ENGL 203 / ENGL 330 / ENGL 512: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Introduction to Medieval Allegory

Definition: Allegory is a form of extended metaphor in which objects and persons within a narrative are equated with meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. The allegorical figure exists simultaneously on two levels of meaning--the literal one (what the figures does in the narrative), and the symbolic level (what the figure stands for, outside the narrative). Thus, allegory evokes a dual interest: in the events, characters and setting presented; and in the ideas they represent or the significance they bear. 

Allegory may involve the personification of abstract qualities (e.g. Gluttony, Envy, Truth, Beauty); the personification of an event (e.g. Death); or another sort of abstraction (e.g. Una in Book I of Spenser's Faerie Queene = the one True Church). It can be used to represent a historical personage (e.g. Piers Plowman = Christ; Gloriana in The Faerie Queene = Queen Elizabeth) or a category of individual (a Rosebud = a beloved Lady in the Romance of the Rose).Characters, events and setting may be historical, fictitious, or fabulous; the test is that these materials must represent meanings independent of the action described in the surface story. On the surface, the Romance of the Rose is about a young man who attends a sort of garden party; Piers Plowman about a peasant who guides a group of people looking for a nobleman; Everyman about a man who sets out on a journey and the people he meets; Book I of the Faerie Queene about a knight killing a dragon and rescuing a princess. On the allegorical level, however, the first is about a lover's efforts to win his lady, while the other three concern the duties of a Christian and the way to achieve salvation.

Note that the simple use of personification (e.g. talking animals, as in the Nun's Priest's Tale) does not consitute allegory in and of itself.  In an allegory, characters and objects symbolize abstract qualities, and the events recounted must convey a coherent message concerning those abstractions. Allegory is frequently, but not always, concerned with matters of great import: life and death; damnation and salvation; social or personal morality and immorality. It can also be used for satiric purposes.

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2002 

Click here for Piers Plowman Study Questions

Click here for Everyman Study Questions

Click here for Romance of the Rose Study Questions I, II and III

Click here for Medieval Lyrics and Song of Songs Study Questions

Return to ENGL 203 homepage
Return to ENGL 330 homepage
Return to ENGL 512 homepage
Return to Dr. Schwartz's Teaching Page
Return to Dr. Schwartz's homepage
Send me mail!