Pulp Fiction in Medieval Latin Literature?

Pulp fiction is a term that is generally not used in connection to medieval culture. Its definitions usually include the etymology of the word, which points to the specific context of its origin in the 19th century. For example, the definition offered by Lee Server:

… Originally used to describe a mere physical characteristic of the periodicals of the 1880s to 1950s whose pages were made from the cheapest grade of pulpwood paper, the word came to have an expanded meaning both categoric and aesthetic: pulp as a genus of imaginative reading matter distinguished by mass production, affordability, an intended audience of common as opposed to elite readers, a dependence on formula and genre; and pulp as a literature aimed at the pleasure centers of the reader, primarily concerned with sensation and escape, variously intended to excite, astonish, or arouse. Pulp … owes its existence to revolutionary developments of the 19th century, enlightened and industrious years before which the possibilities for a truly popular literature were severely restricted. Few people could read, for one thing. Methods of producing printed works were time‑consuming and costly, and their distribution limited (Server 2002, p. xi).

Thus, looking for pulp fiction in the Middle Ages can be carried out merely as an intellectual exercise: crucial aspects of this literary type — mass circulation and wide popularity — are simply missing in medieval culture where literacy tended to be an elite phenomenon._1 In the Middle Ages, there is no such thing as literature aimed at “common” readers because reading itself is not a “common” activity. No medieval text can thus be categorized as pulp fiction.

On the other hand, several components of the usual definition of the pulp fiction, for example “dependence on formula” from the above quote, or other frequently cited aspects — such as the lack of originality, variation rather than innovation, mechanical composition, the use of clichés and language patterns — are easily applicable to the writings of the Middle Ages in general. Its stereotypical or “boilerplate” character is partly the reason why most medieval literature was considered “low brow” in the early modern period. Again, although such a simplified view of a complex set of writing is surely mistaken, it is true that the medieval notion of authorship differed from the modern one._2 Whatever the authors were in fact doing, they did not explicitly aspire to be original or innovative but rather to continue to draw on established and shared wisdom. In medieval culture, variation of existing models was generally not a sign of decay but rather an expression of admiration. In this sense we achieve the other extreme: almost all medieval literature could be considered pulp fiction.

One of the reasons that we do not regard medieval literature this way, however, stems perhaps from the idea of the “seriousness” of medieval texts, at least those in Latin, which are perceived as solemn and religious, while the vernacular ones are seen as playful and geared toward the laity. Also judging from the selection of medieval texts included in our school curricula it is indeed vernacular literature that may seem to act as an intellectually undemanding pastime of the kind that pulp fiction is supposed to provide. Literature in vernacular, from its origin, makes the impression of being natural rather than artificial,_3 personal rather than official, and amusing rather than serious.

Indeed, the few studies that search for pulp fiction in the Middle Ages all find it in vernacular literature._4 Usually, these analyses do not provide a general definition of medieval pulp fiction but stress its characteristic aspects, especially the low prestige in modern scholarship_5 and the contents of the texts (they are stories full of suspense, violence, sex and supernatural events). Yet, the scholarly neglect is no longer true (see below), and the content features I have just mentioned can be found in medieval Latin literature, too. In addition, until the Late Middle Ages (especially the 14th and 15th centuries), it cannot be taken for granted that vernacular texts would be more widely circulated or affordable. Vernacular literature, too, was the literature of literate elites.

