Time for You to Brush Up On the 12 Greatest Works of Medieval Literature
Time for You to Brush Up On the 12 Greatest Works of Medieval Literature

Time for You to Brush Up On the 12 Greatest Works of Medieval Literature

Tim Flight - May 7, 2018

Medieval literature is by far the least popular aspect of English Literature degrees worldwide. Usually studied only when mandatory, it is hard for lecturers (in this author’s experience) to drum up much interest from students expecting to spend their degree reading Shakespeare and Wordsworth. Medieval literature is hard work: its great age makes it difficult to understand at first, and on a degree programme usually requires learning a new extinct language. Students who apply themselves, however, find a vast and varied corpus with prescient themes, unsurprising given that what is known as the ‘middle ages’ spans around 1, 000 years.

It is a paradox that, although medieval history continues to intrigue, the literature of the period is largely ignored. However, as Cicero said, the library is the ‘soul of the house’, and so we can learn much about the people who lived through the tumultuous millennium of battles, religious change, and conquest. This list of the dozen best literary works of the period is necessarily subjective, and is also confined to texts with available modern translations. That said, it is hoped that the items on the list will give readers a useful introduction into the bounteous treasures of medieval literature.

Time for You to Brush Up On the 12 Greatest Works of Medieval Literature
Geoffrey Chaucer, depicted on the Ellesmere Manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, England, c.1400-10. Wikimedia Commons

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400) must rank as one of history’s greatest polymaths. He was an astronomer, civil servant, diplomat, philosopher, and writer. His knowledge of chemistry meant that he was still being cited as a source for alchemy centuries after his death. His literary output is of such consistently-high quality that any one of his surviving works could justifiably be placed on this list; The Canterbury Tales is included for its variety, and number of translations. Perhaps his greatest achievement was to raise the English language to the status of French and Latin in literature, paving the way for others.

The Canterbury Tales is a selection of stories told by character-narrators within the frame-narrative of a pilgrimage to St. Thomas à Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. The genres range from lofty epic and romance to Breton lais, didactic literature, and even fabliaux (bawdy tales with obscene climaxes). Even the General Prologue, in which the characters are introduced, belongs to a popular genre of the fourteenth century, the estates satire (a mockery of the various classes). Each of these genres are parodied and satirised through Chaucer’s devastatingly accurate mimicry, his ability to write in so many genres demonstrating his inestimable skill.

So much more than just literary genres are mocked: every character’s class is scrutinised and lampooned, from the lowly Reeve to the Knight. Even Chaucer himself does not escape parody: he appears as a pilgrim and narrator in The Canterbury Tales, and his first attempt at telling a story is so poor that he is stopped mid-flow by the churlish innkeeper, Harry Bailey. There is nuanced interplay between the tales told and their narrators, brought about through the inclusion of the General Prologue. For example, the Pardoner’s deceitful character is at troublesome odds to the wonderful moral yarn he spins.

The Canterbury Tales have a continuing relevance to today’s society. See, for example, the depiction of inflexible honour and warfare in the Knight’s Tale, the corruption of the clergy in the Summoner’s Tale, and the all-consuming sexual jealousy of the foolish Januarie in the Merchant’s Tale. As a whole, the pilgrim-narrators stand as both a celebration of the diversity of people and a warning against judging others too quickly: important lessons which today’s world leaders would do well to learn. The pilgrimage itself serves as an allegory for the journey of life, as we all head towards a promised land.

Given its masterful range of genres, there really is no better introduction to medieval literature or society. In its time, The Canterbury Tales was one of the most popular texts, based on the number of manuscripts of it that survive. It offers an invaluable and satirical snapshot of England at the crucial period of the late 14th-century: having survived the Black Death and the Peasant’s Revolt, the country was heading towards the usurpation of King Richard II and a slide into the Wars of the Roses. Timeless relevance, literary excellence, and historical context all make The Canterbury Tales essential reading.

Time for You to Brush Up On the 12 Greatest Works of Medieval Literature
The Sutton Hoo helmet, possibly once belonging to King Raedwald, East Anglia, England, 7th Century. Wikimedia Commons

Beowulf

Almost everything about Beowulf is a mystery. It survives in a single early 11th-century manuscript, the Nowell Codex, but as a story is certainly far older. It is likely to be a tale originally passed on orally by a scop (Anglo-Saxon minstrel), and there is fierce debate over when it was precisely composed. It tells a tale set in the Germanic past, when people were pagan and brutal (justified) violence was a commendable character trait, and yet was deemed worthy of being copied onto vellum (a very expensive proceeding) by a monk or clerk of a Christian establishment.

