The medieval period, or the ‘Middle Ages’, resulted in literature that is both engrossing and beguiling. There is grit, romance, death, warfare, power and trauma. Whilst that is certainly true of any time period, medieval literature stands out, mainly because the art feels timeless, as if it’s commentary transcends the time period, and will stick to the reader for all eternity.
Very few time periods can do that. Also, the medieval shaped our modern world, and enriched genres ranging from romance to fantasy.
Last week, I made a video about how the fantasy genre is shaped by the medieval, particularly in stories such as Harry Potter. You can watch it here:
In it, I conveyed a key strength of medieval literature: the rich and nuanced commentary on love and death. When I consider medieval history, it is done with a melancholic light. I understand the carnage of the many conflicts, I can comprehend the unfairness of the various justice systems. The Middle Ages are not bewitching to the historian because they were pleasant times, but because they weren’t.
Through the blood-stained pages of history, the medieval reveals a time period where both men and women suffered, yet some manage to triumph. Others were shown mercy, whilst others found themselves like Esmeralda in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback Of Notre-Dame. Sure, there was great art, yet it came from pain and torment. Because of that, it’s hard to celebrate medieval literature purely from an aesthetical standpoint.
Beautiful art is not necessarily born out of beautiful times. Yet strong, everlasting, resilient literature is often the result of hardship and sorrow. And that’s why we must read and discuss medieval writing.
Yet it’s a huge field, spanning almost a thousand years, with a diverse range of languages and cultures. Where could a reader possibly start? In this post, I will introduce any reader, regardless of prior knowledge, to the basics of medieval literature. Most of the texts mentioned can be found online, free of charge. Relevant links are provided.
Start With: The Classics
To understand and fully appreciate what medieval literature was building on, it is beneficial to read the classics, particularly of Homer and Virgil.
If you’d like to take your reading of the classics further, Ovid and Cicero are apt choices. Classical philosophy is ripe with complexity, with Plato’s The Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics impacting on the world we live in today.
Rhetoric outlines key developments in communication, that were inherited by medieval politicans and lords.
You can read classical literature on this webpage, hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It’s a fantastic source, where texts are easy to read and relevant dates are given.
Once you have mastered the defining principles of classical literature, you are well prepared to interrogate medieval literature.
Reading Medieval Literature
In this part, (the bones of this blog post), I’ll give recommendations for relevant medieval literary texts. These aren’t divided by time periods, but by style, theme and geography.
The poetry of Old English is both joyful and melancholic. Like the very best writing, Old English features riddles, fantastic creatures, religious motifs, and gloom. We ought to remember the time periods of Viking invasions, that changed the scope of countries.
Here are our recommendations for Old English poetry:
It’s a well-known poem that is heavily cited in academic research. Yet Beowulf’s charms are not found in its linguistic competence or its fantastical imagery. No, Beowulf is exceptional because it discusses heroism, loyalty, bravery, vengeance and all the blood that those things require. There is little reason to spoil the plot or events: Beowulf works best when it tricks us into Grendel’s games, or traps us into a riddle with no easy answers.
Beowulf is a crucial text in medieval literature, and a fantastic starting point.
England is changing, and The Wanderer mourns the loss of a past. Stained with grief, loneliness, and the raw anger that only a melancholic person could feel, The Wanderer is an essential short poem. Particular strengths of it lies in the winter imagery regarding hail and snow, or the desperate pleas by the poet, such as “Where are the seats at the feast.”
Overall, The Wanderer conveys pain with an effectiveness that modern authors could learn from.
Old Norse Sagas
In a previous blog post about favourite literary movements, I expressed my appreciation for Norse sagas. Since then, I’ve read more, and I find myself deeply moved by the depth, the complexity and strange beauty of the Old Norse sagas. These literary delights allow us to travel into the accounts of families once great, but have now faded away.
All sagas mentioned are found here. My recommendations are:
A saga that causes both adoration and fear admist the pools of blood from ancestors past. Egil’s Saga reminds us of our fragility among the epic landscapes of Scandinavia. Yet imagery and emotional depth are not the only strengths of this Norse Saga: it has the unsettling ability to feel like an account of history unwinding. That’s good writing, which is a sharp focus of medieval literature.
After you visit Egil’s Saga, look back at Homer’s The Iliad. Many motifs are similar: especially regarding family and loyalty. Yet the Norse saga feels more intimate, as if the bloodshed and the whispering figure of death could visit us.