A number of recent studies persuasively show that there are no such clear borderlines between the use of the Latin and vernacular; medieval languages did not each have a well‑defined area of operation, and the relationships among them were very complex._6 It is also not the case that the vernacular was more “natural” — the complicated process of the vernacular becoming a written language included following Latin as a model. Also the birth (or rather re‑birth) and rise of fiction was not limited to vernaculars, although this development has been repeatedly connected primarily with them by scholars._7 These points are made, for example, by Jan Ziolkowski, in the particular context of medieval Latin fairy tales. Ziolkowski identifies four literary types that are precursors of the modern fairy tale: a modus or a ridiculum, court‑connected miscellanies, a frame tale, and compendia of exempla. He argues for a new aesthetics of fiction of the marvelous as already developed within Latin literature, not coterminous with the rise of the vernacular._8 He concludes:

… I have implied that a new openness toward short fiction developed in Latin in the eleventh century and grew in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. A further suggestion would be that the short forms in Latin from 1200 and earlier set the stage for the rise of short fiction in the vernaculars […]
In Western culture, it has become ever more difficult, ever more alien, to appreciate the functions that Latinity served in the Middle Ages. Not just the language of the Scriptures and liturgy, not just the vehicle for solemnifying treaties and contracts, not just the medium of scholastic disputations, Latin was also a channel for experimentation and entertainment. Not all Medieval Latin writers were adventurous or playful souls. But authors who opted to write in the learned language may sometimes have enjoyed greater latitude than those who chose the vernacular. Latin writers operated within the ambit of a language that required an education that formed its users not merely linguistically but also morally and culturally. Because Latin belonged to a special in‑group, those who employed it were allowed to venture into areas that might have been riskier for vernacular writers (Ziolkowski, p. 236, 239).

Medieval Latin texts do not avoid amusement at all. On the contrary, they often use it in a degree that surprises or even shocks today’s reader as blasphemous._9 Entertaining aspects are found across the genres (for example in historiography, hagiography, sermons, or didactic treatises). Yet, one could say that the amusing elements in the Middle Ages are almost invariably, if only implicitly, linked to moral (Christian) interpretations of texts. This is perhaps most clear within the genre of medieval exempla — often very entertaining stories, which, by themselves, would qualify as amusement. In the medieval context, however, they are always followed by a moral teaching to be drawn from them. The combination of a funny story with a serious moral can be striking and it can be difficult to believe that such exempla were ever taken seriously. Yet, this is more likely, again, a sign of the creative way in which medieval Christian doctrine used amusement for its reinforcement._10 Thus there is a difference in aim in stimulating amusement: trying to move and change a person as opposed to merely entertaining an audience.

The mixture of entertainment and usefulness (delectatio et utilitas) is omnipresent in medieval textual culture (see, e.g., Suchomski 1975). Contrary to frequent scholarly assumptions, one of the most entertaining medieval genres is didactic literature. Didactic texts actively apply the concept that what one acquires when certain emotions are evoked (laughter being one of the more powerful ones) will better stick in one’s memory._11 Some scholars go further by stating that delectatio is sometimes the primary intended function of a medieval text. For example, Tony Hunt concludes his inspection of literary attitudes to pleasure and instruction in the 12th and the 13th centuries by saying, “there was much literature written for no purpose beyond the provision of delectatio, which was felt to be entirely justifiable” (Hunt 1979, pp. 17–35). Glending Olson claims the same: there was literature designed for pure entertainment (Olson 1982). Using medical treatises which stress the positive effect of a happy mind on preserving one’s health, Olson shows that the pleasure actually is use._12 Further examples can be found in other types of sources._13

In spite of these individual examples (from both Latin and vernacular texts), introducing the distinction into high and low types of medieval literature would be an anachronism._14 What is possible to distinguish are texts that were appreciated and texts that were refused by later scholarship — and indeed this criterion has been applied in analyzing medieval vernacular “pulp fiction”: it is repeatedly stressed that this type of text has been unjustly overlooked by scholars._15 Meanwhile, however, the current trend is just the opposite: medieval low brow texts now enjoy unprecedented scholarly attention, and thus the criterion of scholarly neglect gradually loses its relevance._16

The “material” definition of pulp fiction — that is, the definition based on the material medium of this type of texts — is not entirely irrelevant for the Middle Ages. While many medieval texts are written on expensive parchment, richly illuminated and carefully bound, and meant for group rather than individual use, towards the late Middle Ages paper begins to be used in Western Europe. This cheaper medium makes it possible to create codices with texts selected and copied for personal use. It was usually clergy (especially members of the mendicant orders) and university students and teachers who would own such books containing popular and widely diffused texts.

