Medieval Literature

What ideas led to the chivalric ideal? Was St. Augustine a Platonist? Why exactly should children not read Chaucer's The Miller's Tale? Is Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur as violent as the movies make it seem?

The more distance is established between the Middle Ages and our own, the more mysterious they become. It's easy to think the world then was more earthy, more full of life, more dark, more violent, more perverse than the world today, or maybe even more Christian, closer to the reality of things, a better place to raise kids.

Why is it so easy to transpose a mythic or legendary status on former historical periods? in particular, why the Medieval period? They aren't called (inaccurately) the Dark Ages because we don't know anything about them—why do we treat them as if they are? Is it because so much of the literature reflects a mystical or fantastical imagination? Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Mabinogian are all highly symbolic and wrapped in chimerical invention, and the common response is to assume the Middle Ages themselves were similarly cloaked.

While some crazy historian might try to actually affirm that they were, the truth is a bit more reassuring, if more mundane. People haven't changed a whole lot since the days of knights and castles and Crusades; just as we are better able to apprehend certain truths when they're presented in fairy tale terms, so too the Medieval writers understood their readers (or hearers) needed something more material to grasp if they were going to get the spiritual and philosophical truths behind the pretense.

Dante wrote his Divine Comedy with four levels of interpretation in mind—the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. Any great work of literature can obviously be enjoyed at face value—how the author uses the language, how he presents a scene and conveys a sense of characterization, etc. This is the level on which nearly everyone can enjoy literature.

The allegorical level is that which presents a hidden truth in plain language. For instance, Dante might be writing about a forest, but that forest represents the author's own spiritual confusion at the time of writing. The moral interpretive level is a jump back to the obvious; writers need to be sure to include direct moral exhortation and reproof for the benefit of their audience.

Modern writers still have one or all of these interpretive levels in mind when composing their work (except, perhaps, the author of a text message, especially if that author happens to be a teenager). Dante's final (and for him, most important) interpretive consideration has fallen largely out of use; some theorize the anagogical mode was never successfully employed. Readers of the Bible and the Divine Comedy would have to disagree—the anagogical mode is acheived when even the literal elements of the story are such that spiritual or divine truths are expressed. Easy to confuse with the allegorical, the anagogical mode is distinct and extremely difficult to manage, even for most great writers.

Medieval audiences would have understood all these forces at work in the composition of any work, especially the Classically educated who were most likely to be reading anything at all. If we transpose our own modern and postmodern sensibilities on Medieval literature, it will seem boring, weird, slightly insane, perhaps even heretical.

If, however, we learn to read Medieval literature as its original audience would have, we'll discover one of the most vibrant and fascinating eras in the history of the written word. Because its authors didn't feel like they needed to make everything they wrote "entertaining," it often became so on its own due to the passion and clarity of expression with which they wrote. It also made everything they wrote something apprehendable and worthy of contemplation, a trait sadly lacking in much modern fare.

Our Medieval literature section is a little smaller than we'd like. Partly, this is because many Medieval texts are hard to come by. Partly, too, it's because by comparison much more was written in the centuries following the Renaissance (which signaled the end of the Middle Ages) than in the centuries before. At least, that we know of. Bear with us as we expand our selection, and in the meantime experience the grandeur of Medieval literature, not as we think or assume it must have been, but as it really was.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

 