Possibly the most well-known Norse saga, and it is for a good reason. Like Egil’s Saga, we enter a world haunted by grief, and written by vengeance. Yet Hrafnkel’s Saga is not necessarily bleak: there is logical wisdom in it, especially regarding tactics, loyalty, and peace. It also reminds us of the fruitless nature of revenge: we may desire the destruction of those who wrong us, but that doesn’t mean we will ever get it.
Because of that, Hrafnkel’s Saga is a timeless statement, that mirrors modern discussions about peace and justice. It’s those elements that make Hrafnkel’s Saga a must read.
The story is a classic, yet authors interpret it differently. However, what remains consistent are the emphasis on love and deception. Developed from Celtic mythology, the Arthurian Legend translates magic onto the stage of history. You can spend days reading Arthurian Legends, as it still captivates people today.
For now, we recommend:
Culhwch and Olwen
Hailing from Wales, the original manuscript today only bears some surviving parts. Yet those that managed to survive, shine. Fusing geography, romance, and fantasy, the anonymous author demonstrates creativity and wit. Particular praise must be given to the descriptions of landscapes: they are captivating, welcoming and delightful to the reader.
Culhwch and Olwen’s world is escapist, and truly a standout folktale.
Sir Gawain And The Green Knight
This is a delightful read. The characters are terrific and charming. Admist the spellbinding backdrop of the Middle Ages, the anonymous writer draws you into a magical world that plays out like a heroic epic from Ancient Greece, but also similar to a Shakespeare comedy.
Written in Middle English, there is a game-like feel of Sir Gawain And The Green Knight. It reads like a riddle, and that is a strength of medieval literature. Best of all, you don’t need to learn to love the magical Middle Ages. That is because you already do.
Traces of Sir Gawain And The Green Knight are found in modern fantasy and romance. Reading Sir Gawain And The Green Knight will help remind you why those genres remain appealing, centuries later.
There are many versions of the Tristan and Iseult tragedy to pick from, in a variety of languages. Yet the pick is ‘Sir Tristrem’, or better known as the Auchinleck manuscript. In it, we follow the lives of two doomed lovers: Tristan and Iseult. Despite having the hallmarks of a traditional fantasy quest, (there is even a dragon!), this is a poem drenched in sadness.
I like reading it before or after Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, because it highlights the entanglements of the medieval times with great dexterity. It was a time of both happy endings and of tragedy, with characters lacking foresight to realise what group they are in. Another effective trait of medieval literature is how it adds humanity to the Middle Ages, to avoid it being a mere relic of history, where little happened.
The Canterbury Tales By Geoffrey Chaucer
A collection of stories like no other, and one of the finest works of medieval literature. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer is legendary in its impact and skill. Make no mistake, Chaucer is an effective wordsmith, as he crafts sentences with a hypnotic style.
Within the pages, you’ll find the most recognisable stories of the medieval, from The Knight’s Tale to the Miller’s Prologue. It’s a classic, and an essential read.
France has had a long spanning history of ‘fantastique’ literature, with its bountiful and almost idiosyncratic interpretations of fantasy, science fiction and horror. During the medieval time period, France shined. Many of these texts, written in Old French, delight to this day.
Here are the recommendations:
The Romance Of The Rose
Le Roman De La Rose dances between allegorical dreams and courtly drama. The medieval poem also has a controversial history, with its provactive imagery. It gives marvellous insight into philosophy, love, reason and the emotions that define our actions.
On a personal note, what I love most about Le Roman De La Rose is the vast and sensual descriptions of clothing, scenary, people, food, items, etc. It gives a richness that makes fantastique literature so great.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to find a suitable version online in both English and Old French that is accessible to all. I recommend a local or a university library, as both ought to have it.
The Work of Robert De Boron
A French poet, who graced us with Joseph d’Arimathe, managed to effectively fuse his Christian background with grand ideas. Most notably, he is known for his work on The Holy Grail, and writing poems such as Merlin.
Although little is known about him (as with many medieval authors), his work will interest those who want to read more medieval literature.
There is little space to mention all of medieval literature, yet I recommend the following for those wanting greater depth into the time period:
The Divine Comedy By Dante Alighieri
What can be said about this masterpiece of poetry that hasn’t already been said, a thousand times over? The Divine Comedy takes us from the nightmares of Inferno to the heavenly grace of Paradiso. However, Dante’s poetry is nuanced, with rich aesthetics and allusions to our greatest fears and temptations.
