poetics will be important for any study of the evolution of literature. In literary theory, poetics is set apart for concentrating on intrinsic characteristics of literature as a system, as opposed to treating it as a phenomenon to be explained in social, historical, economic, or psychological terms. Poetics is particularly distinguished from hermeneutics or interpretation, in that it does not attempt to determine the meaning of literary works but asks how they function: What are characteristics of different literary genres and their constituents? How do their various elements work together to produce the effects they do for readers? Many contributions to the theory of literature can be seen as contributions to poetics, insofar as they try to explain the nature of literature and describe some of its major forms, even if they are presented as arguments about the literary practice of a particular period or literary mode. Western poetics begins with Aristotle, whose poetics is based on drama: literature is defined an imitation of action, in which plot is central. In Chinese and Japanese cultures, by contrast, foundational poetics have been drawn from lyric poetry and have focused on affect and expression rather than on representation. In the history of Western poetics mimesis has remained fundamental, despite changes that, from time to time, treat literature as the expression of the experience of the author or the attempt to create certain experiences for the reader.
The eddas and sagas are literary works written in Iceland in the 13th and 14th centuries but incorporating memories preserved orally from preliterate times of (a) Norse myths, in prose and verse form, (b) heroic lays with common Germanic roots, (c) raiding and trading voyages of the Viking Age (800–1030 CE), and (d) the settlement of Iceland from Norway, Britain, and Ireland starting from the 870s and of life in the new country up to and beyond the conversion to Christianity in the year 1000. In their writing, these works show the influence of the learning and literature introduced to Iceland from the 11th century on through the educational system of the medieval Church. During these centuries, the Icelanders translated the lives of the principal saints, produced saga biographies of their own bishops, and recorded accounts of events and conflicts contemporary with their authors. They also produced conventional chronicles on European models of the kings of Norway and Denmark and large quantities of works, both translated and original, in the spirit of medieval chivalry. The eddas and sagas, however, reflect a unique and original departure that has no direct analogue in mainland Europe—the creation of new works and genres rooted in the secular tradition of oral learning and storytelling. This tradition encompassed the Icelanders’ worldview in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries and their understanding of events, people, and chronology going back to the 9th century, and their experience of an environment that extended over the parts of the world known to the Norsemen of the Viking Age, both on earth and in heaven. The infrastructure that underlay this system of learning was a knowledge of the regnal years of kings who employed court poets to memorialize their lives, and stories that were told in connection with what people observed in the heavens and on earth, near and far, by linking the stories with individual journeys, dwellings, and the genealogies of the leading protagonists. In this world, people here on earth envisaged the gods as having their halls and dwellings in the sky among the stars and the sun, while beyond the ocean and beneath the furthest horizon lay the world of the giants. In Viking times, this furthest horizon shifted little by little westwards, from the seas around Norway and Britain to the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, and eventually still farther south and west to previously unknown lands that people in Iceland retained memories of the ancestors having discovered and explored around the year 1000—Helluland, Markland, and Vínland—where they came into contact with the native inhabitants of the continent known as North America.