Among such widespread texts, there is, for example, the Elucidarium by Honorius Augustodunensis (H. of Autun, fl. first half of the 12th c.). It is a kind of catechism but built as a vivid dialogue between a master and a pupil. While the pupil asks innocent, common sense questions, the master gives simple and often amusing answers. Many of the questions were in fact discussed in long theological treatises of the time, and the answers of the master from the Elucidarium are often not only simplified but plainly wrong from the contemporary theological perspective. As any popularization, the Elucidarium has strong aspects of amusement and includes graspable but possibly misleading information._17 Still in the Middle Ages, the text spread throughout Europe and was translated into several vernaculars (see e.g. Gottschall 1992). Similarly, there is, for example, the Historia scholastica by Petrus Comestor (d. ca. 1178) summarizing the most important information contained in the Bible, and also providing amusement._18 Compared to the long and obscure Bible, Historia scholastica is substantially shorter and more reader‑friendly, while promising to contain the same necessary information. This retelling of the Bible, too, became extremely widespread soon after its appearance, until it was omnipresent in Europe. Most popular of all were brief devotional verses and short treatises, as well as hagiographical stories and sermons. These are also most difficult to survey since they circulated anonymously without fixed titles and in many different versions._19 Yet, they do seem to form a kind of a group, even if defined primarily by popularity, unknown authorship, patterns and repetitiveness (and, until recently, the researchers’ neglect).

It is, on the one hand, impossible to make a simple equation between the number of extant manuscripts of a text and the notion of its popularity. As already mentioned, all written culture in the Middle Ages is an elite culture, and thus most extant manuscripts convey “officially approved” texts: since most copying was carried out in “official” environments, the majority of texts that would not have been approved would not even get copied, or would have had a complicated transmission. In this way, the price of the material medium limited access to it and thus influenced what has come down to us at all. At the same time, even within medieval written culture it is possible to distinguish between more and less durable material, and it would be exactly the paper quires and unbound booklets that would be both more closely linked to wider readership and more likely to perish. There have been methods suggested for estimating the actual ratio between the number of the originally copied and surviving manuscripts._20 It is, in any case, definitely possible that some texts were popular even though they survive only in a limited number of manuscripts. At the same time, it can surely be said that texts that survive in a substantial number of copies were widely read._21

Many widely circulating medieval texts survive, but the problem with studying them lies in the fact that most of them have not yet been edited. They are only accessible through manuscripts, and, exactly since they were so popular, the manuscripts differ often widely from one another, containing significant additions, omissions and changes; they are “open texts” — very exciting for a student of textual reception and transmission, but extremely challenging for an editor. Thus, although contemporary scholarship no longer neglects and rejects the texts previously considered low quality and unoriginal, this interest is not yet matched by adequate editing efforts which would make these texts more easily accessible and interpretable._22

There is yet another problem: today’s reader would most probably refuse the idea that these texts can be called pulp fiction on the basis of their contents — they are mostly concerned with devotion, virtues and vices, morals, and with ways to achieve salvation. They are more digestible alternatives to medieval intellectual scientific treatises and reader‑friendly supplementary material to religious education. However widespread, popular, and neglected by scholars, can they be called “fiction”, strictly speaking?

