What are the chief characteristics, the significance and function of allegory in Medieval Literature?

 To be an ‘allegory’ a poem must as a whole, and with
fair consistency, describe in other terms some event or
process; its entire narrative and all its significant details
should cohere and work together to this end. …. But an
allegorical description of an event does not make that
event itself allegorical. (Tolkien, 1995, p. 8)

 Tolkien’s definition describes succinctly the requirements necessary for a work to be considered allegorical.  As the “mode of expression” (Lewis, 1958, p. 48), allegory is the vehicle used to convey the event or process, usually in a narrative form. While he refers to a poem, this definition applies to both prose or verse narratives, though the latter were the common form in Medieval literature.  “There is nothing ‘mystical’ or mysterious about medieval allegory; the poets know quite clearly what they are about and are well aware that the figures which they present to us are fictions.” (ibid, p. 48)  These fictional figures enable the poets to isolate and clarify abstractions, and put them into narrative action that conveys a moral message to their audience.  And this could not be achieved if the characters lacked a connection with reality.

According to Paul Piehler: “Allegory proper pleases by the appropriateness, ingenuity and wit displayed in the translation of the basic material into allegorical form.” (Piehler, 1971, p. 10)  The conception of allegory as the unification of psychological and moral qualities motivated the poets, directing the action of their narratives. And according to Stone, Packer and Hoopes in their introduction to The Short Story, and to the section on ‘Fable, Parable, Exemplum, and Allegory’ “[e]arly stories were vehicles of assertion” (Stone, Packer & Hoopes, 1983, p. 2), where, in allegory,

everything stands for something else, everything is sym-
bolic, so the reader is inevitably involved in a process of
discovery and interpretation.  It is a clever device, since
it relieves the reader of the feeling that he is being preached
at; instead he is participating in the story. (ibid, p. 39)

In the allegorical universe, everything is a reflection of something else.  Everything has a physical reality that corresponds to a spiritual reality – an organic relationship between the physical and spiritual that enables spiritual narrative to be conveyed in physical terms.

The function or role of medieval allegory was as a vehicle for moral lessons disguised as tales – homilies, both oral and written.  To understand the reason behind the moral lessons, it is necessary to understand the role religion played in the lives of medieval people. The medieval world had a clear idea of the Universe/Cosmos – what it meant, and man’s place in it. Their belief in God’s power was unquestioning.

Almighty God was acknowledged as the Source of all life;
the world was God’s world, and Christians were God’s
people.  The workings of God were recognized in everyday
life, and any unusual or striking events, whether storms
and comets, victories and recoveries of health were
as signs of his direct intervention in human
affairs ….
(Shirley-Price, 1978, p. 29)

He created the world in which they lived transient lives, in whatever class, noble or peasant, into which they were born.  It was necessary that they accept their lot in life, however base it may be, and work through prayer towards salvation in the next life after death.  Thus the moral lessons were intended to keep the population on the narrow path to salvation by condemning all sins and discouraging free-thinking. For example, in Piers the Plowman the two ‘covetous’ men, Worldly Wisdom and Cunning, are described by Conscience to Reason:

They don’t give a straw for God – “There is no fear of God
before their eyes.”  These men, I tell you, would do more
for a horse-load of oats or a dozen chickens, than for all
the love of our Lord and His blessed Saints.
Langland/Goodridge,  1959, p. 94)

The inference or lesson is that Worldly Wisdom and Cunning are to be shunned by all right thinking men, if they are to follow the safe path to salvation.

Allegory permeates fables by Aesop, such as The Fox and the Crow, with its moral rhyme at the end – “The Flatterer doth rob by stealth,/ His victim, both of Wit and Wealth.” ((Stone, Packer & Hoopes, 1983, p. 39)  If it was only a story about a fox and crow in their animal form, the narrative would not qualify as allegory.  By giving them human speech and high-lighting their human qualities of greed, vanity, cunning, and flattery, the whole narrative tells a quite different tale, representing those qualities – “everything stands for something else” (ibid, p. 39) – with the resulting moral as a homily for humans.  An Exemplum is a sermon containing an allegorical narrative in order to drive home the moral – for example, “greed is the root of all evil” (ibid, p. 38) conveyed through the story of a priestly con-man fleecing his congregation.  A parable is a shorter exemplum “pithier … with a more or less clear-cut allegorical twist” (ibid, p. 39) – like the stories of the five wise and foolish virgins, and the servants and the talents.  Both were narratives that, by the example of the lessons learnt by their protagonists, conveyed these lessons to the audience in order to prepare them and/or modify their behaviour.

