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Ten Medieval Pieces of Literature

March 5, 2013

Here are ten pieces of medieval literature that I have either enjoyed reading, not enjoyed reading, but it’s still a good piece of work, or am still pushing myself to read but need a bit more courage to do so.

10. The Owl and the Nightingale

I have written about this poem in a previous post. This piece of literature is a 12th century Middle English Poem and a debate between an owl and a nightingale about whose song is the more superior. Their argument takes them on a journey to Portesham together to resolve their debate by asking for the judgment of the wise Nicholas of Guildford. No judgment is heard by the reader, so they are left to ponder on it themselves. There is no known author to this text, but it was very popular at the time.

9. William Langland’s Piers Plowman

Most people with a small understanding of medieval literature have heard of Piers Plowman by William Langland. This piece of work is from the fourteenth century, and the author is known, although not much is known about him other than his name. The text is all about the visions Will has while he falls asleep, as discussed in the prologue. Piers Plowman is the feature of these visions, and there are some serious thoughts to be had on this text.

8. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

There couldn’t be a list of medieval literature without Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in it. I know I shouldn’t, but this work is not my favourite, maybe I need to study and familiarise myself more with it, I don’t know! The tales, written in the fourteenth century by Chaucer, in Middle English, are a group of tales about different people. Some tales are very humorous, giving an insight into the humour of medieval culture. It is worth giving them a read, but if you aren’t used to the Middle English, then I would suggest reading a translation!

7. Gawain and the Green Knight

I really like this poem, it is romantic and involves Arthur and his knights. It was written in the fourteenth century, and is about the Green Knight, who dares a knight at Arthur’s court to strike him with an axe, if, the knight, Gawain, would then receive a blow from the axe from the Green Knight a year later. The knight does indeed go a year later to take the blow, and some other fun stuff happens in-between, I’ll let you read it to find out. It is worth a read.

6. Beowulf

Again, I don’t think any medieval literature list would be complete without Beowulf, I’m not overly familiar with earlier medieval literature, my area is more around the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Beowulf is written in Old English, providing a new challenge for the reader, and was composed from around the 8th to the 11th century. The story goes that Beowulf helps the King of the Danes by killing the monster Grendel. Later on, Beowulf has to defeat his own monster, a dragon.

5. Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of the Ladies

We have to have some female authors in this list, although they are hard to come by within medieval literature. So, I have included Christine de Pizan and her book The Book of the City of Ladies. Christine, writing in French, wants to combat misogynistic beliefs. She was almost an early and medieval feminist, which is why I want to put her in my list. I haven’t read her work yet, but want to, I feel as a woman I should!

4. Margery Kemp’s The Book of Margery Kemp

The second woman on my list, Margery Kemp, is also representing medieval religious literature, in a way. Her book, written in around the late thirteenth, early fourteenth century, was dictated by Kemp to a scribe, and was an autobiography of her life as a pilgrim. During her life, Kemp had travelled far and wide on pilgrimages, but she was also considered a mystic, and of course was a woman, which at that time proved to be a great disadvantage. Many people were wary of females who claimed to be mystic and of course who read and who wrote. So, Kemp was a little suspicious!

3. Mandeville’s Travels

Mandeville, who claims in his work that he is a knight from St Albans, wrote his travels in the fourteenth century. He wrote about his pilgrimage, where he visits Paris and Constantinople, among other places. There is however a question of the authorship of his work. Even though he has named himself as the author, it is speculated that Mandeville made himself up. The idea is that he may have made himself a knight to give him more authority, and then even used the town of St Albans, because it was a respected town to make pilgrimage to, and the monastery there was a very powerful one. This would have made his text more popular and it would have given it more authority. But, whether John Mandeville was a real person remains to be seen.

2. Pearl

Pearl is a Middle English poem, written in the fourteenth century. The most popular opinion is that the poem is written by the same author as that of Gawain and the Green Knight, this conclusion is due to the writing style of both poems. Pearl is about a vision while dreaming the narrator of the poem tells that he is walking around the garden where his daughter is born. He sees a woman, who is in fact his daughter, she tells him that he shouldn’t grieve and that she is happy, in a way. I will let you find out why she is happy.

1. Dante’s Inferno

What list would be complete without Dante’s inferno? Inferno, being Italian for hell, is part of the fourteenth century poem Divine Comedy. The text in itself is a tough one. An overview of the text would be far too great to go through here. It begins by Dante losing his way and wandering through a forest, the ghost of Virgil takes him back to the path and eventually through hell to reach heaven, which is where the nine circles of hell come from.

So there is my list of 10 pieces of medieval literature. Enjoy your reading, if you should be brave enough to do so, with some of these pieces.

One Comment
  1. Hi there culture girl.. another great post, I have been wanting to read Dante’s inferno for a while not but never really got around to it. I hope Ill have time in the summer. Anyways, I was wondering if you would like to be my guest post on dustandcoffeestains? Let me know 🙂 It would be very much appreciated by moi! 😉

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