The Medieval Invention of Fiction

What goes on in other people’s minds? The idea of writing about what we can never know – the interior lives of others – was born in the fertile hybrid culture of 12th-century England and made possible by the pursuit of romantic love. 

Laura Ashe | Published 13 Feb 2018

Fiction was invented in England in the 12th century; we might pinpoint a few years around the 1150s as the crucial moment. At the middle of the century England had a multilingual literary culture, three languages in constant, fruitful contact and a hybrid national culture in the making. It had just emerged from a long and bitter civil war; the Conqueror’s son, Henry I, had died in 1135 leaving a daughter, Matilda, as his only legitimate heir and her cousin, Stephen of Blois, had seized the throne. When in 1153 King Stephen finally made peace with Matilda’s son, Henry of Anjou, who came to the throne as Henry II the following year, he was accompanied by Eleanor of Aquitaine. She brought with her one further addition: the culture of the troubadours, the celebratory lyric poetry and music of courtly life and love, which originated in southern France. This was the world into which fiction would make its entrance.

Anglo-Saxon literature had been uniquely precocious. While the rest of Western Europe wrote almost exclusively in Latin, English authors developed and sustained a flourishing vernacular literature alongside Latin and in dialogue with it. They translated scripture, the Church Fathers, classical and contemporary Latin works into English. More than this, they composed with freedom and originality: histories, including the unparalleled achievement of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles; theology and philosophy; saints’ lives in great volume; sermons and homilies; epic poetry of heroes and monsters; elegiac poetry of loss and transience; legal texts and administrative documents; manuals of practical instruction on matters as diverse as medicine, appropriate penances for sins, weather prediction and grammar and language learning. But none of this is fiction. Fiction is a particular mode of literature and, because it is now ubiquitous, its absence is hard to imagine. Nevertheless, for hundreds of years England had a thriving literary culture which apparently felt no need for fiction. Understanding why that is (and why it then emerged in the 12th century and has been with us ever since) reveals some of the ways in which literary culture can give access to the inner structures of a society.

It will be apparent that I am using ‘fiction’ in a precise, technical sense. Fiction is a mode of writing in which both author and reader are aware – and know that the other is aware – that the events described cannot be known to have happened. That is not to say that they or something very like them might not have happened: fiction may be set in the author’s own world and obey all the rules of that world. But fiction gives an account of something unverifiable and which does not ask to be believed, only to be thought about; it is a contract between author and reader. This qualification differentiates fiction from the pre-existing forms of ‘untrue’ literature, epic and lyric poetry, both of which demand a very different response from the reader. Epic poetry offers up a mythical history for the present time, with an insistence on the essential truths it contains about the nature of the past and its legacy. Like Virgil’s Aeneid, Beowulf is invented, but neither work is fiction: each functions as history and as ideology. Correspondingly, lyric poetry – the Old English elegies of love, loyalty, and loss – is not fiction. The lone, speaking voice of the poem demands acceptance of the truth of its lament: the author may only be imagining the emotions expressed, but, if the reader decides to disbelieve them, then there is nothing left in the poem of value. The lyric is potentially true; the author knows whether or not he is describing a real experience and so it is not fiction. Fiction is concerned with what is unknowable.


Lancelot and Guinevere kiss in the presence of Galahad and the Lady of Malohaut, Book of Lancelot, 1316.

One thing above all is genuinely unknowable and it is the supreme matter of fiction. That is, what is going on in anyone else’s mind? What is it like to see through anyone else’s eyes? It is this entirely imagined experience which fiction offers us: access to the unknowable reality of other people’s inner lives. In the present day, the notion that this is a motivation for reading and, indeed, a moral justification of fiction is so well accepted that it is almost a cliche. This being so, how is it that a culture such as that of Anglo-Saxon England should feel no need of fiction? The answer lies in that society’s profoundly different approach to the individual. The writing of fiction depends upon the idea that individuals’ emotional, inner lives, not just their actions, are important for their own sake. This is not an idea which has currency in all places and times; it is contingent on particular social conditions. Anglo-Saxon literature reflects a society in which the individual was subordinated to more important ideals, in both practical and abstract ways: the warrior in the shield-wall, who gives his life in the service of his lord and the defence of his people; the martyr’s self-sacrifice for his faith, or the saint’s self-denial for his; the hero’s selfless bravery against the monstrous incursions which threaten his lord’s hall. In Old English poetry, to be an individual, cut off from these collective bonds, is to be lost. More than this, there is no attention to an inner life that can be meaningfully distinguished from exterior action. Will the warrior make good on his boasts in the mead hall? Only in action is a man’s value known; intention is nothing.

I am not suggesting that people have undergone some dramatic change in psychological make-up. We can only assume that people have thought and felt in similar ways, in all places and times. What literature reveals, in contrast, is the difference between cultures in what is valued and what is celebrated. Anglo-Saxon culture valorised active self-sacr-ifice in the service of a greater good: the people, the nation, the Christian faith. As such, Anglo-Saxon literature did not attend to the inner lives of individuals; in life and in history, individuals were not valuable for their own sake and their thoughts and emotions were significant only in as much as they resulted in action. This omission, the silent absence of any attempt to represent the inner life of others, is an entirely rational response to the impossibility of knowing the truth of anyone else’s mind. Ultimately, however, God sees all and His judgements are perfect. Fiction – an attempt to imagine what cannot be known, or can only be known by God – was neither needed, nor missed.