In fact, they mostly can. The word “fiction” may mean either “untrue”, or “appealing to imagination”, and it is the second sense that is relevant here. Already Northrop Frye successfully justified approaching the Bible as literature (Frye 1982), and there is no doubt that the Bible contains many captivating stories. It was precisely these stories (rather than biblical non‑narrative passages) that were most frequently included in popular biblical retellings (see e.g. Doležalová 2010, pp. 229–244). Besides, the definition of pulp fiction quoted at the very beginning of this contribution does not in fact speak about “fictionality”, but only of “imaginative reading matter… aimed at the pleasure centers of the reader, primarily concerned with sensation and escape, variously intended to excite, astonish, or arouse.” The texts described above are not aimed only at “the pleasure centers of the reader” but are certainly meant to “excite, astonish, or arouse” — in fact so deeply as to affect the reader’s behavior. As far as “sensation and escape” are concerned, they are present, too: these texts ask readers to forget their present problems and think of life after death (frequently described in intricate detail including — again — sex, blood, pain, pleasure, etc.), or an ideal life (of Christ, of a saint, or of oneself if one’s morals were flawless). In a way, both pulp fiction and medieval popular (apocalyptic, meditative, or religious) literature offer a “break” from the present situation before returning to the everyday struggle. They are certainly “highly imaginative”, and from the imaginary trip they offer, one should return stronger and ready to face the present adversities as ephemeral; everyday life should become easier to endure.

Although it would be an exaggeration to insist on categorizing these medieval Latin texts as “pulp fiction”, the two groups do share a surprising number of aspects: wide circulation (i.e., “popularity” within medieval limits), accessibility and attractiveness to a larger readership, (until recently) scholarly neglect, and an imaginative (sometimes even escapist) character. Like pulp fiction, these texts are not admirable results of the creative geniuses of their time, but instead provide a more down‑to‑earth insight into the actual practices of medieval reading, writing, and meditating beyond the exclusive elite context.


* This study originated in the development of scientific branches at Charles University No. P09 Literature and Art in International Relations, subroutine Pulp fiction: “trivial” and “low” genres of literature in terms of historical development and in terms of popular culture concepts. I am very grateful to Michael van Dussen for his corrections and helpful comments. The present article is an outline which shall be elaborated in future.

The subject of medieval literacy is a huge one. Recent scholarship stresses the fact that there was not simply orality at the beginning, gradually replaced by literacy, but that there were various levels of literacy interacting with levels of orality. The subject of orality (and the consideration whether we could and should speak of “oral pulp fiction”) exceeds the framework of the present study, which is concerned only with written culture. For a recent discussion on the relationship between orality and literacy during the Middle Ages, see Ranković 2010.

For discussions of the medieval notion of authorship, see e.g. Minnis 1988, Ziolkowski 2009, pp. 421–448, Andersen 1998, Greene 2006, Coxon 2001, Partridge — Kwakkel 2011, Ranković 2012, Hobbins 2009.

It is true that, as opposed to the vernacular, medieval Latin was no one’s mother tongue (it was a so‑called “father language”). Its use always followed upon formal study that was not accessible to everyone. Yet, this does not mean that it was artificial.

Cf. e.g. McDonald 2004, or Lieb — Neudeck 2006. For more discussion on medieval English romance, see Putter — Gilbert 2000; Pearsall 1985, pp. 37–47.

E.g., McDonald, in the introduction to the Pulp Fictions of Medieval England, says: “…romance’s low prestige is one of the few critical certainties” (p. 1).

Medieval multilingualism and the variety of language registers are other recurring subjects in contemporary scholarship, see e.g. Kleinhenz — Busby 2011.

Among the most influential studies, see Green 2002.

“A culture in which the production of manuscripts required great investment of resources (in both the time of scribes and the cost of writing materials) could not have the equivalent of modern‑day ‘junk reading’, but the titles of Walter’s and Gervase’s works (i.e. De nugis curialium /Trifles of courtiers/ and Otia imperialia /Recreation for an Emperor/ — my note) offer testimony of movement in that direction. Both of these forms indicate that in the latter half of the twelfth century the princes of the church and state were cultivating interests in collecting marvels both real and written. Though it may be true that this coincidence of marvelous objects and texts was not yet on the scale that the sixteenth century would witness, a new aesthetic was taking shape” (Ziolkowski 2007, p. 234).

For monastic laughter, see e.g. Le Goff 1990, pp. 93–103, Resnick 1987, pp. 90–100, or Porter 1976, pp. 5–15.

