Home School Life Journal From Preschool to High School

Home School Life Journal ........... Ceramics by Katie Bergenholtz
"Let us strive to make each moment beautiful."
Saint Francis DeSales

Medieval Art and Literature: Part I: Introduction and Beowulf



The Middle Ages is a time in Europe characterized by a marked rise in Christianity in the West, the emergence of a strong papacy, and the rise of monastic orders, barbarian invasions, decentralization of power and the rise of feudalism. This time period is characterized by an extension of literacy to greater number of people, the rise of vernacular language in Middle English, beginnings of Universities, Romanesque and Gothic styles of art. It was a stormy period and much of our modern thought and music has its roots in this period.  
Scholars disagree, but many say that the Middle Ages began about the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire and continued up to the Renaissance. Geoffrey Chaucer, who died about 1400, is a literary landmark to the beginning of the close of the Middle Ages


Art in the Middle Ages can be described as delicate, detailed, colorful, religious, symbolic and functional  with religious scenes, animal scenes and flower gardens the most popular subject matter. Animal scenes were popular because exploration to the East made tales of strange animal sightings very common. In the cold winter, the Medieval people liked to be reminded of their beautiful flower gardens. Art also depicted pastimes and favorite sports, especially hunting and falconry.
The art of the Middle Ages reflects a new romantic interest that is different from the unsettling war-like interests of earlier literature, like Beowulf. The architecture of the time, Gothic, is first used in ecclesiastical architecture, then on to private estates and castles. The Gothic arches fixed some of the problems with Romanesque architecture with round arches, flying buttresses, high glass windows and pointed arches. 

The Artists

The common medieval artist was someone skilled in his or her craft, working and creating things of beauty and functional use. There were many trade guilds, where trade secrets were shared. Because there were no factories, people such as tailors, carpenters, weavers and potters, did their work by hand. 
Monasteries were islands of peace of artists. The monks were particularly adept at the creation of books, but they also worked with precious stones and made tiny delicate carvings in ivory. Diptychs and triptychs, hinged pictures, were made so that they could be folded up and carried.
Family crests adorned the weaponry, and the saddles. Cloth work was a favorite of Medieval artists -dyed, stamped, woven, patterns. Velvet was invented during this time.  Tapestries were huge and were heavy. 
Jewels were also popular, a continuation of Anglo-Saxon ideals.

Music, Books and Entertainment

Music was of extreme importance in the Middle Ages. Minstrels played harps and fiddles, bagpipes and other wind instruments. 
In the Middle Ages most books belonged to churches, monasteries or universities. Psalters or Books of Psalms were very popular, although they were  mostly made from kings, queens and nobles. The Book of Hours were used during the hours of prayer, and made mostly for the rich. Capital letter were an opportunity for showy, ornamental art.
Chess came to England from the Middle East. Backgammon and other board games were also popular.

Skelton, JR (1908), Beowulf fighting the dragon.

Beowulf: A point of comparison

Hwæt! We began our literature study with Beowulf, to compare and contrast it with the literature that came after it. The Anglo-Saxons told stories about their heroes passed down to us from one bard to another by word of mouth.One of these stories was about a monster named Grendel and the the great warrior who conquered him, Beowulf. The story many have been told and retold for many years before it was finally written down The story was written in poetry.
We enjoyed listening to Seamus Heaney's new verse translation. 

The younger boys enjoyed Michael Morpurgo's picture book. I like the fact that it does not deviate far from the story and has a rich and appropriate vocabulary.

  • I used this study years ago with my daughter, who graduated a few years ago. Because of this, I am not sure if I made this unit up entirely myself or if I found some of it on the internet. If you know if any of this has come from a source I have not credited, please let me know, and I will make the appropriate corrections.

Our next lesson will be about the Norman Conquest and Middle English (1100-1500).


  1. This is SO AWESOME! I was actually just talking to Sarah this week about Grendel from Beowulf and telling her how much I liked the story... but I hadn't known of a good starter version. Now I do! :) You are amazing.

  2. I struggle with Beouwulf because my teacher also paired it with Grendel, and so we had a super violent epic poem paired with an overly sexualized retelling from the villain's point of view. I need to reread it as an adult because right now I'm just not a big fan.


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