Study Guide

Medieval English Literature Top Authors

  • The Beowulf Poet

    Nice name, huh? Unfortunately, this is the best we can do, since we know virtually nothing about the person who first wrote down this foundational Old English epic. It's likely that Beowulf actually had a number of authors, and that the tale was part of Anglo-Saxon oral tradition.

    And if Beowulf was the kind of tale bards used to tell around campfires before they sang "Kumbaya"—or whatever the heck it was they sang in the Middle Ages—then either short episodes of this story or bigger chunks were recited out loud. With harp. And if you're feeling particularly Old English-y, those dudes doing the reciting were called scops.

    This whole out-loud tradition probably continued for hundreds of years before Beowulf was written down. People think that happened sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries. The guy who finally recorded it for posterity (and yes—it probably was a guy, since that's just the way things went during the medieval period) might have been a monk.

    Why? Well, the poem gives us a hodge-podge mixture of paganism (from the Scandinavian culture the poem describes) and Christianity. So, he had some serious religious learning in him.

    But no matter who the writing-down-dude was, we just want to say: thanks. Beowulf is one of the major classics of English literature. And it's not so old or outmoded that it's completely irrelevant to the 21st century.

    If you enjoyed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey or the film version of Beowulf, you should give a little nod of thanks to this unknown poet-guy. He's the one who helped enriched your, and our, life.

    Beowulf 

    This text is one of the oldest full-fledged bits o' lit in English (Old English, that is). And it's not just any little story, either; Beowulf is counted right up there as one of the VITs—Very Important Texts.

    Not only does it give us an entertaining example of the earliest form of English, it also gives us a peek into what the Anglo-Saxon culture considered important: loyalty, generous kings, and manly heroes. And we get heaping servings of all these elements in this epic tale. Yum.

    Chew on This

    Beowulf is the first epic hero of English literature. As such, he obviously had some manly traits. What makes him particularly heroic, do you think? What do we expect from our action heroes now? (You might want to consider characters from The Avengers or The Amazing Spider-Man.) How does the Anglo-Saxon view of heroism differ from our current one? In what ways is it the same?

    Many scholars have mined Beowulf as a sort of treasure trove for exploring Anglo-Saxon society and culture. One interesting thing about the story is how it shows the Anglo-Saxons (who wrote the text) looking back into their past, at Scandinavians and Norse culture. Keep in mind that the tribes we see in Beowulf aren't Anglo-Saxons themselves; they're Danish or Scandinavian. The Anglo-Saxons shared a cultural background with these folks. And heritage included customs like gift-giving and song-making, which, frankly, are two of our favorite things.

  • Geoffrey Chaucer

    Strangely enough, Chaucer was not particularly known for his poetry when he was alive—even though we now think of him as the go-to poet of medieval England. Instead, what made him popular among his peers and honored by the royal court was his life as a dedicated civil servant.

    That's right: this famed wordsmith held down a series of what we might think of as boring, bureaucratic government jobs. Whee.

    Maybe it was that whole serving-the-country-yawnfest that allowed his compelling inner life time to flourish. And thank goodness for that, because what a poet he was. Chaucer was the master of an amazing array of genres.

    With Troilus and Criseyde, he gives us a good, old-fashioned romance. His translation of The Romance of the Rose delves right into allegory. And with Chaucer's Book of the Duchess, we get a two 'fer: an elegy with the added bonus of a dream vision.

    He was also kind of a revolutionary. In his day, French was still the preferred language of the court. And Latin was still used to write down anything considered truly important. But Chaucer used the language associated with the less privileged classes (that would be English) to write some of the best works of all time.

    He really showed them how English could be taken seriously as a literary language. Pretty impressive, when you think about it.

    But wait, that's not all. If you call right now, we'll throw in The Canterbury Tales, the work in which Chaucer most showcases his poetic chops. In it, he juggles a ton of genres: everything from allegory to elegy, courtly romance to fabliaux (which is a fancy word that basically means medieval bathroom humor). Hats off, ladies and gentlemen; this dude's a true stud who has stood the test of time.