Similarly, for example, Hrotswitha of Gandersheim used blood and sex scenes in her plays (beautiful virgins are usually tempted and eventually killed by evil pagans) to show strong personal morals and thus to promote Christianity.

There is ample literature on the creative role of memory in the Middle Ages. Most influential is doubtlessly Carruthers 1990. The link between emotions and memory is made already in the Rhetorica ad Herennium (ca. 80 B. C.), and was used and elaborated especially in the art of memory of the Late Middle Ages.

This becomes especially important at the time of the plague — and Olson’s main example and subject of analysis is, not surprisingly, the Decameron. For further analysis of the love of books, among other aspects as a place of refuge, see Cerquiglini‑Toulet 1993, who concentrates on Old French literature.

For example, within the usual accessus ad auctores structure, it is the parts called intentio auctoris (the author’s intention) and utilitas libri (the use of the book) where delectatio can be and sometimes is mentioned, see Meyer 1997, pp. 390–413. E. K. Rand claims: “The comments are not always what we should expect, that is, if we cling to the widely disseminated idea… that the medieval reader, spiritually sharpened by a training in allegory, heard nothing but the mystical overtones in Ovid’s works, such as the Art of Love. How disappointing to find that the intentio scribentis in the Amores, according to one of these commentators of the 12th century is — delectare! Only this and nothing more. What a vista is opened by these few words — a vista into the mediaeval mind!” (Rand 1929, p. 252).

This point is made frequently in various contexts. For example, Ludger Lieb and Otto Neudeck, in their introduction to Triviale Minne?, discuss the term “trivial” as relevant to their subject (a set of 14th — 16th c. texts linked to the German courtly love tradition) as far as the lack of original contents and frequent thematic and linguistic repetition is concerned, but as impossible to identify with “low literature” since there was no such dichotomy at the time. “Trivial” is rather seen as closely linked to trivium, suggesting the pivotal role of rhetoric (see also a review of the book by Debra L. Stoudt /Journal of English and Germanic Philology 108, 2009, Nr. 1, pp. 88–90/).

In German, the word for “pulp fiction” is Braque (and in Czech brak), meaning reject, or defective work, that is, a text rejected as valueless by an authority. This also implies that the definition relies on a distinction between high and low literature.

In addition, now that scholars study pulp fiction, they uncover levels of meaning, intricate intertextualities and sophisticated play, etc. This activity and its products have a substantial impact on the definition and conceptualization of pulp fiction, which is now perceived as intellectually appealing.

It is indeed the case that the scientific and popular discourse (both in the Middle Ages and now) are not two parallel discourses, each “wrapping” the same information in a different way. Instead, they often each provide different information, too.

See e.g. Luscombe 1985, Morey 1993, pp. 6–35, Sherwood‑Smith 1996, pp. 153–165.

Late medieval devotion, piety, and spirituality are other topics that are enjoying recent attention from researchers of the Middle Ages, despite being difficult to grasp. Most researchers concentrate on a vernacular tradition, while the Latin tradition was no less important and widespread. An excellent study on the English tradition is Salter 2012. See also e.g. Swanson 1995, or Bryan 2007. ¨

See e.g. Buringh 2011, Neddermeyer 1998, Cisne 2005, pp. 1305–1307.

This is more likely to be true in cases where the copies originated in different times, places and contexts. Further support of popularity is the existence of vernacular translations of a Latin text.

For example, there is no adequate edition of the Latin Elucidarium, while from Peter Comestor’s Historia scholastica, only the book of Genesis has been critically edited (Sylwan 2005). The greater part of the text (just as many other medieval popular texts) is available only in the 19th‑century Patrologia Latina (vol. 198, col. 1053–1644).


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Bryan, Jennifer: Looking Inward: Devotional Reading and the Private Self in Late Medieval England. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia 2007.

Buringh, Eltjo: Medieval Manuscript Production in the Latin West. Explorations with a Global Database (Global Economic History 6). Brill, Leiden 2011.

