Medieval Writing
Moral Instruction
This is not a coherent category, as moral instruction was a function of many types of medieval works. Moral instruction was also significant in the aural and visual culture of the era. The ultimate source of moral instruction was the Bible, but ordinary lay people did not, on the whole, possess one of these. The moral messages of the Bible were translated to them through the preachings of the clergy and through the paintings, carvings and stained glass of the churches where they worshipped. Moral messages were encoded in the depiction of Biblical stories, in the depiction of the virtues of the saints and in straightforward didactic imagery. The Virtues and the Vices, or the Seven Deadly Sins, adorned walls and pews. Representations of the Last Judgement on the tympana of the entrance portals of major churches in France, or painted above the chancel arch in English parish churches, not only focused the mind on the perils of the hereafter but depicted very literal and appropriate punishments for certain classes of sins.
15th century stained glass panel in the church of All Saints, North Street, York.
This panel is one of a series representing the Corporal Acts of Mercy, derived from Christ's charges to his apostles. The smug looking figure who appears in all the panels is here visiting prisoners in the stocks.
A carved label stop in Beverley Minster.
    Two chatting women are carried off in a cloth by a demonic figure; a warning on the evils of gossiping.
St Martin divides his cloak with a beggar on the west facade of the church of St Martin in Laon.
The virtuous are led to heaven by angels while the wicked are dragged off to hell by horrible little demons in a Last Judgement scene on a tympanum in Rheims Cathedral.
The clergy had a pile of literature on the subject, for their own moral improvement and to help them in teaching the laity. The Bible itself, the lives of saints, the homilies of the fathers of the church, the writings of reformers and philosophers all had their moral dimension. Books of readings and guides to preaching helped them guide the illiterate. The monastic rules, such as the Rule of St Benedict, and the various reforms built upon it, were guides to living a moral as well as spiritually uplifting life.
The thread of moral instruction ran through many works, including those of knowledge. The modern scientist's excuse that all knowledge is good and they are not responsible for any evil uses made of it is a long way from the mental template of the middle ages. The quaint and delightful compilations known as the bestiaries which evolved around the 12th and 13th centuries from a range of earlier sources put the characteristics of various animals, real, fictitious and confused, into a moral context. The great encyclopedias of the later middle ages were threaded through with moral philosophy.
This illustration of a partridge from a 12th century bestiary (British Library, Royal 12 c XIV, f.52v) accompanies a description of its fraudulent habit of stealing each other's eggs. By permission of the British Library.
A complete bestiary can be examined on the web at the Aberdeen Bestiary site.
These were part of the Latin literature which is presumed to be for the use of the clergy. The new forms of literature which appealed to the increasingly literate laity in the later middle ages were infused with moral teaching, even as they entertained and delighted.
Romances drew their themes from the concept of chivalry, based in the idea that the active life in the service of Christian ideals was one of high morality. In other words, it was alright, noble and proper even, to kill people if you had God on your side. The chivalric knight was supposed to be pious, morally upright, sexually polite and well behaved. Tales and legends from the past became infused with moral overtones. There was treachery and lust and all kinds of entertaining themes, but the reader had no trouble in differentiating the traitors and lechers from the moral heroes.
Poetry and plays had moral themes, and of course theatrical performance was as much about aural and visual culture as it was about the written word used to preserve it. The crowds who tramped about York or Chester following the progress of the Mystery Plays were receiving their religious and moral instruction in the context of a good day out.
The vernacular literature of the later middle ages entertained as well as instructed. Social criticism and satire, such as produced in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, has morality as a basis even when framed in tales of naughty frolics. Then there was a fellow called Dante who wrote an amazing ripping yarn, in meticulous Italian poetry, of a startling journey which encompassed the pits of hell and the heights of heaven and all points in between, carefully explaining among the gruesome or ecstatic details just why each soul was residing where they were.

The Geoffrey Chaucer Website and Digital Dante provide plenty of material on these authors.

In the middle of his life, Dante gets lost in a dark wood, meets three beasts who block his way, has an anxiety attack, meets a dead poet and sets off to find out what it's all about. From a 14th century Italian manuscript (British Library, add. ms. 19587), by permission of the British Library.  
It is intriguing that the most popular manuscript book of the later middle ages for the laity, the book of hours, was not fundamentally a book of moral instruction. It was a book of spirituality and an aid to communication with higher things without the mediation of clergy. That is what they felt they were lacking. They had been surrounded by moral instruction for centuries.
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