What changed in England to bring about the emergence of fiction? What conditions are necessary for this mode to be written? The latter question may be broken down more easily. Necessary, but not sufficient, is a level of economic development consistent with the existence of a literary culture, a group of people in society with a sufficient supply of education and leisure to demand and to fund literary production, or to produce it themselves. The development of such an audience leads to experimentation, as authorial invention and high-status patronage encourage one another. The England of the 12th century saw uniquely favourable conditions for this kind of literary culture to develop, for besides participating in the general increase in economic prosperity across Europe (most relevant in the increasingly conspicuous consumption of wealthy aristocratic elites) England had a French-speaking aristocracy, functioning in a bi- and often tri-lingual world. These first, second and third generation immigrants freely intermarried with the English of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish descent and enthusiastically adopted the English past and its literature. As literary patrons they followed the model of Old English vernacular writing by requesting translations into French. The earliest French literature was written in England, drawing on English sources; writings were composed in all languages and translated in every direction, between French and Latin and English (this last only sparsely in the 12th and 13th centuries, but then explosively and overwhelmingly in the 14th century and beyond). All of these were the languages of England and they form the foundations of English literature.

However, if literary culture was flourishing, that would not alone be sufficient to produce fiction. The alchemy involved is intimately associated with contemporary cultural changes of a profound nature, which embraced the whole of Europe and the western Church. The crusading movement had originated as a great demonstration of the Church’s power over secular elites, but one of its most lasting cultural effects was entirely unintended: the martial aristocracy’s new sense that a secular, glorious and violent life as a knight could nevertheless be crowned with salvation. This opened the way to the literary celebration of aristocratic lives for their own sake and the valorisation not only of those heroes who sacrifice themselves to an ideal, but also, in a dramatic transformation, of those who succeed most gloriously in embodying this new ideal of knighthood.

An illuminated knight from the Hunterian Psalter, c.1170.

Meanwhile, in the schools of Paris, Peter Abelard and his followers were elaborating new philosophies of interiorised morality. For Abelard, sin lay in the mind of the sinner, enacted in the moment at which the will gives way to temptation and reaches the determination to commit the sin. The performance of the act itself was then irrelevant; a man physically prevented from committing violence was not thereby free of the sin of fully intending to do so. Correspondingly, the experience of temptation is not itself sinful, only the determination of the will to act on temptation. The implications of this are profound. Action is no longer paramount in the judgment of an individual: what matters is their inner life, the motion of the will. This encouraged a kind of self-examination, formalised in the rising practice of regular confession, which elaborated a new interiority of selfhood, the exploration of the inner life. Simultaneously, contemporary spiritual practices of prayer and meditation were turning their focus toward Christ; the Crucifixion was no longer understood primarily as the father’s gift of His only son, but rather Christ’s own expression of infinite love in his self-sacrifice. With this came deep, meditative and empathic attention to Christ’s suffering, his human feeling, and to the pains and the joys felt by his mother, Mary. A new emotional discourse was developed, a vocabulary of empathy, which would feed secular as much as religious writing.

The Church thereby encouraged a new focus on interiority and selfhood, an engagement with emotional experience that mediated the soul’s relationship with God. However, selfhood is not the same as individuality. To say that one’s inner life is important and worthy of exploration is not to say that one person is importantly different from any other, or that there is any need to try to examine the inner lives of others. Individuality is not just unnecessary, but dangerous, theologically speaking: Lucifer’s sin was that of asserting his own unique specialness; to be an individual is to rebel. For that reason, before fiction could take hold, with its valorisation of the inner lives of multiple individuals, one more step was required. The final piece of the puzzle came as the answer to a profound question: what makes an individual valuable in their own right, for their own sake? If they are not in the service of a higher good, such as their people, lord or faith, or subordinating their own immediate desires to a greater goal, such as sanctity, or salvation, if they are only in pursuit of their own self-fulfilment, how is that to be justified? What endows it with meaning?

