I understand this may depend on various factors, but I am interested to find out whether many/some/any people in 13th century England would have knowledge of the stories out of Greek mythology. Specifically, an east coast port town, if that would make a difference.

If so, would this knowledge have been limited to any social class more than others, or depend on a certain level of education/literacy?

Third, what was the most likely source of this knowledge?

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    @HorusKol Well the Renaissance was in full swing by the 16th and 17th centuries, during which interest in, and knowledge of, Classical Greece were revived. Quite incomparable to the 13th century.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 13, 2017 at 23:28
  • Peasants, merchants, nobles, scholars? More fundamentally, what was the literacy rate in 13th C England? school attendance rate? Sure, it would have depended hugely on class.
    – smci
    Dec 15, 2017 at 2:28

3 Answers 3


Quite a bit, actually. Graeco-Roman mythology was a significant part of the education curriculum. Much of the educated elite would have been broadly familiar with ancient Greek mythologies through its Latin form, albeit overlaid with a Christian point of view.

In High Medieval England, an anthology of six works known collectively as the Liber Catonianus (aka Sex Auctores) became a standard textbook of sorts. Widely used in English schools, they notably included:

Together, these texts provided medieval English students with a somewhat surprisingly rich education in ancient Graeco-Roman religion and culture.

Both Claudian and Statius were Ancient Roman poets, while the Eclogue is dated to between the 9th and 10th centuries, written perhaps by a Saxon theologian called Gottschalk of Orbais. A translation is available here, which gives you an idea of what a 13th century student in England would've known. It contains many Graeco-Roman myths familiar even to a modern audience, for example the myth of Proserpina. Moreover, its status as a standard text for instruction means we can expect the educated class to be reasonably familiar with its contents.

Much of the myths related by the Eclogue would also have been widely available in the form of two more sources: Metamorphoses by Ovid, and the works of Virgil. Both Roman poets drew considerably on Graeco-Roman mythological traditions, and were held in extremely high literary esteem by Medieval Europeans. Virgil's Fourth Eclogue was even perceived as a messianic prediction of the birth birth of Jesus. Their popularity during the Middle Ages was a significant influence on writers of the time: Metamorphoses clearly had a big impact on the works of Chaucer, for instance. Given their status as Medieval pop culture blockbusters, most educated people in the 1200s were likely familiar with their works.

Note that all of this were Latin, at the time the lingua franca of Western Europe including England. The relative abundance of information on Classical mythology were likewise transmitted from mainly Romans via Latin poetry. Whatever knowledge of Greek traditions existed was, therefore, filtered through a Roman viewpoint.

Further Reading:
Orme, Nicholas. Medieval Schools: From Roman Britain to Renaissance England. Yale University Press, 2006.
Hunt, Tony. Teaching and Learning Latin in Thirteenth-Century England. Boydell & Brewer, 1991.
Wallace, David, ed. The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Apart from Latin works such as those mentioned above, classical texts were largely "lost" to Western Europe during the Middle Ages, due to the knowledge of Greek becoming very rare in the Latin West. In the 13th century, however, a rediscovery was just beginning to occur. Many classical texts had been translated into Arabic following the rise of Islam. Starting with the reconquest of Toledo in 1085, a large collection of such "lost" works fell into European hands. The Arabic translations were relatively easily re-translated into Latin, and in this way classical knowledge spread throughout Latin Europe again.

Of course, these were still transmitted in Latin. So if any text on Greek mythology reached 13th century England in this way, literacy in Latin would still be required to understand it first hand.

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    Thank you for your well researched and informative answer - this is very useful information indeed. :)
    – celkie
    Dec 13, 2017 at 18:09
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    @HorusKol Knowledge would have filtered down from the educated, but beyond that you cannot make any claims. The "common people" were not a monolithic block. Different people, with different interests and intelligence and means, could and did gain different levels of knowledge. I'd bet most of them cared/knew more about Germanic paganism than distant Greek deities though.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 13, 2017 at 21:51
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    @HorusKol Except at the time of Shakespeare Western Civilisation had a renewed interest in Classical Antiquity, which wasn't the case in the 13th century because the Renaissance hadn't happened yet. Not sure why you keep ignoring this with your profoundly invalid comparisons to Shakespeare. Also, 30% literacy is very high compared to like ~5% in the 1200s.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 14, 2017 at 6:03
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    I am seeing a lot of references to people from different centuries as being evidence of something in another century. This is a fallacy. Think about what is commonly known today by most people and then what was likely commonly known in 1917. @HorusKol & others
    – Minativ7
    Dec 14, 2017 at 8:16
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    I did wonder about theatre and whether any based on Greek myth would have been performed during that time (thus making them more accessible to the masses). My question however did not specifically ask whether or not common folk knew about the myths; instead who or what groups of people might. The detailed response Semaphore has given is perfectly sufficient and a useful answer. If the bulk of knowledge was within the educated that gives me a good foundation to work from to further investigate the topic.
    – celkie
    Dec 14, 2017 at 8:26

The Nun's Priest's Tale from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:

Lo heere Andromacha, Ectores wyf,

That day that Ector sholde lese his lyf,

She dremed on the same nyght biforn […]

He wente for to fighte natheles,

But he was slayn anon of Achilles.

It would seem that Chaucer doesn't feel the need to give a lot of background on who Hector, Andromacha and Achilles are and why they're fighting.

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    @Graham Lee But who were Chaucer's target audience? I doubt it's the unwashed masses, if only because they wouldn't have been able to afford books. Dec 14, 2017 at 1:55
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    But the OP asked about the 13th century, so Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales are about 100 years too late.
    – bof
    Dec 14, 2017 at 4:22

The Iliad, the most important of Greek Mythology, in ancient times was at the center of western education. Children in Greece prior to the Roman expansion started learning with the Iliad, and the Iliad remained a prominent part of education through the Roman era into the middle ages. Not just Homer was important, but it is also my understanding that the works of Aristotle and Galen were studied as a part of medical training until the 1800s.

In western Europe in the "dark ages" literacy even among clergy was lower, but with the Renaissance there was a revival of Classical Education which according to Wikipedia was led by Petrus Ramus. Children from families that could afford it (and desired it), received such an education.

So the question is, what about England in the 1300s? What was the state of classical education, and hence knowledge of the Iliad and hence Greek mythology in general? This source mentions the Quadrivium being prevalent in Medieval Europe at that time.

So I think odds are if someone in 1300s England could read, they learned to read via some variant of classical education. And if they learned via classical education, they would know some Homer and Greek Mythology. If they could not read, odds are lower that they would know about this, or much else.

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    The Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, musical harmony, and astronomy) is a bit of a stretch here. More relevant is that those who had been educated around 1300 would be literate in Latin though probably not Greek, so more in contact with Greek mythology through Roman writers such Virgil and Ovid than directly from Homer.
    – Henry
    Dec 13, 2017 at 15:21
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    Homer in Latin can be viewed here. Dec 13, 2017 at 15:23
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    That translation was made in 1537, a product of the Renaissance after Greek had re-entered the curriculum. It is rather like the New Testament: the Vulgate was used across western Europe until Renaissance education brought the ability to make new translations into Latin and vernacular languages. Immediately before the renaissance, new direct translations from Greek texts were even rarer than translations of Arabic editions of them coming through Spain and Italy
    – Henry
    Dec 13, 2017 at 15:56
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    1300s is not 13th century. Dec 15, 2017 at 13:04

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