Our intrigue of the Middle Ages today is prominent in the hit TV series, Games of Thrones (based on the George R. R. Martin’s book series), but also on TV shows like The Last Kingdom, Marco Polo, and Merlin.
It should not be entirely surprising either, considering the Middle Ages spans from the 5th to the 15th century. That is about 1000 years of history, of shifts in religion, of varying political structures and philosophy.
For more modern connections to past literature, please click on the tab “Historic to Modern” in the Menu.
My Top 3 Medieval Tales
Here are my top 3 Medieval tales that continue to influence people today and will continue to churn around in your mind for years to come.
1) The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
A Brief Bio
In the years that followed the Norman Conquest of England, the Old French language (Anglo-Norman) became mixed with Old English. Chaucer is known as one of the first writers that brought along the Late Middle English, a subtle blend of French and English (with a hint of Latin), that makes the modern English we use today.
To learn more about the Norman conquest and its effect on England, check out the free Khan Academy lesson here.
Interesting Fact: there are various libraries who provide a digitalized manuscript of The Canterbury Tales with different illuminations of the pilgrims. The photo of the manuscript above comes from the Huntington Library, check out “The Ellesmere Chaucer” here.
The Canterbury Tales: an Unfinished Project
Chaucer died before he finished The Canterbury Tales, though there is also an on-going debate on whether this was done on purpose or not as Chaucer did like to play around with numbers and time.
The Canterbury Tales begins with a General Prologue where the narrator describes how a group of pilgrims (including himself) met at a hostel and decided to travel together to Canterbury, where they will pay their respects to Saint Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The narrator mentions that the pilgrims would each tell two tales on their way to Canterbury and two on their way back. Before Chaucer died, he wrote 22 tales and left a few unfinished (fragmented).
When reading Chaucer’s works you will cultivate a wariness of Chaucer’s narrators, see an inconclusive debate on human nature, and feel progressive messages from a time of political upheaval.
When reading The Canterbury Tales also look out for these themes and techniques:
- word play (use the Medieval English dictionary – MED)
- mythology and biblical references
- cyclic patterns
- temporality manipulation
- awareness of the narrative as text
- satirical account of medieval hierarchy & the political positions of the church
Why Read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales?
I recommend you read The Canterbury Tales because it holds a wealth of meaning and technique.
Each pilgrim is physically and socially classified in the General Prologue and before a pilgrim tells a tale a prologue is first told, emphasizing the pilgrim that frames the tale. The awareness of storytelling and of who interprets a story then adds another layer of depth to each tale and its prologue.
Moreover, each tale is vastly different even though they might fall under similar genres of romance, fabliaux, or moral lessons. Each tale can be taken as an independent critique on society or seen as the conflux on truth and illusion, or on morality and religious beliefs.
Go to your local library or read for free online at Project Gutenberg.
2) Lanval, Marie de France
A Brief Bio
Marie de France is one of the first recorded female authors in Europe, but very little is known about her. In fact, we only know that her name is Marie and that she is from France, hence “Marie de France”.
In her lays (short narrative poems that are meant to be sung, popular in the medieval time), she writes a short prologue saying she intended to translate Latin or French works but decided to write down a lai she heard. Through this short intro it is theorized she was a translator and worked among the noble circles where you would hear such intricate lays.
She writes in Anglo-Norman (a form of medieval French spoken in England) and often illuminates female characters as the premise of the story.
Chivalry Cannot Exist in the Medieval Feudal System
The main take-away from the lai is that a truly chivalrous knight cannot exist in the medieval feudal system (feudalism).
The knight Lanval is described to be the most generous, valorous, and loyalist knight in King Arthur’s court, but it is because of these qualities that make him an outsider. The other knights envy him, wish him misfortune, and even King Arthur forgets the fortune that is due to him.
Lanval is eventually sought out by a Faerie Queen that values his chivalry. She offers him wealth, happiness, and her love, but he must swear to never tell a soul about their love or else he will lose her forever.
Ultimately, the social game of courtly love and feudalism leads Lanval to reveal their love, Lanval gets in trouble with the King, the Faerie Queen saves his life, and then they both ride off to Albion. They are never heard of again.
Strong Female Characters Cannot Exist in the Medieval Feudal System
A concept not too often considered is that the two lead female characters are forcibly underlapped in the story to emphasize the impossibility of a strong female heroine in medieval Europe.
I will focus on the Faerie Queen here as Queen Guinevere’s behaviour has often been a topic of interest already.
The Faerie Queen is given vivid visual descriptions throughout the lay where her female sex is depicted as an integral part of her power. She is often displayed as being half-naked, where her female body is emphasized, and is surrounded by objects of wealth and power, such as the fine richness of her bed and the white palfrey she rides on her way to confront the king.
Yet, even though she won her case at court and saved Lanval, she goes back to Albion because “the king could not keep her; she had enough people to serve her” (226, from The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Concise Vol A. 3rd Edition)
Her power and strength is not accepted in the Medieval feudal system, where kings are supposed to be the highest rulers, and is forced to go to a mythical world where she can live freely.
