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11th March 2015

A rich box of delights: A short guide to medieval literature

An introduction to medieval literature by Izzie Bowen

Medieval literature might well only bring up vague memories of GCSE Canterbury Tales and confusing ‘u’s and ‘v’s. But beyond Chaucer, there’s a vast sea of tales and rhymes that can always spark some interest.

Usually defined as writings from around 1066 – 1450, the category includes epic romances, powerful love stories, and bawdy comic literature, to name a few. Try this brief starter dish of ye olde writing to see how you find it.

A bit of background: The Language

Literature of this time can be in any of the main three languages used: Latin, French, and Middle English. If the words seem unfamiliar, translation really helps; the medieval works can be enjoyed fully without the funny vowels.

A bit of background: The History

England in these years was often a nation of political strife. In addition, the 1348 Black Death wiped out a third of the population, and along with the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, England became deeply divided.

The writing can be equally heterogeneous, with no clear group of authors, but including mystics, monks, and court poets, for example. Literacy was still relatively restricted but an oral story-telling tradition was widespread and forms the large body of work from this time.

The knight and his quest

Romance was the medieval period’s tour-de-force. Standing out in this genre of knightly adventures are Chretien de Troye’s Lancelot and Yvain. The author doesn’t spare on the violent imagery: “They dealt such mighty blows that they pierced the shields about their necks.” But the knights are also mystics. Their battles are framed within a spiritual journey—much more than just swords and armour.

Sometime later, a northern English author wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a Middle English poem about a fearsome green man who gives one of Arthur’s knights the ultimate challenge. Gawain can take one strike at the Green Knight if it is repaid a year later. The Green Knight’s fantastic description is highly memorable:

“…there came in at the hall door one terrible to behold, of stature greater than any on earth […] men marvelled much at his colour, for he rode even as a knight, yet was green all over.”

Medieval Romance literature is filled with folkloric beings and strange, magical events—stories from within and about nature at its wildest.

Swooning romance

Medieval writing is also known for its ambitious romances (with a small ‘r’). Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde tells of the secret love between Trojan prince Troilus and widow Criseyde. But tragedy strikes when Criseyde is called away to live with her father in the Greek camp. It’s love at first sight, literally: “His [Troilus’] eye precede, and so depe it wente, / Til on Criseyde it smot, and ther it stente. // And sodeynly he wax therwith astoned.” Troilus’ eye caught sight of Criseyde and he was astonished, frozen. Troilus describes his sorrow at Criseyde’s potential loss in the most vivid, and melodramatic, terms: “My two eyes, with which I cannot even see / Are grown into wells through my sorrowful salt-tears.” Lost love is felt keenly in this romantic masterpiece.

Rude and ruder

The medieval sense of humour would, at times, rival that of a 12 year-old boy. But comic literature of this period is also very clever, with puns, sleights of hand, and surprising tricks added into the mix. In The Vox and the Wolf, a satirical beast fable, a wily fox stuck in a well outwits his old rival, a gullible wolf. Promised heavenly rewards for jumping in the well’s other bucket, “the wolf gon sinke, the vox arise; / tho [be]gon the wolf [to be] sore agrise [afraid]”. The fox is a common medieval satirical characterisation of the corrupt vicar/priest; satire was a powerful vehicle for criticising contemporary authority.

Dane Hew, meanwhile, is the story of a corpse that won’t stay dead. Initially murdered by an adulterous lover, everyone else thinks they killed him, and hurriedly abandon the body to its next murderer. Dane Hew’s silence is farcical:  ‘“Dane Hew stands straight by the wall, / And wil not answere, whatsoever I call.” The shuffling body recalls modern graveyard spoofs—the age old ‘falling into a grave’ joke, for instance.

William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat takes this stream of literature to its natural conclusion. In a world where cats can talk, one man determines to discover their secrets through a bizarre recipe including a cat’s liver and an “urchin’s kidneys” (thankfully those of a hedgehog, not a poverty-stricken child).

The cats have their own hilarious stories. One jumps out of a chest, causing this extreme scatological encounter:

“For the olde préest which was so tumbled among them that his face lay upon a boyes bare arse, which belike was fallen hedlong under him was so astonished: then when the boy (which for feare beshit him self) had al to rayed his face, he neither felt nor smelt it nor removed from him.”

(Yes, you just read “beshit him self”. Yes, the priest…)

Another cat, to defend his master’s honour, catches a cheating lover right where it hurts:

“While this Gentleman was dooing with my dame my Maister came in so sodainly, that he had no leisure to pluck up his hose […] I séeing this […] pawed him with my clawes upon his bare legs and buttocks […] séeing that scratching could not moove him: sudainly I lept up and caught him by the genitalls with my téeth, and bote so hard […] My Maister […] came to the cloth and lift it up and there he found this bare arst Gentle­man strangling me, who had his stones in my mouth.”

Well, I’ve just leave that one there.

Medieval literature might seem difficult at first, but in the plague-stricken villages and courts of old, a rich imaginative life emerged, from mothers to children, poets to patrons; people who were lively, funny, and questioning and just starting to write it all down for us to read today.

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