The story has what is known as ‘Christian colouring’, small references to Christianity presumably put in to justify its being copied into a manuscript by an ecclesiastical figure. There is further great debate over what else was added by the scribe. Despite being an Anglo-Saxon text and the English National Epic, none of the action takes place in England, but chiefly in Scandinavia and, briefly, northern continental Europe. There is even debate over the precise subject of the poem: is it the tale of three fights with monsters with added Germanic history, or are Beowulf’s monster-slayings just a frame narrative?

Regardless of the debate, Beowulf as it exists is a phenomenal text. It begins with Beowulf, a young warrior from Geatland (Southern Sweden), travelling to the court of King Hrothgar in Denmark. He is there to fulfil a debt of honour incurred by his father, by killing a monster which has been killing and eating Hrothgar’s men every night for many years. This monster is Grendel, a giant who brazenly enters Heorot, the mighty hall of Hrothgar, to capture his prey. Beowulf kills Grendel by ripping his arm off, fatally wounding him. Learning of this, Grendel’s Mother seeks revenge.

Beowulf then kills Grendel’s Mother in her lair (NB the subtle comparison between the monsters who kill Hrothgar’s men in their home and Beowulf’s actions here). The disturbing thing about the Grendelkin is that they are said to be descended from Cain (the fratricidal son of Adam and Eve), and are thus human, which makes their crimes all the more appalling. They also live in a place described in a deliberately similar manner to Heorot. Beowulf eventually becomes king of the Geats, and dies at a great age when killing a troublesome dragon, at which point the poem ends.

There is simply not enough space here to praise Beowulf‘s verbal artistry. The poem makes use of evocative compound nouns known as kennings (eg. swanrade, ‘swan-road’, or sea), litotes (dramatic understatement), and has some of the most harrowing descriptions of monsters in the English language. And yet there are also moving soliloquies on the transience of life and the uncertainty of fate, and an interrogation of what it means to be a hero. If you want to know more about Anglo-Saxon England, look no further – descriptive detail about armour and architecture in Beowulf has been verified by archaeologists.

Time for You to Brush Up On the 12 Greatest Works of Medieval Literature
Egil Skallagrimsson, depicted on a manuscript from Iceland, 17th Century. Times Literary Supplement

Egil’s Saga

The best introduction to Icelandic sagas comes in the form of Egil’s Saga, whose earliest manuscript dates back to 1240. Icelandic sagas can be a daunting prospect: they are usually long (hence the popular usage of ‘saga’ to mean a tedious length of time), full of as much detail about subjects as banal as sheep farming as fascinating heroic deeds, and are delivered in a frustratingly objective, pseudo-historical manner. Egil’s Saga is probably the most accessible. Like Beowulf, the text uses the exploits of a probably-fictional character to describe an era of history, in this case the years 850-1000.

The titular character of Egil’s Saga is Egil Skallagrimsson, an Icelandic farmer, Viking, and skald (poet). The saga is arranged around his ancestry and life to relate Icelandic history and the lives of the period’s great characters. This period was the height of the Viking Age, when Scandinavian seafarers travelled to North Africa, Kiev and the Volga, Constantinople and Baghdad, and even as far west as North America (long before Columbus). The Vikings did not only immolate and pillage: they conducted trade in luxury items and served as mercenaries for foreign kings, leaving behind poetry, folklore, and ornamented treasure.

Egil Skallagrimsson composes his first verses at the age of 3, and aged 7 kills another older boy. Soon he is out on Viking raids. These early incidents set the tone for Egil’s life: he is at once violent and artistic, carrying out acts of horrific violence and then reflecting on them through verse. His first murder also demonstrates what is to come, for he feels aggrieved at the older boy causing others to laugh at him, and settles the matter through bloodshed. Multi-talented Egil splits his time between Viking raids in summer and farming back in Scandinavia.