    The Canterbury Tales 

    The original road-trip dramedy. (Now, we have stuff like Tommy Boy and Road Trip, lucky us.) This is Chaucer's best known work. It presents a huge range of genres while also giving us a glimpse into 14th-century life. Win, win, and more win.

    Troilus and Criseyde 

    The title here gets you fairly far. If you immediately think of Romeo and Juliet, you're definitely in the ballpark. In this tale, Chaucer gives us an earlier set of star-crossed lovers whose tragic love doesn't fare well during the Trojan War. But then again, whose did? At least the story's an exciting mix of themes and genres. In it, Chaucer shows us that he can juggle courtly romance with a twist of Boethian philosophy.

    Chew on This

    The Canterbury Tales fits into a medieval genre called "estates satire." In this genre, the author would critique the various social classes of the time. So, the pilgrimage of the frame story brings together many different types of people that might not normally interact a lot during the 14th century. Do you think all these people would get along? Why or why not? To get some flavor of how this all works out, take a look at some quotes from The Canterbury Tales.

    Chaucer was ahead of his time in more ways than one. In Troilus and Criseyde, he gives us an early example of the type of re-imagining-the-classics trend that's super popular right now—as in, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. He chooses to zoom in on a love story while the Trojan War is raging all around the city gates. Think about other versions of the Trojan War story you may have read, like Homer's The Iliad. In what ways does Chaucer's version of the war seem similar to those stories? Where does he drastically depart from the Classical retellings?

  • The Gawain Poet

    It's a shame we don't know this guy's name, because the stuff he wrote is unquestionably awesome. Known now only as the Gawain Poet (or the Pearl Poet, for reasons you'll soon see), our dude was from a region in England called the North West Midlands. This is an area along the Welsh border of the U.K.

    So, the dialect of Middle English these poems are written in is much more difficult than the London-speak Chaucer wrote in. This is mainly because the Gawain Poet's version borrows heavily from Welsh. It's also closer to the original Old English than Chaucer's version.

    We only know of four works that the Gawain Poet left behind, and all of these are contained in one manuscript. You heard us: one manuscript. Period.

    Like Beowulf, the Pearl Manuscript—as it's sometimes called, after one of the works contained in it—somehow miraculously beat the odds of surviving any number of horrible things that could have gone wrong since the 14th century. So we are able to enjoy it today.

    The manuscript includes four poems that scholars commonly agree were written by the Gawain poet (and another, which was probably not written by the same dude). The four he probably wrote are: Pearl (an allegorical dream vision); Cleanness (a sermon about purity); Patience (another sermon, this one about—you guessed it—the value of being patient); and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. All of these poems are written in alliterative verse.

    Throughout the works, the Gawain poet shows an amazing range of knowledge. He throws in details relating to everything from jewelry making to hunting, dressing game (which unfortunately doesn't mean playing dress-up with cute little animals), and seamanship.

    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

    This is a fine example of a courtly romance. In fact, it's right up there with some of the most memorable Arthurian narratives. It also stands out in how it combines three folk tales that were popular during the Middle Ages: the beheading game (doesn't sound so fun to us), the exchange of winnings, and the chastity test.

    A pretty unique mix, don't you think?

    The Gawain Poet also gives us a bonus in this romance: a unique poetic stanza form called the "bob and wheel." It's five short lines that rhyme according to an ABABA, pattern. And the first of those lines is way short—only two syllables). As in: fun, fun.

    Chew on This

    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight isn't all idealized courtly romance. In fact, if you've ever had fantasies about being a knight, this poem'll teach you that it's not all it's cracked up to be. If the armor doesn't weigh you down (literally), then the weather will get you. Check out Quote #5 here, and riddle us this, Bat-men and -women: Why do you think the gritty, everyday details of knighthood are usually absent from most tales? What might be some other challenges of knighthood that most stories conveniently leave out?

