Study Guide

Medieval English Literature Texts

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Medieval English Literature Resources

Primary Resources

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People (c. 731)
Bede the Venerable (wow, conceited much?) takes us through the history of Britain, from when the Romans appeared to the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions. Since Bede's a monk, he spends lots of words discussing how the Anglo-Saxon barbarians were converted to Christianity. Yipee.

Unknown, The Dream of the Rood (late 600s-early 700s)
This anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem shows us a whole new side of Jesus. Forget about the passive, turn-the-other-cheek, peaceful savior from the Bible. Put aside all those Sunday school stories, friends. Prepare to meet Warrior Jesus, who would be right at home with Beowulf in the Mead-Hall. The Jesus portrayed in this poem prepares to do battle with the cross; he climbs right up onto it and meets his fate head-on, as any strong hero should. We just. Yeah. There are no more words.

Unknown, Beowulf (c. 700-1000)
This oldest-surviving poem (written in Old English) has everything you could ask for in your nightly entertainment: strapping bearded warriors, slimy monsters, and the ultimate, hard-to-beat boss: an evil dragon. All it's missing is Angelina Jolie in spike heels. Tolkien took more than a few pages out of this guy's book when he wrote The Hobbit.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, A History of the Kings of Britain (1147)
Well, not exactly a "real" history—not as we'd understand that term today, anyway. Some of this account may well be factual, but some of it's almost certainly embellished. Geoffrey's tales here not only provide us with the first significant narrative account of King Arthur; they also gift us with the behind-the-scenes stories of other famous British kings, like King Lear. Ooh. Aah.

Marie de France, Lais (c. 1155-1170)
Marie de France is quite the important figure in Medieval Lit. She's commonly credited with being the earliest female poet in France, and one of the leading writers (of any gender) in the Middle Ages. Her twelve Lais (from a genre called the Breton lai) present short narratives in French verse that are quite female-centric. They deal with courtly love and the supernatural. There's also a lot of shapeshifting going on; check out the werewolf in Bisclavret if you're feeling extra saucy.

Unknown, The Mabinogi (c. 12th century)
This group of eleven tales, commonly divided into four "branches," comprise the earliest-known collection of Welsh literature. Who doesn't want to read about nifty-sounding things like "The Three Unfortunate Concealments and Disclosures of Britain"? Say what? Just trust us; these tales have to do with hiding magical heads and grumpy dragons fighting underground. If you've read any of Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain (Prydain... Britain... get it?), The Mabinogi will seem quite familiar indeed.

Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1382-1388)
Perhaps Chaucer's greatest (finished) masterpiece, Troilus and Criseyde is a real tear-jerker. It's got star-crossed love of the courtly variety, and it's set against the backdrop of the Trojan War. Get your Kleenex at the ready, if you know what's good for you.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387-1400)
There's a little something for everyone in Chaucer's famous(ly unfinished) work. In it, we find philosophical romance (The Knight's Tale), the medieval equivalent of dirty jokes (The Miller's Tale and The Reeve's Tale), an entertaining beast fable (The Nun's Priest's Tale), and sermons (The Parson's Tale). Oh, and who could forget The Wife of Bath, the original cougar? Teehee. Chaucer demonstrates an incredible range of materials, and juggles them all like a master, in The Canterbury Tales. Just read it. 'Nuff said.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parliament of Fowls (1380)
Get ready for some fowl play (hehe) with courtly love. You're cordially invited to the birds' Valentine's Day parliament, where three hunting birds engage in some clever arguments to win the hand (claw?) of the beautiful formel (a young, female bird). This is the most elegantly-constructed of Chaucer's dream visions, if we do say so ourselves. It also—as we have grown to expect from Chaucer—engages in some satirical humor that pokes fun at the various classes of medieval society. Win, win, win.

The Gawain Poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1400)
When the Green Knight busts into Arthur's court and throws down a challenge that they just can't refuse, we know that heads are going to roll. Literally. But, never fear—Gawain rides to the rescue. And everyone learns an important lesson about chivalry. This is one of the great English medieval romances. And it's loads of fun to boot.

The Gawain Poet, Pearl (c. 1400)
Get ready for the medieval equivalent of a trip down the rabbit hole. Written by the same dude that gave us Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (also known as the Pearl Poet), this alliterative dream vision follows the story of a saddened father whose young daughter has recently died. While envisioning her as a pearl he has lost in a garden, she appears to him in a dream. Now, though, she's all grown up… and in Heaven as one of Christ's brides. It's all completely platonic, we assure you. In this tale, she thoroughly schools her father in the finer points of sin, repentance, and grace.