Though a humble farmer, Egil also spends much of his life standing up to the kings of Norway who try to impinge upon him. Most prominent is his feud with King Eirik Bloodaxe (a real 10th century king of Norway and Northumbria), inherited from their fathers and exacerbated by numerous social shunnings, Queen Gunnhild’s hatred of Egil, and several murders. Egil is actually caught by Eirik in England and due to be executed, but manages to save his life by reciting a beautiful skaldic poem. The complex interplay of verse and violence is an important theme in the saga.

Egil’s Saga is also full of humour, much of which derives from the narrator’s disinterested detachment. In Chapter 72, an outrageously-drunk Egil is displeased by his host, the wealthy-landowner Armod. Feeling sick, Egil simply pins Armod to the wall, unleashing a great torrent of vomit all over his face and down his throat. ‘Armod was close to choking, and when he managed to let out his breath, a jet of vomit gushed out with it’. Egil simply protests, ‘don’t blame me for following the master of the house’s example. He’s spewing his guts up just as much as I am.’

Time for You to Brush Up On the 12 Greatest Works of Medieval Literature
Detail from an illuminated Manuscript of The Decameron, Ferrara, Italy, c.1467. Bodleian Library

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) was born in or near Florence, Tuscany, and devoted his life to writing. His father had hoped Giovanni would follow in his footsteps to the banking industry, but his son persuaded him to let him study Canon Law (church law) in Naples. After beginning his career as a writer, Boccaccio returned to Florence in 1340 due to political tensions making the status of a Florentine in Naples potentially dangerous. Boccaccio wrote many surviving works in both Italian and Latin, showing himself a master of both poetry and prose, and was patronised at courts around Italy.

Like The Canterbury Tales (on which it was a strong influence), The Decameron (a portmanteau of Greek words, meaning ‘ten days’) is a collection of tales within a frame-narrative. The frame-narrative sees a group of 7 young men and 3 women fleeing Florence for Fiesole to escape the Black Death, which arrived in the city in 1348. They spend 14 days together in a deserted villa, and for 5 nights a week (hence the title) each tells a story on a subject or theme set by a different member of their party. In total, the monumental work contains 100 novellas.

In a further similarity to The Canterbury Tales, the stories of The Decameron satirise details of contemporary life. Some tell of the greed and corruption of the clergy (picking up on Dante’s diatribes against them in The Divine Comedy), others the tensions between aristocratic families and the parvenu merchant class that was rising at the time (the Medici in Florence, for example). Throughout The Decameron runs Boccaccio’s almost modern sympathy for the plight of women, who were denied liberty and freedom of speech in 14th-century Tuscany while, simultaneously, men were free to indulgence themselves in learning, fun, and fulfilling careers.

Overall, the sentiments and construction of The Decameron make it a good place for modern readers to start in medieval literature. Boccaccio’s decision to write in prose, rather than the more esteemed form of verse, makes it especially accessible, as it is free of overt artistic flourishes and pretence. The collection’s variety of theme and genre means that there is something for everyone. Boccaccio is so great a writer that he is claimed by medieval and Renaissance critics alike for their period; Boccaccio exists on the border between the periods, and his work is all the more fascinating for it.

Time for You to Brush Up On the 12 Greatest Works of Medieval Literature
Plowing the land, from The Luttrell Psalter, England, 1325-35. Dorking Museum

William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman

Contemporary with The Canterbury Tales, The Vision of Piers Plowman is a dream-vision written by an obscure minor clergyman called William Langland. It was almost as popular as Chaucer’s more famous collection, surviving in almost 60 manuscripts. Of the author, we know nothing definitive beyond his name, and the fact that he wrote Piers Plowman. We know this from the poem itself, for the narrator is Langland himself, who also tells us that he was a tall and thin man from Shropshire, and that the death of his patron meant that he was unable to progress far in the church.

If Piers Plowman is anything to go by, however, the 14th-century church was much the poorer for not promoting ‘Long Will’ beyond the minor clergy. Piers Plowman is a text with an enormous scope, providing a vivid snapshot of everyday life and taking satirical aim at it, within the pilgrimage of man’s soul to ultimate truth. The pilgrimage takes place within the narrator’s 6 individual visions, in which he is guided by the character of Piers Plowman. In the visions Will sees allegorised versions of sins and the challenges to man’s soul on the earthly journey, beset by vice.