Although the allegorical style of Dante isn’t as popular now as it was in the medieval ages, it offers a brilliant insight into the minds of the Middle Ages. Yet, like The Wanderer, it has a timeless air about it. Drenched in all four temperaments, The Divine Comedy is a must read for any serious medieval literature lover.
Lais Of Marie De France
I was unsure whether to list her in Fantastique or Arthurian, as Marie De France strands between both, yet manages to add a unique insight that makes studying her enriching. In this collection of poetry, a few stand out, such as ‘Bisclavret’ which features a werewolf, or ‘Laüstic,‘ the melancholic encounter between a woman and a nightingale.
Through her work, Marie De France demonstrates the triumphs and tragedies of love. That’s a high strength of medieval literature: it’s ability to see both the light and the dark in the same thing.
Also consider her translation of Aesop’s Fables, which shows the remarkability and attraction of the classical period for medieval writers.
Finish With The Modern Reception Of The Medieval
The medieval time period covers around a thousand years, and that delievered tremendous literature. Of course the authors of modernity will be inspired by such a period. In this section, I’ll recommend key texts that demonstrate key traits of medievalism.
Beren and Lúthien by J.RR Tolkien (with heavy edits by his son, Christopher Tolkien)
I had the pleasure of reading Beren and Lúthien a few weeks ago, and was pleased at its ability to recount medieval themes through poetry and prose. In this story, we follow Beren, a mortal, who is in love with Lúthien, an elf. Morgoth, the terrifying evil, makes an appearance, riddling the should-be fantastic world of Middle Earth with his terror.
Yet what makes this underappreciated work from Tolkien stand out is its linguistic competence. Every sentence is artistic, yet serves a purpose. It also feels experimental, and Tolkien is at his best, even if he was unsure about some of his writing. The poetry is excellent. I also recommend Beren and Lúthien to those who struggle with The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings– it’s an easy read, and a great one at that.
The Hunchback Of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo
What is mesmeric about Victor Hugo is that he is unafraid to put his characters in vulnerable and revealing positions. Although Les Miserables gets alot of attention, and rightfully so, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is also terrific. Hugo goes well and above telling a medieval tale, he adds romantic commentary on the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris (which is sadly relevant after the fire in 2019).
He writes with such passion and persistence, that is deeply moving. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he tells the heartbreaking story of Quasimodo, the bell-ringer of the cathedral. The story is laced with calamity, and will stick with you, long after.
Studying romanticism is crucial to understand medievalism. Despite the Middle Ages being associated with butchery and blackness, the romantic writers manage to challenge the unyielding machinery of the industrial, with appeals to emotion and faith. Because of that, it’s easy to cherish honest and insightful authors like Victor Hugo, who’ll break our hearts, every single time.
Harry Potter by J.K Rowling
As a Harry Potter fan myself, I deeply enjoy the medievalism in Harry Potter. I mention it quite heavily in my attached video. Yet as I argue there, JK Rowling’s crowning glory isn’t medieval because of aesthetics, but because of her deep and nuanced understanding of love, death and how it impacts on us. Her series also appeals to a time where magic danced with reason, and welcomes us to a world of many possibilities.
Hogwarts is simply fantastic, yet like the Middle Ages itself: there is both darkness and light. Rowling’s expert fusion of various emotions are partially the reason why Harry Potter stands out today. She’s also got a knack for mysteries, and can keep the reader guessing.
Personally, I’m enjoying the illustrated editions of Harry Potter right now, and am pleased to say that they are not ‘cut down’ or the like.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Oh, this play is a delight and a triumph of the English language. Shakespeare is a genius, but it is on full display in Macbeth. With topics of power and prophecies, Macbeth plays like a riddle in a similar way as Culhwch and Olwen. Macbeth is highly quotable, with legendary lines such as ‘Something wicked this way comes’ influencing authors such as JK Rowling and Ray Bradbury.
If you haven’t read it already, what are you doing? Here’s your chance now, with this online copy from MIT.
The Middle Ages were a time period of significant change. As said earlier, there was both light and dark. It can’t be defined by a single motif or image, yet it can be appreciated as a time of great literature, and the triumph of the human artist.
Although I couldn’t include every text of medieval literature, I encourage further reading and research.
What are your thoughts? Comment below, and share any recommendations.