The medieval period was marked by many upheavals for Europe. The early medieval period was marked by the rapid migration of Germanic tribes into Europe who were soon influenced by the Catholic faith and aided in establishing a firm Christian identity for Europe.
In time, kingdoms and Empire were born across Europe and various inventors, artists, poets and intellectuals helped carve a unique culture of the Continent. Following are some of the most notable of such personalities.
Venerable Bede was a priest and scholar in Anglo-Saxon England during the late 7th and early 8th centuries. Bede’s claim to fame was his intellectual pursuits at the monastery of Saint Peter in the Kingdom of Northumbria.
The Last Chapter
Being the most learned and scholastic Anglo-Saxon of his period, Bede penned down a large number of books. The most significant of these is the “Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum” or “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People”.
As a historian of the period, Bede is considered one of the earliest historians of post-Roman Christian Europe. Equally significantly, Bede’s ‘Magnus Opus’ gained widespread fame in Continental Europe of the 8th and 9th centuries, so much so that his books were sought after in the Carolingian Empire as well as by the Catholic Church.
Geoffrey Chaucer *1340 – 1400
Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the greatest poets of the English language who essentially cemented the use of English in England through his poetry.
Born in the 14th century, Chaucer led an active and long career as a bureaucrat and a diplomat while also maintaining a parallel career as a scholar, author, poet, and intellectual.
He wrote and promoted the English language at a time when French and Latin were still very strong influences in England. His choice of using English is seen by many as one of the major factors which enriched the English vernacular and decided its place in England.
Medieval Poems – The Canterbury tales was written by Geoffrey Chaucer and are a collection of 20 short medieval stories.
The most famous work of poetry by Chaucer is “The Canterbury Tales” while “The Book of the Duchess” is also celebrated as one of his major works.
Geoffrey of Monmouth *1095 – 1155
Geoffrey of Monmouth was a Welsh cleric in the 12th century who occupied an eminent position as a historian of Britain. The most notable work of Geoffrey is the “Historia Regum Britanniae” or “History of the Kings of Britain”.
Geoffrey’s key claim to fame was the purported history of old Celtic Kings of Britain which he wrote, the most important was the apocryphal tales of King Arthur.
Although most of his accounts in the aforementioned book have proved historically untenable today, his book remained a widely accepted piece of British history well until the 16th century. In fact, to him is owed the enduring popularity of King Arthur and related tales which eventually became a permanent part of British legend.
Thomas Aquinas was an immensely influential thinker and Dominican friar of the 13th century. Apart from his significant contribution to the theological discussions of the day, he played a vital role in bringing Aristotelian thought in sync with Church doctrines.
He accordingly created a vast body of literature that dealt with theological discussions in view of natural philosophy, dealing with subjects such as metaphysics, ethics, political order, psychology, and natural law.
His literature on the subject spurred the European discussion of Aristotle onto new paths, eventually becoming vital to later philosophers who would support or oppose him. Aquinas remains a vital influence on modern literature, philosophy, and science to this day.
Francis Bacon *1561 – 1626 *Post Medieval Period
Francis Bacon was an English philosopher and author who was born in the second half of the 16th century and died in 1626. He is hailed as the very figure who laid the basis for the modern scientific method, scientific inquiry, and empiricism.
Although leading an active life as a statesman and a jurist, Bacon dedicated his life to scientific inquiry and pursuit of empirical evidence of different sciences. He ushered in the possibility of using inductive methods to study nature and seek facts upon which different sciences can be built.
His “Novum Organum” is considered one of his most important works which foreshadowed the coming age of science, industry and moral sciences. A vast number of later works of great significant, such as the Napoleonic Code, are said to be based on the jurisprudence of Francis Bacon.
Giovanni Boccaccio *1313 – 1375
Giovanni Boccaccio was an Italian poet and scholar who lived in the 14th century. He descended from a Florentine family of influence but spent a significant time at Naples where he was exposed to the courtly culture of chivalry and passionate love.
It was here that the literary career of Boccaccio began. He would then go on to span a long career as a poet and a scholar. As a poet, he focused on humanism and the ability to bring the limelight to everyday scenes of tragedy and comedy.
As a scholar, he sought to establish a direct link between late medieval Europe and the classical Greek and Latin literature, seeking to learn from the pagan cultures which produced these bodies of literature.
His work became a key part of the subsequent Renaissance which embraced the principles of humanism and the ideals of classical antiquity.
Raphael Holinshed c. 1525 – 1582 *Post Medieval Period
Raphael Holinshed was an English author in the 16th century who worked on the famous “Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland”. Holinshed came to work on the book after he was hired by a London printer to write the history of the world, from the Biblical flood all the way until the 16th century.
In lieu of this ambitious work, Holinshed came to write an extensive history of the British Isles which was the extent to which this project proceeded.
However, the aforementioned work of Holinshed proved popular and William Shakespeare drew heavily on the work to acquire materials for his plays. Especially in Macbeth, Shakespeare drew most of his plot from Holinshed’s Chronicles.
Other English playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe also used the work as a source for their own writings.
lively comedies such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, and Twelfth Night.
Guillaume de Machaut c. 1300 – April 1377
Guillaume de Machaut was one of the most famous and accomplished composers of music in the late medieval period. During the Ars Nova movement which ushered in the late medieval music of France, Machaut became the most significant and versatile exponents of it in the 14th century.
His strengths lay primarily in the sheer volume of music he composed and the sheer diversity he exercises in experimenting with many different forms and genres, often in unconventional styles.
