In This Article The Trojan War in the Middle Ages

  • Introduction
  • William Caxton, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye

Medieval Studies The Trojan War in the Middle Ages
by
Timothy Arner
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0212

Introduction

In the Middle Ages, the Fall of Troy functioned as the secular parallel to the Fall of Man. Just as sacred history begins with the Creation, the Fall, and then Adam and Eve being forced to leave Eden, secular history begins with the construction of Troy and the dispersal of Trojan survivors after the city is destroyed by the Greeks. Burgeoning nations throughout western Europe, including England, France, and various Italian territories, claimed Trojan origin, just as the Roman Empire had identified the Trojan Aeneas as its founder. The story of Rome’s Trojan origin was told in Virgil’s Aeneid, the most well-known and influential secular text of the Middle Ages, and medieval chroniclers adapted Virgil’s narrative to tell of how Aeneas’s brethren or descendants founded their own civilizations that could lay claim to Rome’s political heritage and establish new empires (this concept of imperial authority being transferred from one nation to another is known the translatio imperii). Medieval monarchs justified their rule by adopting genealogies that traced their lineage back to the kings and heroes of Troy. The Trojan legend was rehearsed in historical chronicles and adapted into vernacular poetry, and these texts circulated widely throughout the Middle Ages and well into the early modern era. While modern readers identify Homer as the primary source for Trojan material, he was branded a “liar” by medieval writers who rejected his representation of the gods and his association with the Greeks. “Eyewitness” accounts by Dares the Phyrgian and Dictys of Crete were regarded as authentic narratives of how Troy was first built, its destruction by Jason and Hercules after their quest for the golden fleece, its rebuilding by King Priam, the abduction of Helen by Paris, and its final destruction by the Greek army led by Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Ulysses. For a Christian audience, Homer’s false gods could not have played any role. Instead, the story of Troy is one of political debate, military strategy, and the operation of Fortune in the sphere of human action. The story of Troy’s fall and the romantic subplots invented by medieval writers functioned as moral exempla from which readers could learn political, military, and personal virtues. The narratives and themes that constitute the Trojan Legend play a critical role in the development of medieval historiography and literature, though the boundaries between these genres were often blurred.

General Overviews

There has been a proliferation of scholarship on the medieval Troy story since the early 1980s. A number of books and articles trace the development of the legend as it was translated and adapted by medieval historians and poets. The Trojan commentaries, chronicles, and poetry produced on the European continent, particularly in France and Italy, circulated in the British Isles and informed the robust British Trojan tradition that developed after the Norman Conquest. Many of the critical studies consider both the European and British traditions, though the British texts, especially the Middle English narratives of the 14th and 15th centuries, have received particular attention in the English scholarship.

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