Visions dreamt by Henry I in Normandy, 1130, an illustration from the Worcester Chronicle, 12th century. Corpus Christi College, Oxford / Bridgeman Images.A Norman clerk called Wace presented a long poem to Eleanor of Aquitaine, we are told, around 1155. This poem was a French translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136), a long work of Latin prose that purports to recount the history of Britain, from its foundation by the Trojan Brutus to the ultimate victory of the Anglo-Saxon peoples over the British. Its greatest hero is King Arthur, whose court is the pinnacle of sophistication. Arthur is the conqueror of most of Europe, before treachery at home forces him to return to a bloody civil war and the ultimate downfall of his people. When Wace translated Geoffrey’s Latin into French verse, he took the opportunity to elaborate on the description of Arthur’s glittering court, transforming its importance and effects. In both works, the court’s celebrations are brought to an abrupt end by a declaration of war from the Roman empire. In Geoffrey’s History a knight named Cador welcomes this as an opportunity for the British to recover their reputation for martial valour; peacetime has made them idle, he says, and idleness breeds cowardice. This response captures the underlying assumptions of earlier English literature: that the highest goal for an individual is to fight (literally or spiritually) in a greater cause and, if necessary, to sacrifice oneself to that cause. But, when Wace translated this episode, he put a reply in the mouth of another knight, later the hero of many romances, Gawain, who tells Cador that he is wrong: peacetime is good and the land is the better for it. He goes on: ‘Pleasant pastimes are good, and so are love affairs. It’s for love, and for lovers, that knights do knightly deeds.’ This assertion embodies the transformative moment in literature, when fiction is made possible. The key is a new place – and a new value – for the idea of love.


Love – an emotional and sexual attachment to another individual – has always had a place in literature, as in life. However, for long periods and in many cultures the representation of love is ambivalent at best. In classical tragedy love is an uncontrollable, destructive force; in lyric poetry it is a sickness, a suffering. In the epic poem love is irrelevant – as in Beowulf – or a distraction which must be overcome, as in the Aeneid, where Dido must be abandoned so that Rome can be founded. Love may be sublimated, or redirected to the love of one’s lord or loyalty to one’s peers for, if it is not, it draws the (invariably) male protagonist away from his duty to the higher cause that is his purpose. In the abstract, love can be a reward for proper heroic action, such as the lord’s daughter’s hand in marriage. The love said to be felt for the daughter is no more than a sign of the knight’s success and of the bonds between men. Here, however, in Wace’s few lines, everything has changed. He asserts that love is the purpose of heroic action. What this means is that self-fulfilment, self-realisation, is the purpose of heroic action: for romantic love is a good only to those who are enjoying it. It involves no sacrifice of the self to a higher cause; the highest cause now is one’s own happiness. Yet the reason that love can perform this function is precisely because of its association with suffering and with service of, or submission to, the beloved. Love takes the place of the higher cause which the hero serves and yet simultaneously represents his own self-fulfilment as the ultimate goal of the narrative. 

Lancelot and Guinevere in bed, from the Book of Lancelot of the Lake, French, 1316.

Now and only now is fiction made possible, for now the individual is justified for his own sake; his achievement of self-fulfilment is enough in itself to feed narrative representation. The love-plot is fictional, for it requires attention to the inner lives of at least two distinguishable individuals and asserts that their emotional experience, in the author’s imagination, is valuable for its own sake. This is the literary paradigm which gives us the novel: access to the unknowable inner lives of others, moving through a world in which their interior experience is as significant as their exterior action.

It need hardly be said that the society which believes such things, which accedes to – and celebrates – the notion that the inner lives of others are a matter of significance, is a profoundly different society from one that does not. There is an immediately ethical dimension to these developments: once literature is engaged in the (necessarily fictional) representation of interior, individuated selves, who interact with other interior, individuated selves, then moral agency appears in a new light. It is only in the extension of narrative into the unknowable – the minds of others – that a culture engages with the moral responsibility of one individual toward another, rather than with each individual’s separate (and identical) responsibilities to God, or to a king. Fiction’s ethical reach is deep and nuanced; it is the prime arena for thought experiments, for speculative empathy and the critical judgement of competing subjectivities. Fiction declines objectivity, as it declines a truth-claim, and in both of these aspects it is closest to our experience of reality.


What are the implications of the emergence of fiction for medieval society? Fiction is not magic; it does not transform the world. But fiction participates in the world’s transformation, reflects it and influences it. If the 12th and 13th centuries saw a new valorisation of the individual, it was taken up by fiction in a great array of new possibilities. Tragedy began to be written again, for if an individual’s self-fulfilment is a high goal in itself, then an individual’s destruction has a new, considerably greater, value. So emerges the narrative representation of desperate love and tragic death, the figures of Tristan and Yseut (Wagner’s Isolde). But tragedy is inherently a matter of this world; it separates itself from the eternal justice of God, implicitly or explicitly denying the force of that justice. In a society where tragedy can be written, something has shifted in the understanding of reality. 

Similarly, it was in fiction that the aristocratic ideology of chivalry could make its greatest claims for the secular life: in the repeated spectacle of worldly knights being rewarded with heavenly favour, the romance embodied the new spiritual self-assertion of the elite. More than this, in exploring individuality fiction was participating in one of the greatest shifts in English society. A new value given to the individual involves a different understanding of the nation at large: not a rigidly structured whole, embodied by the single figure of the king, but rather a gathering of competing voices, each with their own value. This simple idea is the foundation of the concept of a parliament and a public sphere. Fiction provides the infinite imaginative space in which reality can be thought of differently. It does not transform the world; nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine a world in the process of transformation which could manage without fiction.

Laura Ashe is the author of Early Fiction in England: From Geoffrey of Monmouth to Chaucer (Penguin, 2015). This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of History Today with the title ‘1155 and the Beginnings of Fiction’.