He also helped developed secular musical forms of the period including rondeau, virelai, lai as well as the motet. One of his most significant compositions is the Messe de Notre Dame which is the first complete mass composed by a single individual.
Thomas Beckett *c. 1120 – 1170
Thomas Beckett was a venerated saint of the Roman Catholic Church who lived in the 12th century. He was the Archbishop of Canterbury in the later 12th century when he famously came in conflict with the interests of the English monarch, Henry II.
Medieval King Henry VII image with his friend Thomas Beckett
Henry II sought to interfere in the powers and privileges of the Church, especially regarding the coronation of the English monarch.
He was aided in this by the support of a number of bishops. Beckett, being the supreme ecclesiastical authority in England, excommunicated the bishops. Henry II responded by purportedly encouraging the assassination of Beckett which took place December 1170.
Beckett soon became a widely venerated martyr of the Church and people began to flock on a pilgrimage to his shrine at the Canterbury Cathedral.
Averroes *1126 – 1198
Averroes, whose original name was Ibn Rushd, was a highly accomplished polymath in medieval Spain during Moorish rule. Living in the 12th century, Rushd richly drew on the Aristotelian literature, furnishing translations and commentaries of the noted Greek philosopher.
His commentaries and translations would later make it possible for medieval Europe to rediscover the Greek classical literature, contributing to the Renaissance.
Renaissance Europe came to regard him as “The Commentator” following his extensive commentaries on Aristotle’s books. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, drew on his commentaries when expounding on his own views regarding Aristotelian philosophy.
Rushd wrote authoritative texts on a wide variety of subjects including music theory, mathematics, psychology, theology, Islamic philosophy, logic, physics, astronomy, and medicine.
Dante Alighieri *c. 1265 – 1321
Dante Alighieri was one of the foremost poets of medieval Europe. Born in 1265, he was actively involved in the internal politics of Florence at a time when the city was rife with political feuds and armed conflicts.
He was among the first to make a decisive departure from the elitist Latin language and decided to write in the vernacular, laying the basis for Italian as a language.
He then went on to produce a rich literature of poetry in Italian which made him one of the greatest European poets of the medieval period and the greatest Italian poet whose legacy has endured intact to this day.
Dante’s magnum opus is the “Divine Comedy” which is a poetic masterpiece that employed the use of a special three-line scheme specifically coined by him.
The Divine Comedy went on to influence writers, thinkers, artists, and poets throughout the late medieval period and the Renaissance, down to this day.
William of Ockham c. 1287 – 1347
William of Ockham was a 14th-century Franciscan friar in England who became one of the most prominent figures of the century regarding subjects such as philosophy, logic, physics, and theology.
Although he held faith to be critically essential for access to divine truth, Ockham devised many theorems and principles which would aid in the form and method of contemporary philosophical debates.
He is considered the pioneer of nominalism and one of the most important methodological principles that he coined came to be known as the Occam’s razor.
He also dealt with natural philosophy in detail, with political theory and theory of knowledge. Along with Thomas Aquinas, Ockham eventually came to be regarded as one of the pillars of medieval Catholic philosophy.
Leonardo da Vinci *Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci *1452 – 1519
Leonardo da Vinci was one of the most gifted, versatile, accomplished, and well-known persons of the late medieval and early Renaissance period.
His range of skills and talents surpassed that of most of the artists of all time and it is for this reason that he is often considered a “universal genius par excellence”. Born in 15th century Italy, Da Vinci would go on to work become one of the most accomplished painters, architects, sculptors, and inventors of the time.
His interests included subjects as widely apart as botany and music, history and astronomy, engineering and cartography. Among his most recognizable paintings is the Mona Lisa while his most significant religious painting is The Last Supper.
As an inventor, he conceived designs for many objects which would actually come into being only centuries later. These include the helicopter, solar power, flying vehicles, and parachutes among others.
Johannes Gutenberg *c. 1400 – 1468
Johannes Gutenberg was a goldsmith and printer in 15th century Germany. Being involved in the printing industry, Gutenberg was keenly aware of the painfully slow process of printing which limited the publication of books.
Such slow printing also meant that books were expensive and only the rich could afford them. Gutenberg combined his prowess as a goldsmith with his vision as a printer to create a new printing press that was a lot faster and allowed mass production of books.
In 1436 Johannes Gutenberg decided to make use of the previously available and traditional screw press and combine its prowess with new pieces of equipment that he himself invented.
His invention single-handedly revolutionized the printing industry of the period, effectively launching a literary revolution across Europe.
The invention of the press made it possible for books to be available for all sections of society and bolstered the middle and lower classes. The press also became a key invention that contributed to the European Renaissance.
Petrarch *1304 – 1374
Petrarch was a 14th-century Italian scholar and poet who became one of the earliest to embody the humanist ideals that would usher in the Renaissance.
The most notable achievement of Petrarch’s is his extensive exposure to works of classical antiquity, those of Greece and Rome, which allowed him a sound comparison between antiquity and his contemporary period.
Consequently, Petrarch borrowed many elements from antiquity to implement them with just rigor and excellence in his own time. He was considered one of the most accomplished poets of his period and his lyrical poetry became immensely popular in Renaissance Europe.
Regiomontanus was an accomplished mathematician, astrologer, and astronomer in 15th century Germany. He penned down a detailed treatise on astronomy in 1474 called “Ephemerides”.
This treatise, although not entirely accurate, summed up his detailed knowledge in the various related fields and continued to be of vital importance to navigators and researchers alike for the next few centuries.
Ephemerides were most popularly used by explorers such as Christopher Columbus in their long voyages in the sea.