This July Pages Unbound is celebrating classic literature with a collection of guest posts. Today Briana shares five reasons you should read literature from one of her favorite time periods: the Middle Ages. (That’s roughly 1100-1500 in England.)
Medieval romances are great for fantasy fans.
If you love fantasy, medieval romances are the genre for you. Knights, dragons, damsels in distress. It all starts here. And there’s an enormous variety of stories to read. Most people think of chivalric romances (things like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), but there are also romances about historical figures and about saints. These are equally as interesting and often very weird. If you want to read about cannibalism, check out some stories about Richard the Lionheart.
Many authors have been influenced by the Middle Ages.
As pre-modern literature, medieval texts can sometimes be overlooked by those who value the “modern.” However, nearly every subsequent literary period has been influenced by the Middle Ages. You can see traces of it in Shakespeare. There was an enormous medieval revival during the Romantic period (think Ivanhoe or some of Keats’s poems). And modern fantasy writers J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were both professional medievalists. You can even find hints of the medieval in the books of children’s and YA authors like Merrie Haskell and Rosamund Hodge.
Medieval texts are often more accessible than you think.
Actual Middle English can be tricky to read for those without practice. (The difficulty often depends on things like which century the text is from and which part of England it’s from. Chaucer’s language is far more readable than many other medieval authors’.) However, translations into modern English are incredibly easy to find, and many texts are available online, completely free. (The same is true for medieval texts originally written in other languages, like Latin or French.)
Medieval texts also address modern themes.
People often conflate the Middle Ages with the Dark Ages, and popular culture often suggests the Middle Ages were an awful, backward time when no one was educated and women were treated like trash. The reality was very different, and much more complex. Some women like Christine de Pizan and Marie de France were writers themselves. There were also highly revered women mystics who published their experiences. Even popular fiction explored gender roles, in romances like The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle and Silence.
Medieval writers also explored race, religion, and science. If there’s a modern debate you can think of, medieval writers were probably already in the debate themselves. (No promises you’ll always love their conclusions, but that’s part of the fun.)
There’s something for everyone.
As readers, we often have a tendency to assume homogeneity in literary time periods. We assume the nineteenth century was essentially filled with people writing like Wordsworth or Keats. We assume everyone in the sixteenth century was writing like Shakespeare. (Who can even name a text from the sixteenth century that isn’t drama anyway? What prose do we associate with the century?) The same is true of the Middle Ages. Many people’s one brush with the period is with Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (or just a few of the tales). However, the variety of texts you can read is wide.
Chivalric romances are some of my favorites and, as I said, a great place to start for those who enjoy fantasy. However, there’s so much more. Saints’ lives. Mystic works. Fabliaux (funny, potentially crude tales). Dream visions. Travel narratives. Stories about the Middle East. War tales. And, of course, all sorts of historical chronicles, philosophy, and other nonfiction. If you like a genre, it’s possible you’ll find a version of it in the Middle Ages. Or you’ll discover something new.