In the Exeter Book, a tenth century manuscript collection of Old English poetry (source: The Norton Anthology of Poetry), poems, The Wife’s Lament and The Seafarer, are narratives with an underlying allegorical meaning quite different from the surface tale.  The story of a woman separated from her husband and lamenting the fact, The Wife’s Lament allegedly can mean the protagonist “represents either the soul or the children of Israel during the Babylonian captivity”. (Norton, 1983, p. 8)  In lines 5 – 8:

 I ever suffered grief through banishment.
 For since my lord departed from this people
 Over the sea, each dawn have I had care
 Wondering where my lord may be on land.
 (ibid, p. 9)

the ambiguity as to which lord the wife refers, her husband or God, is highlighted.  This double meaning which permeates the whole poem, defines the allegorical nature of the narrative – one meaning is the event/process, that of a lonely wife, while the other is the vehicle/mode of expression, the allegorical allusion to the Jews in Babylon.  With either meaning, the notion of separation, loss, exile, and helplessness prevails.  “Grief must always be / For him who yearning longs for his beloved.” (ibid, p. 10)

In The Seafarer, the shift from a narrative about the hardships and pleasures of “a seafaring life” to a Christian homily, suggests that “it is an allegory in which life is represented as a difficult journey over rough seas toward the harbor of heaven.” (ibid, p. 10)  In the narrative, the seafarer recalls his physical life, then moves to his spiritual: “Because the joys of God mean more to me / Than this dead transitory life on land.” (ibid, p. 11)  As already explained, this attitude typifies that held by the medieval society.  Not only does the seafarer extol his own attitudes but exhorts his audience to

    … control himself
With strength of mind, and firmly hold to that,
True to his pledges, pure in all his ways.
With moderation should each man behave
In all his dealings with both friend and foe ….
Let us think where we have our real home,
And then consider how we may come thither;
(ibid, p. 12)

As the whole can be read as the physical sea-faring journey to land at a safe harbour, or the spiritual journey through life to Salvation in death, the real home is both physically Earth, and allegorically Heaven.  And by the use of the above characteristics man may face his difficult physical and spiritual hardships on his journey to this real home.

In Piers the Plowman, “a long religious, social and political allegory” (ibid, p. 58), the author, Langland, used the dream-vision, “ a popular genre during the Middle Ages in which the author presents a story as the dream of the main character” (ibid, p. 58), in this case, William, as a vehicle for his homily.  His dream, including its own protagonist, an imaginary vagrant, Piers, introduces allegorical figures, personifications of abstractions, such as Truth, Falsehood, Lucre, Theology, Chastity, Charity, Gluttony etc, and of the institution of Holy Church.  As a “fundamental … expression for the Middle Ages for realities beyond the world of matter”, (Wrenn, 1967, p. 31) this personification of the abstract traits could be used today in a Postmodern text, and, if in a narrative verse form, would bring Literature full circle.

The allegoric method which seemed necessary and
natural to Langland had been used by the Anglo-Saxons:
and indeed some of its devices, such as the dream-vision
and the personification of objects had been magnificently
employed …. Langland’s more profound spiritual quality
is integral (Wrenn, 1967, p. 31)

to his theme of Salvation.

According to Goodridge, the form of moral allegory allowed the poet to present his tales linked together freely by the personifications, mixing “realism with fantasy in whatever proportion he chose” (Goodridge, 1959, p. 12), and introducing into the narrative a variety of discourses from the religious philosophical dialogue to the “gossip of the street or tavern.” (ibid, p. 12)  He had the freedom to introduce any characters from all classes who would suit the subject matter of the story.  The personifications revealed the moral qualities that were usually hidden by the conventions of society, by focussing the one trait, either good or bad, in one character, e.g., Love, or Conscience; Sloth or Fraud.  It was a medieval form of stereotyping, intentionally practised to stress the moral point of the tale.

The primary medieval audience for the oral and written homilies were the literate clergy and nobility (although not all the nobility were literate), who then read or told the tales to the illiterate masses.  The peasant class of serfs and free-men had the tales read to them by the priests, either travelling from village to village, or in church.  The merchants, and towns-people heard them in the taverns and churches; the knights, lords, and kings heard them in courts, churches or cathedrals.

The significance of allegory therefore lies in its ability to inform its audience of acceptable social, political and religious behaviour.  Allegory was used satirically as a parody of society, to point out its sins, crimes, corruption.  When Liar fled from the Court’s Officer, the Pardoners took him in and

sent him on Sundays to the churches with seals, selling
pounds-worth of Pardons,  Then the doctors were annoyed,
and sent [for] him … to help them analyse urine.  And the
grocers also sought his help … for he knew something of
their trade…. [S]ome minstrels and messengers kept him ….
[till] finally the Friars lured him away and disguised him in
their own habit.” (ibid, p.82)

Liar is seen in this way to have infiltrated all these areas of society, which could therefore not be trusted to deal with people truthfully. What appears to the modern reader as sanctimonious preaching, would be deeply understood and appreciated by the fourteenth century audience as necessary guidance for their achievement of salvation.  Recognized by them, the satirical attacks on particular institutions, political and clerical, and on particular individuals within their society, are lost through time for modern readers.  In fact, according to critics of Langland’s Piers the Plowman, the inside knowledge was lost to the literary critics of the following century.

