Medieval Literature is Actually Great: Lockdown Reading Recommendations from a Surprised Cam Student
By Georgie Ellen
Ever wanted to read a poem in Middle English? Couldn’t think of anything worse? Well, I had a similar reaction on receiving my reading list before I started Cambridge University, opening my first text in despair as the inscrutable language was apparently more difficult to read than my A-Level Spanish set text. But here’s a secret – once you get the hang of it – medieval literature is actually great.
Wait, wait, I hear you, you read one of ‘The Canterbury Tales’ at school and hated every second of it –well, this isn’t about ‘The Canterbury Tales’ – although they are great, or so I’ve heard… I’ve never actually read them. The most surprising read from 1st term was the Gawain-poet’s ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, a knightly adventure following Sir Gawain on his quest to get beheaded. Despite what you may think, that wasn’t a typo. The ‘Beheading Game’ is a trope within tales of Arthurian knights, and Gawain takes it on with poetic lyricism and comedic ease.
The Gawain-poet’s medieval may be in their regional accent, meaning you definitely need more footnotes to work out the translation, yet the alliterative verse reads with linguistic flare and light rhythmic force. It moves elegantly through the opulence of the Arthurian court, cinematic visions of Nature, the temptation of sensual pleasure in the bedroom, and the mock-religious ceremony of beheading at the Green Chapel. The language may look scary, but once you understand it, this tale refuses to be forgettable.
Other honourable mentions include Chaucer’s ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ and ‘The House of Fame’, both dream poems, ‘The Book of Margery Kempe’, transcribed from Kempe’s own autobiographical narrative, and Henryson’s Beast Fables, dark moral narratives which I’d love to get around to reading myself!
Medieval literature is witty, sensual, lyrical and everything in between – you might surprise yourself like I did.