    Gawain seems like the most perfect of knights in this poem, so what's up with Lady Bertilak questioning his identity several times? Well, take a look at the description of Gawain's character in Le Morte D'Arthur. This work provides us with a very different picture of Gawain, right? In fact, far from being the epitome of courtesy, that Gawain is kind of a jerk who lets his temper get the best of him every time. Lady Bertilak's confusion kind of makes sense now. The poet, then, is playing around with the fact that there were a number of versions of Gawain floating around in the medieval ether. What do you think the Gawain Poet's choice signifies, exactly? And how might his choice relate to the Alliterative Revival, where poets reached back to a more Anglo-Saxon style verse form?

  • Margery Kempe

    While you've probably heard of most of the medieval period's heaviest-hitting texts, like The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, chances are you haven't heard of Margery Kempe. If you have, then kudos to you for being ahead of the game.

    If not, that's a shame. Margery Kempe is one of the few known women writers from this era. In fact, it's generally accepted that Margery Kempe's work is the first example of autobiography in English.

    And even though this autobiography is the only work we have of Kempe's, it's still quite an accomplishment. The vast majority of authors during this time (as far as we know) were male. Plus, anti-feminism ran rampant in the streets. So, score one for Team XX Chromosome.

    Kempe was writing during a time of transition in medieval England, when life was becoming more urbanized and a middle class was just starting to develop. We get some vivid examples of this by looking at Kempe's life as she portrays it in her autobiography.

    She's really proud of the gentrified—read: wealthy—family she comes from. She tries to stay within that social class by trying her hand at some different professions. First, she has a go at being a brewer of beer. Then she tries grinding grain. Neither of these jobs work out very well for her.

    Probably because she's a woman, said pretty much every medieval man ever. Sigh.

    In the end, though, Kempe decides that she doesn't really care for the wordly life of regular old humans. She wants to live a spiritual life. Which is kind of awesome for us, because that means that her writing also gives us a view into popular medieval religious practices.

    Can you say, two'fer the price of one?

    Oh, and just so you don't dismiss Kempe because she was on the whole Church bandwagon of the Middle Ages, we're here to set you straight. Her work is far from boring. Trust us. Actually, it's quite lively and sometimes even laugh-out-loud hilarious.

    Like, the arguments she has with her husband about sex are super funny… although certainly unintentionally so. And several times she schools arrogant Church higher-ups in the finer points of Christian doctrine and behavior in order to highlight how they're a bunch of big old hypocrites.

    If you can get past all the crying she does, Margery truly is one of the more interesting characters of the Medieval Period.

    The Book of Margery Kempe

    Margery Kempe's only (awesome) work is a spiritual autobiography. It falls within the genre of visionary literature. Oh, and check this fun tidbit: Kempe was actually illiterate. How did she write a book then, you ask?

    Well, she dictated her story to several clerics around 1436, years after these major life events actually occurred. Then there's this other fun backstory to the book: Margery was prompted to tell her tale because of a series of religious visions she had. First, she saw herself being tortured in Hell. Later, she saw Jesus.

    These visions galvanized Margery into a life of pilgrimage and piety. She soon became known for wandering around cities, weeping conspicuously, and preaching. People got really tired of the whole weeping bit pretty quickly.

    The preaching part was also big no-no during that time. First of all, she's a woman, and people still don't take kindly to women preachers in many religious denominations. Secondly, only official Church authorities were allowed to preach in that period.

    So Margery is brought before Church courts several times for her questionable activities. She faced the ever-present threat of being accused of Lollardy, a popular heresy of the time that critiqued the Catholic Church on a number of issues. And the penalty for that heresy? Death.

    Scary stuff. All in all then, we think Margery was a bold lady, and her book is downright entertaining. Check it out, okay?

