5 Reasons to Read Medieval Literature

Classic Literature Event

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.


12 thoughts on “5 Reasons to Read Medieval Literature

  1. rantandraveaboutbooks says:

    I love Chaucer! I agree. It takes some time and patience to learn how to read Middle English. I don’t know a single person who’s read The Canterbury Tales and I love it. I think it’s because I read The Iliad first and I was already used to the English translation. I know I struggled with that one initially. So true about fantasy in medieval literature. I love the themes and how they did things back then. It’s so interesting.


    • Briana says:

      I’ve read some of The Canterbury Tales, but not all of it yet. 😀 I actually started out reading other Middle English texts in Middle English first, so by the time I got to Chaucer, his language just seemed so much easier! He’s relatively late in the Middle Ages, and he was close to London, which is the dialect that we took into Modern English, so he’s much more readable than some other authors.

      Liked by 1 person

      • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

        Then, Chaucer was a breeze for you. A lot of people I knew in college had a hard time with Chaucer and Shakespeare. I love them both so it was never an issue. I love the Middle Ages. And gothic architecture is my absolute favorite. I know that’s not book related but I love seeing pictures of places constructed during that time.


        • Briana says:

          I think the farther you can start back with English texts, the more it helps. I took a Milton class senior year of college where the professor had to spend 70% of each class period just summarizing what had happened in that day’s reading. My friend, who’s pretty into Renaissance literature, and I spent the whole time bored out of our minds because the language just seemed easy to us compared to what we normally read. My friend was sick during finals week and the professor just told her she didn’t have to take the test. I made a joke about it to the prof, and she told me I didn’t have to take it either if I didn’t want to. (Though I did, because I felt bad. I was actually just joking and not trying to weasel out of the exam!) So the moral is that Shakespeare makes Milton look easy. :p And Chaucer makes Shakespeare look easy. 😉

          I love gothic architecture as well! I’m a little sad we’re not into ostentatious buildings anymore. I’m told the best (or, maybe, most opulent) things are no longer built in the US because we’re too humble about wasting money on that kind of stuff. We feel bad. While certain other countries are cooler with flaunting wealth. :p

          Liked by 1 person

          • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

            Ha! Yeah that’s a good point. Chaucer inspired Shakespeare. What would you recommend for me given my particular taste in classic lit? Gothic and Art Deco are my favorite types of architecture. And I love seeing pictures of European structures and cathedrals. They’re so beautiful. The amount of detail they used and the time they spent makes modern architecture look slapped together. I like old things, even cars. My mom says I’m an old soul. 🙂 That’s probably part of it and also people into the US are all about making a quick buck. I think that has a lot to do with why builders have no quality control anymore. The houses I saw when I was buying my house were just thrown together.


  2. Aimal @ Bookshelves & Paperbacks says:

    This is a fantastic, persuasive post! I totally agree with you about readers often assuming that everything written in a specific time period is “just not for them,” failing to fully realize that fiction has always been a product of a human being’s mind. Thus, it’s bound to be unique and varied and diverse, and while the time period in GENERAL may not interest you, there’s bound to be something worth reading. My main issue is that classics and medieval literature can be so intimidating, and unless you know people who are well-versed, it can be so overwhelming just thinking about where to start. Which begs the question: do you have any suggestions? 🙂

    ~ Aimal @ Bookshelves & Paperbacks


    • Briana says:

      Thank you!

      Yes, I think it can be intimidating if you have no idea where to start.

      Usually I recommend some of the chivalric romances, unless people specify they want something else. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is really popular, and Tolkien has a translation of it that’s actually considered quite good by scholars. (I think it gets overlooked he was not just a medievalist but actually a very highly respected one and pretty influential on the field.) That book also has his translation of Sir Orpheo, a medieval version of the Orpheus story. And a translation of Pearl, which might not appeal to some people because it’s more religious in theme.

      I also tend to recommend The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle because it has King Arthur, magic, and gender discussions! Also I did a whole post recommending Silence. That one’s fairly long, but I think would really appeal to modern readers because it’s about a girl who’s raised as a boy (for inheritance reasons) and really takes on issues about what gender is and whether Silence is actually a girl or a boy now.

      If you’re into weird race and religion issues, The King of Tars is actually very interesting. (Though I guess you kind of have to immerse yourself in the medieval mindset. Otherwise it might be offensive.) But people’s skin changes color, which says a lot about the anxieties around race at the time.


  3. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Gosh- I love this post and agree so much!! I also want to add to the fact that not only are they accessible- I agree that you can find translations, but one trick you can do with middle English that I learnt at uni is to read it aloud- a lot of it just translates or becomes apparent when you do that cos a lot of the words are the same, just with funny spellings- and the ones that aren’t often have roots in modern language and become apparent too 🙂


  4. medievalscop says:

    Medieval romances are by far my favorite in the genre. They’re so much more interesting and whacky then people give them credit for. I can attest that medieval literature encompasses many themes, struggles, and characters that are familiar to the modern reader. I also really enjoy reading them in the Middle English. It’s fun to speak and feels like you’re doing magic.


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