Dressed in allegory, Langland’s homily revealed the social conditions of the Ages, e.g. exposure of the legal system, with its ducking stools and pillories, of the huge influence of the Church over the king and country, and the corruption of both.  For example, the character Lady Lucre, Falsehood’s daughter, aided by Fraud, Flattery and Guile, first beguiles Father Simony and Lord Civil Law, and then bribes the members of the King’s court – the Clergy, Counsellors, a Friar, the Mayor, with a variety of gold and silver coins, jewels, titles, seats in the Bishop’s court, stained glass windows and donations of funds.  When the King, in an attempt to reform her, suggests she marry Conscience, she complies hurriedly.  But Conscience wants nothing to do with her, and is backed in his judgements of her by Reason, who finally sways the King with his arguments.  By her actions Lucre represents “another kind of payment … which men grasp at – the bribes they get for supporting evil-doers” (Goodridge/Langland, 1959, p. 89), rather than money “which labourers receive from their master … [as] … a fair wage.  Nor is there any lucre in trading with goods”. (ibid, p. 89)

This personification of characteristics is obviously allegorical, used to bring home the message of corruption within the systems, caused by the Seven Deadly Sins, and to offer an alternative way of life involving prayer.  Lady Holy Church, the daughter of God, representing the heavenly Church, talks with the dreamer, William, when she comes to interpret his dream.  “[H]e bows before her and asks the crucial question from which the action of the poem springs: ‘Tell me, O Lady whom men call Holy, … How may I save my soul?’” (ibid, p. 17 & 72)  He also asks her: “…show me some way by which I can recognize Falsehood” (ibid, p. 76) illuminating another theme that flows through the narrative.

The marriage, trial and downfall of Lady Lucre, Falsehood’s daughter follows as examples of recognizable falsehood and evil.  The Seven Deadly sins confess and Piers the Plowman appears to lead the crowd on a physical journey of their spiritual quest to find Truth.  During this narrative phase their mode of social life is exposed, via their coarse behaviour, and colloquial language – with the use of similes like “Dead as a door nail”/ (ibid, p. 75)”as ded as a dore-tree” (Passus I, Line 185 – Skeat, 1958, p. 14), and humour, such as, Crime “shall sit in [the] stocks till his dying day …. [and] make sure he never sees his feet for years.” (ibid, pp. 96 & 95)    Stereotypical characters such as inn-keepers, and blacksmiths are mainly seen in relation to the allegorical personifications, and to the converted pious Piers himself.  In his work, Langland used personification of abstractions and institutions to achieve an interaction between them and individuals within the community.  Also his use of real places, intertwining reality with the imaginary, generates an authenticity within the narrative – “the numerous allusions to London, are taken as facts in someone’s life”. (Tolkien, 1995, p. 11)

Another form of allegory was achieved by the use of symbolism, often in conjunction with personifications.  While, as already mentioned, “allegory is a mode of expression [which] belongs to the form of poetry, more than to its content … [s]ymbolism is a mode of thought…” Lewis, 1958, p. 48)  Allegory while incorporating it in creative action, can be “distinguished from symbolism, whose ancient and profound images are less readily interpretable in rational terms.” (Piehler, 1971, p 11)  Symbols are used to represent things rather than events, for example a dove representing peace symbolizes it in a narrative (or painting) about war. It is important to understand that “…we are dealing with a period when …. their waking imagination was strongly moved by symbols and the figures of allegory, and filled vividly with the pictures evoked by the scriptures, directly or through the wealth of medieval art.” (Tolkien, 1995, p. 10)  Dream-visions were accepted as signs from God, and particularly believable when experienced and recorded by a poet in “great bereavement and trouble in spirit” (ibid, p. 10), as was the author of Pearl.

The narrative poem, Pearl, was an example of this symbolic allegory – using symbolism juxtaposed with personification.  As a symbol of purity and innocence, a pearl represents the author’s daughter, named Pearl (Margaret or Marguerite), who dies as an innocent child, two years of age. The author, in Pearl, “enlarged his vision of his dead daughter among the blessed to an allegory of the Divine generosity…” (ibid, p. 3)  She returns as a young maiden, the bride of Christ (one of many), dressed in white embellished with pearls, in a dream-vision to visit her grieving father as he sleeps by her grave.  Once again the overall theme is one of salvation – Pearl is essentially

an argument on salvation …. aris[ing] directly from the
grief, which imparts deep feeling and urgency to the whole
discussion …. the debate represents a long process of
thought and mental struggle, an experience as real as
the first blind grief of bereavement. (ibid, p. 13)

The author, in his role of bereaved father argues with his daughter initially for her return to him, and then for permission to cross the river and join her in Heaven.  When he tries to do so the vision vanishes and he is left alone by her grave.