Piers Plowman begins with a dream-vision of earth: ‘some laboured at ploughing and sowing, with no time for pleasure, sweating to produce food for others to waste. Others spent their lives in vanity, parading themselves in a show of fine clothes. But many, out of love for our Lord in the hope of heaven, led strict lives devoted to prayer and penance’ (I). We also see a satirical scene of a parliament of mice and rats ruled over by a tyrannical cat, whose scheme to tie a bell around its neck fails because none is brave enough to do so.

The clergy are also criticised: ‘in their greed for fine clothes, [friars] interpreted the Scriptures to suit themselves and their patrons’ (Ibid.) This encapsulates Langland’s vision of 14th-century England: people too poor to do anything but work, the vain and self-obsessed, a weak parliament afraid of their king, and widespread corruption amongst the clergy. His visions swiftly leave the earthly plane, and he follows Piers Plowman on the quest for truth and salvation. The simple truth he finds is that good deeds are all that matter in the eyes of the Lord, however corrupt the ministering church may become.

Piers Plowman embodies the eternal wisdom of Christ, unmediated through the corruption of the Church. This allows Langland as a poet to expand the vision of the poem beyond the specificities of the 14th century and to see the whole passage of Christian history, from the Crucifixion to the coming of the Anti-Christ. At the poem’s end, the personification of Conscience cries out: ‘I will become a pilgrim, and walk to the ends of the earth in search of Piers the Plowman’ (XX). The basic theme, of trying to live a good life in a corrupt world, still resonates.

Time for You to Brush Up On the 12 Greatest Works of Medieval Literature
Sir Gawain beheads the Green Knight, from its single manuscript witness, England, late 14th century. Wikimedia Commons

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Contemporary, again, with both Langland and Chaucer, the anonymous poet behind Gawain similarly offers a snapshot of England at a crucial period in its history. The poem is a mockery of the Arthurian Romance genre, simultaneously taking aim at the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of 14th-century life. It is an alliterative poem, with the elaborate feature of a ‘bob and wheel’ at the end of each verse, a self-conscious artifice that parodies the pomp and extravagance of the Arthurian court and the contemporary knightly class. The poem is also homoerotic in places, with additional emphasis on the power of female sexuality.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight begins one Christmas at Camelot. King Arthur’s feast is rudely interrupted by a churlish knight who rides into the hall on horseback. Along with the horse and his garments, the knight is entirely green. He demands a game: Arthur must strike him a blow with an axe, and receive the same blow himself from the Green Knight a year later. All of Camelot freezes in fear, but eventually the Green Knight goads Arthur into accepting the axe. Ashamed of his peers, young Sir Gawain insists that he take the blow, and beheads the knight.

This does not end the game: the Green Knight’s head rolls around the floor, and is picked up by his body. The headless knight makes arrangements with a terrified Gawain, who will lose his head as agreed on New Year’s Day the following year. After a long journey north to fulfil the obligation, Gawain arrives at the castle of Bertilak de Hautdesert, who promises to take Gawain to the Green Chapel, where the Green Knight awaits. Gawain agrees to another game: he will exchange anything he gains each day at the castle with Bertilak when the latter returns from hunting.

Gawain is visited in bed each day by Bertilak’s beautiful and flirtatious wife. For the first two days, Gawain must kiss Bertilak as his wife had kissed him, and receives dead animals in exchange. On the third day, Lady Bertilak gives Gawain a girdle which will save his life. He conceals this from Bertilak, and takes it with him to the Green Chapel. As he approaches, Gawain hears the sound of an axe being sharpened. Kneeling to receive the blow, Gawain first shrinks from the strike. The second does not connect, as the Green Knight tests his nerve.

The third merely nicks his neck, and the Green Knight reveals himself to be Bertilak in disguise. He only cut him because Gawain failed to give him the girdle as per their exchange game. The whole plan of the Green Knight, and the poem itself, is to test and interrogate the chivalric code by which Gawain and many in real life lived. In so doing, the poem takes deadly aim at the oft-contradictory virtues of bravery, honesty, romantic love, and chastity that chivalry preposterously demanded. Gawain is ashamed of his cowardice, and wears the girdle forever out of shame.