    Chew on This

    Margery certainly does have a kind of Wife of Bath vibe going on. She's sassy and self-actualized, and she totally lords those facts over her husband. She even makes a bargain with him that she'll pay off his debts if he'll let her go on all the pilgrimages she wants… and stop having sex with her. Okay, so the sex part is one big difference between her and the Wife of Bath, since the Wife of Bath takes the exact opposite stance on sex. What other similarities and differences do you see between these two "characters"?

    A big chunk of The Book of Margery Kempe is devoted to Margery's pilgrimages. We recommend you take at gander at this interesting site, which gives you a glimpse into what Margery might have encountered on her journeys. Then, compare that account with the description of Chaucer's pilgrims. How does "fiction" measure up to "fact" in these two accounts? Why might it be dangerous for women like Margery to be traveling on their own during that time?

  • Sir Thomas Malory

    Yep, Malory was a real-life knight. But, sadly for him, he was born in the 15th century, a time of great upheaval in England. So, that whole knightly thing? It wasn't working out very well back then.

    The 14th and 15th centuries were marked by a series of unfortunate events that included the Black Death, the Hundred Years' War, and the Wars of the Roses. That last one was a bloody and bitter civil war in which powerful factions of English nobility fought each other for control of the country.

    As you can well imagine, all these wars really put the knights' high-falutin' ideas about chivalry and honor to the test. And, well, a lot of the time the codes of good knighthood failed, friends. All of those courtesies and rules of combat that knights were supposed to follow went right out the window during these lengthy, violent wars.

    Aw. But don't get too distressed yet, Shmoopers.

    Enter: Sir Thomas Malory. He was quite the character. He cooled his heels in prison for a number of years, after engaging in various shady activities—including stealing sheep and ambushing a nobleman.

    In a scene right out of a movie, Malory even escaped from prison this one time by fighting off some guards and then swimming across the castle's moat. We get the feeling that some of these illegal activities were, in reality, Malory's way of doing things that were quasi-knightly in nature.

    So, when we consider the time he lived in and his own biography, which is full of some pretty gnarly facts about his life, we quickly understand that his great work Le Morte D'Arthur portrays a very romanticized vision of the knighthood-of-another-time. As in, it's a highly nostalgic text that looks back to a time where knighthood was still something noble, and a king could command the loyalty and love of his men. This time was not the 15th century.

    And throughout the work, Malory takes several swipes at the behavior of Englishmen during his own era. He really lets 'em have it for being so "new fangled" and "changeable." Bam.

    Le Morte D'Arthur

    You know you're in for a downer when the title has the word "death" in it. Interestingly enough, though, this was not the title that Mr. Malory picked out for his work. Even though The Death of Arthur is how we know the work now, that was William Caxton's idea. He was the guy who first printed Malory, just so you know.

    Malory himself called his work, The Book of King Arthur and his Noble Knights of the Round Table. Considering the death of Arthur only makes up the last part of this huge tome of All Things Arthurian, Malory's original title better captures the full narrative contained in the book… which basically amounts to a juicy soap-opera, only with castles, samite gowns, and lots of armor. It's pretty great, really.

    Chew on This

    What do you make of the tone of Malory's work? We think it can get pretty heavy, with that whole fate business always hiding between the lines. (You might look at Balyn and Balan or the very ending of the tale for examples of how fate plays a role in the novel.) Some people—us included—have even called the tone of his work moralizing. Where do you see Malory telling us how to think and feel about stuff?

    Oh, and what is that "Frensshe booke" Malory keeps referencing? No, it's not his Little Black Book of Hot French Ladies. What he's referring to is his major source, the Lancelot-Grail cycle. This group of French Arthurian romances is truly huge. It's so huge, you'd have to make several trips to and from the library just to haul the thing home. Now, let's do a little exercise together. (You know you want to.) First, think about the structure of Malory's work. What do you notice about it? Hold that thought, then take a look at how we think his writing style might have been affected by this truly sprawling source he used.