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86 Items found Print
Alfred the Great
by Asser
from Penguin Classics
Biography for 9th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Anthology of Medieval Literature
by Rebecca Berg Manor, ed.
from Beautiful Feet Books
for 9th-12th grade
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Arabian Nights I
Signet Classics
by Anonymous, Richard Burton (Translator), Jack Zipes (Adapter)
from Signet Classics
Eastern Fairy Tales for 9th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Arabian Nights II
Signet Classics
by Anonymous, Sir Richard Burton (Translator), Jack Zipes (Adapter)
from Signet Classics
Eastern Fairy Tales for 9th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Ascent of Mount Carmel
by St. John of the Cross
from Dover Publications
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Ascent to Love
by Peter Leithart
from Canon Press
for 9th-Adult
in Classical Literature Guides (Location: B18-12A)
Basic Writings of St. Anselm
by St. Anselm of Canterbury
2nd edition from Open Court Publishing
Medieval Theology for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Beowulf
by Anonymous (translation by Frederick Rebsamen)
from HarperCollins
Medieval Poetic Epic for 8th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Beowulf
by Anonymous (translation by Seamus Heaney)
from W. W. Norton and Co.
Medieval Poetic Epic for 8th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Beowulf
Dover Thrift Editions
by Anonymous (translation by R. K. Gordon)
from Dover Publications
Medieval Epic for 8th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Beowulf
by Anonymous (translation by Burton Raffel)
from Signet Classics
for 10th grade-adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Beowulf
by Anonymous (translation by Seamus Heaney)
from W. W. Norton and Co.
Medieval Poetic Epic for 9th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Beowulf
by Anonymous (translation by Douglas Wilson)
from Canon Press
for 7th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Beowulf the Warrior - MP Curriculum Package
by David M. Wright, Ian Serraillier
from Memoria Press
for 8th-9th grade
in Memoria Press Literature & Poetry (Location: B18-00B)
Beowulf the Warrior - Student Guide
by David M. Wright
from Memoria Press
for 8th-9th grade
in Memoria Press Literature & Poetry (Location: B18-00B)
Beowulf the Warrior - Teacher Guide
by David M. Wright
from Memoria Press
for 8th-9th grade
in Memoria Press Literature & Poetry (Location: B18-00B)
Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary
by Anonymous (translation by J. R. R. Tolkien)
from Houghton Mifflin
for 9th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Canterbury Quintet
by Geoffrey Chaucer
from Little Leaf Press
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Canterbury Tales
Penguin Classics
by Geoffrey Chaucer (edited by Nevill Coghill)
from Penguin Classics
Medieval Poetry for 8th-12th grade
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Canterbury Tales
by Geoffrey Chaucer (edited by Kolve V.A. & Glending Olson)
2nd edition from W. W. Norton and Co.
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Canterbury Tales
by Geoffrey Chaucer (edited by Peter Beidler)
from Bantam Books
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Chronicles of the Crusades
by Joinville and Villehardouin
from Penguin Classics
for 9th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
City of God
Penguin Classics
by Augustine of Hippo (translated by Henry Bettenson)
from Penguin Classics
Ancient/Medieval Theology for 11th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
City of God
by St. Augustine (translation by Marcus Dods)
from Modern Library
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
City of God
by St. Augustine (translation by Marcus Dods)
from Modern Library
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
City of God (abridged)
by St. Augustine
Abridged from Image
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Confessions
by St. Augustine
from Everyman's Library
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Confessions
by Saint Augustine (translation by Henry Chadwick)
from Oxford University
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Confessions of Saint Augustine
Penguin Classics
by Augustine of Hippo
from Penguin Classics
Autobiography/Devotional Material for 11th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Consolation of Philosophy
by Ancius Boethius
from Penguin Classics
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Dante La Vita Nuova
by Dante Alighieri
from Dover Publications
Medieval Poetry for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Dante's Inferno
by Dante Alighieri (translation by Anthony Esolen)
from Modern Library
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Dante's Paradise
by Dante Alighieri (translation by Anthony Esolen)
from Modern Library
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Dante's Purgatory
by Dante Alighieri (translation by Anthony Esolen)
from Modern Library
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Decameron
by Giovanni Boccaccio
Revised from Penguin Classics
for 11th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Discarded Image
by C. S. Lewis
from Cambridge University
Medieval and Renaissance Lit Guide/Resource for 9th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
Divine Comedy
by Dante Alighieri (translation by John Ciardi)
from New American Library
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Divine Comedy I
Penguin Classics
by Dante Alighieri (translation by Dorothy Sayers)
from Penguin Classics
Medieval Allegory/Poetic Epic for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Divine Comedy II
Penguin Classics
by Dante Alighieri (translation by Dorothy Sayers)
from Penguin Classics
Medieval Allegory/Poetic Epic for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Divine Comedy III
Penguin Classics
by Dante Alighieri (translation by Dorothy Sayers & Barbara Reynolds)
from Penguin Classics
Medieval Allegory/Poetic Epic for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Divine Comedy set
Penguin Classics
by Dante Alighieri (translation by Dorothy Sayers)
from Penguin Putnam
Medieval Allegory/Poetic Epic for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Divine Comedy Volume 1: Inferno
by Dante
Revised from Penguin Classics
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Early Irish Myths and Sagas
by Jeffrey Gantz
from Penguin Classics
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Ecclesiastical History of the English People
Penguin Classics
by Bede (translation by Leo Sherley-Price)
from Penguin Classics
Church History for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Ecclesiastical History of the English People
by Bede (edited by Judith McClure & Roger Collins)
from Oxford University
Church History for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Everyman and Other Miracle and Morality Plays
Dover Thrift Editions
by Anonymous
from Dover Publications
Medieval Drama for 9th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Gawain Poet Complete Works
by Anonymous
from W. W. Norton and Co.
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
History of the Kings of Britain
Penguin Classics
by Geoffrey of Monmouth
from Penguin Classics
Historical Fairy Tale for 10th-12th grade
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Imitation of Christ
by Thomas à Kempis
from Penguin Classics
Devotional Material for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
Imitation of Christ
by Thomas à Kempis
from Dover Publications
Devotional Material for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: CLT-MED)
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