Time for You to Brush Up On the 12 Greatest Works of Medieval Literature
Owl mobbed by songbirds, England, c.1230-1240. Wikimedia Commons

The Owl and the Nightingale

The Owl and the Nightingale is 12th-13th century debate poem between two birds written in Early Middle English by an anonymous author. Medieval debate poems (also known as flyting) were savage ad hominem arguments between two adversaries, something akin to a modern day rap-battle. The date of the poem and the language chose for it are important to note. After the Norman Conquest, the Normans brought their own language, which blended with the existing Old English language, to create Anglo-Norman. With Normans taking up most important roles amongst the clergy, knights, and government, English was relegated to a lowly status.

Writing it in English, therefore, was an inherently political move. The poem itself also undermines the definition of English as the language of the lowest in society, for the author demonstrates his extensive knowledge of Scripture, theology, and classical literature alike. Much material for the poem is also taken from bestiaries (medieval treatises on natural history, with a didactic and theological bent), which held that owls and songbirds were natural enemies, as any birdwatcher today will tell you. The diurnal nightingale is vain and extremely proud of its pretty song, whereas the nocturnal owl is violent and well-learned.

Between them, the birds are trying to decide, quite simply, who is the best. ‘Fly away!’ rails the nightingale at the outset. ‘The sight of you makes me sick.’ ‘If I held you in my talons – if only I could! – and you were off your branch, you’d sing a very different tune!’ responds the owl. The birds proceed to stress their inherent worth, with the odd comic glance at contemporary fashions. The owl, for instance, is known for defecating in its own nest, but points out that the nobility now go to the toilet in their homes, too.

The clamorous birds cover much ground between them, with the owl stressing how useful its predation is to men, and the nightingale insisting that its song is more beneficial. The poem is worthy of inclusion not merely for its humour but the range of sources it quotes, which gives a sense of the level of learning at the time of its composition. Readers should prepare for maxims taken from the writings of Alfred the Great, knowledge from bestiaries, and quotations from Canon Law and Patristic theology. The question of which bird is best is left to the reader to decide.

Time for You to Brush Up On the 12 Greatest Works of Medieval Literature
The Song of Roland depicted in 8 stages, Flemish, mid-15th Century. Wikimedia Commons

The Song of Roland

The Song of Roland is the oldest surviving text in the French language, and was amongst the most popular tales in medieval Europe. Composed between 1040 and 1115, it grippingly describes the Battle of Roncevaux Pass (778), which took place in the reign of France’s greatest ever king, Charlemagne. Just as medieval England looked to King Arthur, and Scandinavian countries to the Viking Age, to inspire patriotic fervour, so too medieval France saw Charlemagne as a great hero whose example all wished to emulate. The likely date of composition can thus be contextualised with France’s contemporary Castilian campaigns.

Roland is a chanson de geste (‘song of [great] deeds’), a poetic genre which related great heroic feats and battles from the past. The chanson de geste originated, like Beowulf, in the oral tradition of the jongleur or minstrel, and would have been sung in front of a captive audience. Around 100 examples of the genre survive from the period 1100-1400, but Roland is by far the best-executed chanson. The story of Roland concerns the titular nephew of Charlemagne, a great and brave warrior, who is ambushed by deceitful Basques, who have just negotiated peace with France, in Navarre, Spain.

Leading the rearguard of the French army returning to France, Roland is accompanied by Archbishop Turpin and his friend, Oliver. When they see the Basque army outnumbering their men, Turpin and Oliver urge Roland to blow his oliphant (hunting horn) to call for reinforcements, but he refuses on the grounds that this would be cowardly. ‘Roland is brave and Oliver is wise/ both are marvellous vassals’ (1093-94) observes the narrator, economically asking the profound question of which would have been the best course of action. The rest of the poem thrillingly describes the near-complete slaughter of Roland and his army.

The chanson de geste genre was eventually supplanted in popularity by the genre of romance (see the next item on this list). Where romance focused on the thoughts and feelings of warriors as much as their heroic actions, the chanson de geste presents characters entirely in terms of their deeds. Action is presented with little to no explanation, and readers are left to decide why a course of action has been taken, and whether it was justified, as in the example quoted above. Reading The Song of Roland in the 21st century is thus an unusual and fulfilling experience.

