In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Classics in the Middle Ages

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Literary Histories
  • Histories of Classical Scholarship
  • Works on the Transmission of Texts
  • Medieval Library Catalogues
  • Catalogues of Dated Manuscripts
  • Catalogues of Classical Manuscripts Arranged by Location
  • Essay Collections
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Knowledge of the Greek Language in Medieval Europe
  • Scholars and Their Book Collections
  • Mythography
  • The Medieval Survival of Classical Mythological Figures
  • The Medieval Commentary Tradition
  • Ancient Influences on Medieval Literary Genres and Literary Theory

Medieval Studies Classics in the Middle Ages
Michael W. Herren, Scott Bruce
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0110


This article deals primarily with the transmission and reception in western Europe of classical Greek and Latin texts written before 525 CE and focuses on the Latin tradition. The chronological limits observed here are 525 CEc. 1400 CE These “bookend” dates apply, respectively, to the death of Boethius, a transition figure between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, and the activity of Coluccio Salutati, who spanned the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. (Note that Petrarch died in 1374, Boccaccio in the following year.) The entry does not attempt to deal with the work of the humanists of the fifteenth and later centuries. Because the term “classical” has always been associated with “pagan” or “secular,” Christian works written in Greek or Latin have been excluded, despite their well-established value for the history of pagan literature, religion, philosophy, and culture. (The one exception is Boethius, who translated “pagan” philosophical works from the Greek.) It is not possible to include every writer known to have written in Antiquity, nor even every work by well-known writers. Some late Latin writers have been included, notably Macrobius, Martianus Capella, Servius, and the mythographer Fulgentius because of their extraordinary role in the transmission of the antique secular tradition to the Middle Ages in the West. This article also includes sections on centers of transmission, books collections, mythography, the medieval commentary tradition, and ancient influences on medieval literary theory. However, only occasional references to the vast bibliography of the influence of classical literature on the individual European vernacular literatures will be provided here. Editions are cited only when their introductions contain information not available from secondary sources. The overarching aim of the article is to highlight the achievement of the Latin Middle Ages in preserving the ancient classics and appropriating them for new uses in a Christian civilization.

Introductory Works

The books listed in this section are very different from each other and have different strengths. Bolgar 1954 is scholastic in orientation, emphasizing the role of the classics in intellectual history down to the end of the Renaissance. Altogether different is Curtius 1953. This groundbreaking work does not focus on transmission of texts, or even classical borrowings and adaptations, but it deals with the interface between medieval writers and thinkers and the ancient works they received––in other words, how they understood and misunderstood the ancients. Hall 1913 remains a valuable vade mecum for a variety of philological topics. Haskins 1957 is an excellent introduction to the revival of classical learning in the 12th century. Highet 1949 provides a helpful map to the network of interlocking roads along which classical genres and literary motifs traveled to new linguistic regions. Walde 2012 offers an orientation to the reception of Greek and Latin literature to the present day.

  • Bolgar, R. R. The Classical Heritage and Its Beneficiaries: From the Carolingian Age to the End of the Renaissance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1954.

    Arranged by epochs (e.g., Carolingian, Pre-Scholastic, Scholastic), the main body of the work focuses on major intellectual figures of each era and their approaches to the classics. Appendix 1 gives a dated list of manuscripts of classical authors written by humanists. Appendix 2 lists by date vernacular translations of classical authors.

  • Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953.

    Challenging and hard to characterize, the leitmotifs of this magisterial work are the topos and pervasive influence of rhetoric. Discussions of topics such as “Poetry and Philosophy,” “Ancient and Modern,” “Classicism,” and “Mannerism” are intertwined with sketches of influential humanists such as Mussato. An English translation of Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter (Bern, Switzerland: A. Francke Verlag, 1948).

  • Hall, F. W. A Companion to Classical Texts. Oxford: Clarendon, 1913.

    “Old” does not mean outdated, as this venerable handbook demonstrates. Hall’s Companion gives a clear, readable account of the history of the ancient book followed by chapters on the fortunes of Greek and Latin texts in Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. Final chapters deal with manuscripts and textual criticism.

  • Haskins, Charles Homer. The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. New York: Meridian, 1957.

    A classic in its own right, this readable book highlights the revival of learning in the twelfth century without neglecting its roots in the eleventh century. Some major figures treated for their knowledge of the classics are Bernard of Chartres, Bernard Silvester, and John of Salisbury. Classical authors listed in index.

  • Highet, Gilbert. The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949.

    This large work traces the influence of Greek and Latin literature on English, French, German, and Italian literature from the Anglo-Saxon period to modern times. While most of it is devoted to literary influences, the last section focuses on scholarship. The organization is in part chronological, in part generic.

  • Walde, Christine, ed. The Reception of Classical Literature. Brill’s New Pauly Supplement 5. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012.

    A volume of devoted entirely to the reception of classical literature up to the twenty-first century. Alphabetically arranged by author; includes both Greek and Latin writers. Each entry is followed by a bibliography.

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