William Langland, Piers Plowman (c. 1370-1386)
No: Piers Plowman isn't a snarky judge on Medieval Peasants Got Talent. It is, however, one of the most significant texts of the 14th century. A contemporary of Chaucer's, William Langland gives us this allegorical dream vision that follows the main character Piers the Plowman. And what's Piers's deal? He's undergoing a journey, seeking spiritual perfection. But of course.

Julian of Norwich, A Revelation of Love (c. late 14th century)
This text should really be called A Revelation of Revolutionary Love. Perhaps the first known female English author, Julian sounds like quite the heretic when she recounts her visions of Christ. Luckily, she packages her experiences in a properly orthodox box. And it didn't hurt that she was an anchoress and so sworn to a secluded, religious life… Or else, she may have been hanged. Or worse. Eek.

Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1373-1438)
This is the first autobiography in English. And it's written by a woman—a rare thing at this point in history. The work outlines the spiritual life Kempe leads after having a series of visions of Hell and Jesus. But it's not all bore-and-apocryphal-gore; she's quite the character. Kempe's very mouthy, travels without having her husband oversee her (which was super scandalous back in the day), bucks the rules of the Church by preaching to others, and is even hauled up on heresy charges several times. Way to be bold, Kempe. We salute you.

The Wakefield Master, The Second Shepherd's Play (c. 1400-1450)
Medieval drama was predominantly geared toward teaching a largely illiterate population about Biblical scripture. By giving them an entertaining spectacle. (Great plan, if you ask us.) In this play, it's the sub-plot that really captures your attention; in that story, a thieving shepherd and his cunning wife try to pass off a sheep as their newborn. Hilarity ensues. The slapstick humor of the play totally overshadows the Nativity story that somehow gets squeezed in at the end.

William Caxton, Preface to Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur (1485)
Possessor of the very first printing press in England, Caxton printed Malory's mega Arthurian text. But he revised it to suit himself, removing many references to Malory's life of crime that were just too gauche for the fine gentry-folk in Caxton's circles. Caxton's Preface gives us some insight into why he decided to print this group of Arthurian tales at all, and what he hopes the public will get out of them. Fascinating stuff.

Secondary Resources

Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love (c. 1184-1186)
Or, if you want to get all Latin-y about it, De arte honeste amandi. This is basically a manual on the rules of engagement for courtly love hopefuls. Scholars still argue about whether or not this text was written in earnest, or in jest. You tell us.

William of Pagula, Priest's Eye (c. 1320)
William's work shows us how that whole Christian thing was really done. Priest's Eye is a handbook designed to instruct priests—many of whom were illiterate and uneducated—on the various issues relating to their jobs. It might not sound like a ton of fun to us now, but it was widely read in its day. We think many of Chaucer's characters could have picked up this text and given it the good old college try.

Geoffroi de Charny, A Knight's Own Book of Chivalry (c. 1350)
Meet Geoffroi de Charny, considered to be a sort of living Lancelot by his 14th-century French peers. This guy was a real-life hero, and he lamented how chivalry was in a state of crisis during his day… which was right smack in the middle of the Hundred Years' War. Geoffroi's handbook is a sort of daily (and knightly... see what we did there?) manual that details the how-tos of true knighthood.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" (1936)
Before Tolkien was an expert in Hobbit lore, he was an expert in Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon lit. In this lecture, which later became an article, Tolkien establishes Beowulf as an important text in English literary history. It's also a ground-breaking essay: he has revolutionary things to say about the monsters in this epic. He actually gets into territory that so-called Serious Scholars just wouldn't broach back then.

Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)
This book won the National Book Award in History for 1980, so you know it's good. Dr. Tuchman's work is a classic in Medieval Studies. It focuses on one particular French nobleman who lived a very long life, and provides a unique opportunity for viewing the chaotic events that took place during this century… all through the eyes of one individual.

Miri Rubin, The Hollow Crown: A History of Britain in the Late Middle Ages (2005)
Plagues, wars, and bad kings abound in this book. Here, Dr. Rubin takes us through the various crises that plagued late medieval England, including its very own game of thrones. This scholarly work is also fairly accessible; we think it succeeds in bringing to life this period in English history.

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