I woke in that garden as before,
My head upon that mound was laid
Where once to earth my pearl had strayed….
And I cried aloud then piteously:
‘O Pearl, renowned beyond compare!
How dear was all that you said to me,
That vision true while I did share. (ibid, pp. 126-7)

By her revelation of the city of Heaven, and her blissful sanctified position as Christ’s bride there, despite her infancy and because of her innocence, she allays her father’s fears for her and lays his grief to rest.  Allegorically the fears of the poem’s audience are reassured of the attainment of salvation by all who are pure and innocent, whether baptized or not.  Mourners should get over their grief and move on with life in a manner that could lead to their re-union in Heaven later.

It is important to understand the importance of the first-person narrator in these medieval allegorical tales. According to Tolkien in his Introduction to his translation of the poem,  “… in Pearl…. the ‘I’ of the dreamer remained the eyewitness, the author, and facts that he referred to outside the dream … were on a different plane, meant to be taken as literally true …”. (ibid, pp. 10-11)  This imaginary narrator, in reality the author, acted as an eyewitness to the events of the tale as they unfolded – “[t]ales of the past required their grave authorities, and tales of new things at least an eyewitness…”. (ibid, p.10)  Tolkien knew that the Middle Ages was a time when men believed that dreams, though confused and unreliable, held “visions of truth”.

This was one of the reasons for the popularity of visions:
they allowed marvels to be placed within the real world,
linking them with a person, a place, a time, while providing
them with an explanation in the phantasies of sleep …. So
even explicit allegory was usually presented as a thing seen
in sleep.” (ibid, pp. 9-10)

I have quoted Tolkien at length here because he explains the phenomenon of the dream-vision as allegorical vehicle with clarity.  And both works, Piers the Plowman, and Pearl, rely on the dream-vision to convey their important moral message to their audience. Tolkien believed that “the narrated vision in the more serious medieval writing [like Piers the Plowman, and Pearl] represented, if not an actual dream at least a real process of thought culminating in some resolution or turning-point of the interior life …”. (Tolkien, 1995, pp. 10-11)  William experiences this turning point at the end of Piers’ search for Truth, and Pearl’s father experiences it upon waking by the grave.  As a narrative vehicle, the dream-vision allowed the author/ poet great flexibility of material and character within this thought process that created the forms of allegory – moral, religious, social and political.

(C) Jud House  30/04/1998


Piers the Plowman

Langland, W. (1377) Piers the Plowman.  Edited by Skeat, Rev. W W (1869)Edition: (1958)  Oxford:  Clarendon Press.

Langland, W. (1377) Piers the Ploughman.  Edited by Rieu, E V  Translation by Goodridge (1959)  Harmondsworth:  Penguin Classics, Penguin Books.


Tolkien, J R R (1995)  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo.  London:  Harper Collins Publishers

General Texts

Arnold, R. (1963)  Kings, Bishops, Knights and Pawns – Life in a Feudal Society.  London: Constable Young Books Ltd.

Brooke, C. (1971)  The Structure of Medieval Society. London:  Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Lewis, C S (1936)  The Allegory of Love – A Study of Medieval Tradi-tion.  New York: A Galaxy Book, Oxford University Press 1958.

Ker, W P (1896, 1908) Epic and Romance – Essays on Medieval Literature.  New York:  Dover Publications, Inc. 1957.

Paxson, J J (1994)  The poetics of personification  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.

Piehler, P (1971)  The Visionary Landscape – A Study in Medieval Allegory.  London:  Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd.

Sherley-Price, Leo (1978) (Translator: 1955, 1968) Bede – A History of the English Church and People  Harmondsworth:  Penguin Classics, Penguin Books

Stone, Packer & Hoopes (1983)  The Short Story – An Introduction.  New York:  McGraw-Hill, Inc.

PART 1.  BEGINNINGS: FORMS OF EARLY STORIES – Myth and Legend;  Fable, Parable, Exemplum, and Allegory – pp 1 – 67.

Wrenn, C L (1967)  A Study of Old English Literature.  London:  George G Harrap & Co. Ltd. 1970.


Allison, Barrows, Blake, Carr, Eastman, & English Jnr; + Stallworthy (essay) (1983)  The Norton Anthology of Poetry 3rd Edition.   New York:  W W Norton & Company.  Pp 3 – 83

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