Time for You to Brush Up On the 12 Greatest Works of Medieval Literature
Detail from an illuminated manuscript showing Lancelot in the cart, France, 13th century. Blogspot

Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot, The Knight of the Cart

Writing not much more than 100 years after The Song of Roland, Chrétien de Troyes’s corpus of work shows how much courtly tastes had changed over the course of a century. Chrétien wrote Arthurian romances, and whilst he was not the inventor of the genre, he is certainly the most important figure in the elevation of the form to the popularity it enjoyed. Chrétien also set out the structure, expectations, and ideals which suffuse all subsequent romances. Staggeringly little is known of his life, however, despite the great esteem in which his contemporaries and successors held him.

Chrétien was also instrumental in defining the characteristics of the individual knights of Camelot, copied by almost all subsequent romance writers. His most famous character is Lancelot du Lac, whose first literary appearance in Arthurian literature is The Knight of the Cart. The story begins with the abduction of Queen Guinevere by the villainous Meleagant. Lancelot appears initially unnamed in the romance, and to rescue Guinevere agrees a strange deal with a dwarf who knows where she is imprisoned. The dwarf will only show Lancelot the way if he agrees to demean himself by riding in a cart.

Chrétien explains that this was at the cost of Lancelot’s honour, and he is openly derided by commoners. After a series of adventures in the company of Sir Gawain, escaping traps set for them and slaying foes, the two knights go their separate ways, with Gawain getting stuck at a magical underwater bridge and Lancelot finding Guinevere after crossing a bridge made out of a giant sword. Eventually, he rescues Guinevere after more adventures and challenges, and defeats Meleagant in a pre-arranged duel at the end of the poem, proving himself over the adventure to be a truly remarkable knight.

Chrétien’s most important invention in The Knight of the Cart is courtly love, a concept which necessitated chivalrous conduct and the performance of great deeds for a lover: ‘whatever one may do for one’s mistress is itself an act of love and courtliness’, Lancelot observes. Lancelot performs great deeds out of love for Guinevere, and even breaks through iron bars to be with her, lacerating his hands in the process: ‘with his mind on another matter, he feels neither the wounds nor the blood that drips down from them’. In later Arthurian romances, their relationship causes the downfall of Camelot.

Time for You to Brush Up On the 12 Greatest Works of Medieval Literature
Marie de France, detail from an illuminated manuscript, Paris, c.1285-1292. Wikimedia Commons

Marie de France, Lais

Marie de France is the nom de plume adopted by an anonymous poet active between 1160-1215, thought to have been born in France and to have lived most of her life in England. We know little else about her (or him – even that is uncertain), beyond the fact that the Lais attributed to her are some of the greatest surviving medieval poems. She wrote Breton lais, short rhyming tales of romance and chivalry, usually with a supernatural element. This was a popular genre, parodied by Chaucer in the Franklin’s Tale and amongst the sources of Chrétien’s Arthurian romances.

In all, there are 12 lais written in Old French attributed to Marie. In the prologue to the collection in a 13th-century manuscript, Marie explains her reason for writing them: ‘anyone who has received from God the gift of knowledge and true eloquence has a duty not to remain silent’. Her source material, she says, has been given to her orally, and she has turned it into verse. Though there is a diversity of narratives in the lais, there is one universal theme: the inevitability of suffering associated with love, an aspect of courtly love also explored in romances.

3 of the Lais deal with extramarital love, with a besotted suitor and an unhappily married woman, but Marie gives no indication of disapproval. In Eliduc, however, the unusual situation of a happily married man falling in love with another woman, who declares her love first, but who remains faithful to his wife, subverts the conventions of courtly love. Bisclavret is a story about a werewolf (bisclavret is a Breton term for lycanthropes), whose reluctant transformation into a wolf is made permanent by an unfaithful wife. Beyond their fascinating and prescient subject matter, Lais are superb examples of descriptive art.

Time for You to Brush Up On the 12 Greatest Works of Medieval Literature
A scribe, possibly Bede himself, depicted in a manuscript of his History, Durham, late 12th Century. Saint Benets

Bede, A History of the English Church and People

It may at first appear strange to include an ostensibly-historical work on a list of literature, but omitting it would do Bede a great disservice. Bede (672/3-735) wrote the History in around 731 from the confines of his monastery at Jarrow, Northumbria, taking in both available historical and theological sources and oral tales from visitors to the monastery. Though he is chiefly remembered for the History, as an author Bede was chiefly a theologian and exegete, and his success in this unusual, monumental undertaking should not be undervalued. The History is still a vital source for studying the Anglo-Saxon period.