It is also interesting to see that Marie chose to display the Medieval feudal system through the Arthurian realm and emphasize that Lanval’s life depends on him proving his words true: that the Faerie Queen exists and that she is beautiful and “should be valued more highly than all the women I know” (219, The Broadview Anthology of British Literature).
It is ironic that the Faerie Queen, a fantastical creature, is met with skepticism in the Arthurian realm where Celtic myths and creatures are permanent fixtures.
Why Read Lanval?
The short lai not only describes the wrong priorities of feudalism and illustrates how courtly love can only exist in fictional stories, the lai also depicts how strong female heroine are forced to exist in lyrical lays and medieval mythology.
If you’re new to the Arthurian realm and the many loveable characters I would also highly recommend this lai as you get to see different depictions of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and the Knight Gwaine.
Beyond my two points on how chivalrous knights and strong female leads are depicted as outcasts to the medieval feudal system, there are so many other themes and medieval concerns that are compacted in this sweet short lai.
Go to your local library or read for free online at Project Gutenberg
3) Beowulf, Anonymous Poets
A Brief Bio
This Old English epic poem is considered to be one of the most famous Old English poems.
It has been discussed by scholars that the epic poem was written in parts by different authors, much like the tales of King Arthur and the old French poem Le Roman de la Rose by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Mean.
Interesting fact: only one surviving manuscript exists, now called Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, and is held at the British Library. You can see it for yourself in their Digitalized Manuscript page.
From Fighting Monsters to Fighting Morality
The epic poem describes the political environment of the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxons societies, but is centred mainly on Beowulf’s battle against three monsters. While epic poems, like the Iliad, usually illustrate wars where the foulness of humanity is outlined in the human to human battles, Beowulf instead displays monsters as the embodiment of human fears.
In the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxons societies honour, loyalty, and pride were valued qualities of heroes. The poem also begins with a description of King Hrothgar’s family from four generations past.
In fact, most British literature anthologies have several family trees outlined for the reader to better understand the familial ties in the story. These family ties and who is who in the family tree (and who inherits what) is extremely important in these war tribe societies.
The women displayed in Beowulf also show how peacemaking between families is a delicate duty that can end up in a bloody tragedy.
Thus, through a cultural background of the society depicted in the poem we can see how society’s fears are embodied in the three main characters and how Beowulf can be seen as the perfect hero by defeating them all.
It is often interpreted that Grendel represents the fear of isolation from society, Grendel’s mother represents the desire for vengeance, and the dragon represents unadulterated greed.
There are many reasons for why the three monsters are connected to these human fears, and I urge you to read them in Victoria Symons’ article called “Monsters and heroes in Beowulf” at the British Library website. These connections are wonderfully explained and outlined in the article and provide photos of the original manuscript to boot!
Beowulf as a Monster-Hero?
At the end of the poem, the narrator questions Beowulf’s morality as his people are left defenceless against foreign enemies. At Beowulf’s funeral, people dread the consequences of Beowulf’s rash act to fight against the dragon when he himself knew he was going to die in the process.
“Wailing her woe, the widow old,
her hair upbound, for Beowulf’s death
sung in her sorrow, and said full oft
she dreaded the doleful days to come,
deaths enow, and doom of battle,
and shame …”
Anonymous, Beowulf. Translated by Frances B. Grummere, Poetry Foundation
Since epic poems usually display a heroic quest, Beowulf is first seen as the perfect hero. Yet, through his battles with the monsters and through his interactions we see how Beowulf defers from King Hrothgar, who is depicted as the exemplary king, and how Beowulf is strikingly similar to the monsters he defeats.
There is a powerful question to answer in this Old English epic poem: what is a hero and what is a monster?
The narrator describes Beowulf and Grendel’s handgrip ambiguously with the repetition of the pronoun “he”, as a result the reader is not able to determine who is the hero and who is the foe in their fight.
This ambiguity continues when the narrator and Beowulf elaborate on the human aspects of Grendel’s mother’s actions, of revenge for her dead son.
Lastly, the dragon does not attack Beowulf’s kingdom without cause, a (human) thief steals his treasure, and Beowulf dies thinking fondly of the dragon’s hoard as his own.
Why Read Beowulf?
Beowulf has a great pool of ambiguity for us to explore. It raises concerns we continue to debate today, and I urge you to consider these questions below:
What qualities make a hero? Does a hero always have to be heroic? Is a good king one who mourns for his dead men or one who is fast to take revenge? What is the story saying about the inheritance of king qualities?
Why are the illustrations of Grendel and Grendel often depicted as horrendous monsters when they are described to be in likeness of men and women? Is it simply because we feel a need to separate ourselves from what the monster represents?
Why do I call them monsters? What is the connection between storytelling and the story? How does this change your opinion of the narrator telling the story? Could the novel Frankenstein, by Mary Shelly, be helpful in seeing the psychological need to separate creator from their creation?
Do you have any favourite medieval tales not in the list? Share your favourite tale or thoughts below!