Carruthers, Marry: The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1990.

Cerquiglini‑Toulet, Jacqueline: La Couleur de la Melancolie: La Fréquentation des Livres au XIVe siècle 1300–1415 (Collection Brèves Littérature). Hatier, Paris 1993.

Cisne, John L.: How Science Survived: Medieval Manuscripts’ Demography’ and Classic Text’s Extinction. Science 307, 2005, pp. 1305–1307.

Coxon, Sebastian: The Presentation of Authorship in Medieval German Narrative Literature 1220–1290 (Oxford Modern Languages and Literature Monographs). Clarendon Press, Oxford 2001.

Doležalová, Lucie: The Dining Room of God: Petrus Comestor’s Historia scholastica and Retelling the Bible as Feasting. In: Lucie Doležalová — Tamás Visi (eds.): Retelling the Bible: Literary, Historical, and Social Contexts. Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main 2010, pp. 229–244.

Frye, Northrop: The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. Hartcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York 1982.

Gottschall, Dagmar: Das „Elucidarium“ des Honorius Augustodunensis. Untersuchungen zu seiner Überlieferungs‑ und Rezeptionsgeschichte im deutschsprachigen Raum mit Ausgabe der niederdeutschen Übersetzung (Texte und Textgeschichte 33). De Gruyter, Berlin 1992.

Green, Dennis Howard: The Beginnings of Medieval Romance. Fact and Fiction 1150–1220. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2002.

Greene, Virginia (ed.): The Medieval Author in Medieval French Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2006.

Hobbins, Daniel: Authorship and Publicity before Print: Jean Gerson and the Transformation of Late Medieval Learning. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia 2009.

Hunt, Tony: Prodesse et delectare: metaphors of pleasure and instruction in Old French. Neuphilologische Mitteilungen: Bulletin de la Société néophilologique de Helsinki 80, 1979, Nr. 1, pp. 17–35.

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Lieb, Ludger — Neudeck, Otto: Triviale Minne? Konventionalität und Trivialisierung in spätmittelalterlichen Minnereden (Quellen und Forschungen zur Literatur‑ und Kulturgeschichte 40/274). Walter de Gruyter, Berlin and New York 2006.

Luscombe, David E.: Peter Comestor. In: Katherine Walsh — Diana Wood (eds.): The Bible in the Medieval World. Essays in Honour of Beryl Smalley (Studies in Church History, Subsidia 4). Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1985, pp. 109–129.

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Příspěvek se pokouší aplikovat kritéria obvykle používaná při definování pojmu brak na středověkou latinskou literaturu. Středověká latina byla jazykem elit a literatura psaná tímto jazykem tak vlastně jako brak nemůže být pojímána vůbec. Zároveň je však v podstatě celé středověké latinské písemnictví založeno na variaci spíše než na inovaci, používá klišé, ustálené struktury, modely a schémata, a v tomto směru je lze jako brak charakterizovat obecně. Mezi těmito dvěma extrémy je možné vymezovat přesnější hranice a hledat relevantní typy textů s použitím dalších konkrétních kritérií: 1. zábava (také v křesťanském latinském prostředí nacházíme řadu překvapivě zábavných textů — neexistuje jasná dělicí čára mezi latinskými texty, které obvykle vnímáme jako vážné a suché, a díly v národních jazycích, které se obyčejně zdají být přirozenější, a tedy také zábavnější a hravější); 2. materiál (velký počet opisů na levnějším papíře místo na pergamenu — tedy „velký náklad“ v mezích středověkých možností); 3. texty, které (donedávna) odborníci hodnotili jako nekvalitní; 4. podněcování představivosti a escapismus. Přestože každé z těchto kritérií lze problematizovat a žádný z textů, které je splňují, bychom dnes nezařadili do kategorie brak, vynořuje se z těchto úvah skupina děl, která se hojně a se zájmem opisovala a četla, a která nabízejí zcela rozdílný pohled na středověkou literaturu než přijatý kánon středověké literatury.