The History was written to establish an English identity and to situate the Anglo-Saxon people as God’s chosen nation. Bede strives to give a history of England from the Celtic period to the present, relating the struggles of the Romans to establish a Christian Church, the Anglo-Saxon invasion and subsequent conversion in 597, and the territorial disputes and battles that characterised the country’s history thitherto. Although England would not be united under a single king until the following century, Bede was pleased to see that there was religious uniformity uniting the once mutually-hostile Anglo-Saxon kingdoms as he reached old age.

There is nothing dry about the History. Bede’s writing is beautiful and moving: ‘when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge [afterlife], it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting on a cold winter’s day… this sparrow flies swiftly through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the wintry-storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry-world from which he came’ (II.13).

Time for You to Brush Up On the 12 Greatest Works of Medieval Literature
‘Dante and Virgil in Hell’ by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, France, 1850. Wikimedia Commons

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

Dante Alighieri (c.1265-1321) is often ranked as the greatest of medieval poets, and is known as il Sommo Poeta (‘the Supreme Poet’) in his homeland. The Divine Comedy is a monumental work that really needs no introduction, but it is worth putting it in the context of Dante’s life. Like most Florentines, Dante became involved in the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict, a dispute between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. His role in the conflict in Florence led to him being exiled from the city accused of corruption, and he wrote The Divine Comedy in fury at his unfair treatment.

‘Midway this way of life on which we’re bound upon/ I woke to find myself in a dark wood/ where the right road was wholly lost and gone’, says Dante at the beginning of the 14, 233 lines of The Divine Comedy, which will see him visit hell, purgatory, and paradise in the company of Virgil and his beloved Beatrice. Like William Langland, Dante is inspired on the journey through the corruption and sin he observed in the world around him. Beginning in Hell (Inferno), he witnesses the punishment of those who have sinned on earth, from simonists to traitors.

The punishments in Inferno are contrapasso, either resembling, or contrasting with, the sin committed. For example, gluttons who have put their desire for material things above other people are condemned for eternity to be chewed by greedy demons and worms and to eat filth and mud. As macabre as they are, these punishments show Dante’s creative mastery. In Purgatorio, which is structured in 7 levels representing 7 Deadly Sins, Dante sees people who did not act on their wishes punished for their desire to sin. Paradiso is physically structured to resemble the 4 Cardinal Virtues and 3 Theological Virtues.

Dante’s pilgrimage through The Divine Comedy is an allegory of the Christian life. Inferno corresponds to him seeing the truth of sin, Purgatorio to his feeling of penitence for suffering temptation, Paradiso to the soul’s ascent to God. Thus, Dante starts in hell, making his way to the very bottom where the worst sinners of all (traitors) are punished before ascending through the diminishing stages of sin in purgatory to seeing a vision of God (the reward for a good life) in paradise. It is no wonder that this ambitious work continues to have so great a cultural impact.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

The following are recommended translations which come with useful explanatory notes on the texts.

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Trans. by Robin Kirkpatrick. London: Penguin, 2012.

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Trans. by Leo Shirley-Price. London: Penguin, 1991.

Beowulf. Trans. by Seamus Heaney. London: Faber and Faber, 1999.

Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. Trans. by George Henry McWilliam. London: Penguin, 2003.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Trans. by Jill Mann. London: Penguin, 2005.

Chrétien de Troyes. Four Arthurian Romances. Trans. by D.D.R. Owen. London: Everyman, 1987.

Egil’s Saga. Trans. by Bernard Scudder. London: Penguin, 2004.

Langland, William. Piers Plowman. Trans. by A.V.C. Schmidt. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009.

Marie de France. The Lais of Marie de France. Trans. by Glynn Burgess and Keith Busby. London: Penguin, 1999.

The Owl and the Nightingale/ Cleanness/ St Erkenwald. Trans. by Brian Stone. London: Penguin, 1977.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. by Simon Armitage. London: Faber and Faber, 2008.

The Song of Roland. Trans. by Glynn Burgess. London: Penguin, 1990.

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