Summer Reading: Medieval Edition

Chaucer reading

Frontispiece to edition of Troilus and Criseyde (MS 61, fol 1v, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge) picturing Chaucer reading to court of Richard II

Is the novel too newfangled for you? Does the idea of human hair in mourning jewelry make your skin crawl? Are you just worn out by all that angst we still live with about industrialization, rapidly increasing technology, and the relationship between science and religion?

Then maybe the Victorian list we’ve been looking at the last couple of weeks isn’t for you.

But today’s list might just be what you’re looking for. It’s filled with poetry and monsters and monks and mysticism and gallantry and courtly love and millers and reeves and drunken cooks.

Since I’m interested in the ways that Victorians look to the past, I’m reading their medieval sources this summer.

Many of the books on the list may be familiar from a medieval survey course. That’s because these exam lists are partially part of the preparation to teach courses just like that.

So there’s Beowulf and Bede and quite a bit of Chaucer (who is so amazing). By the way, if you want to pick up one Chaucer book from this list, I have some counter-intuitive advice: read Troilus and Criseyde. I know you’ll want to read about those pilgrims as they make their way to Canterbury, but there’s something very special about Troilus and Criseyde. It’s finished. You get a full story with a beginning, middle, and end.

At the same time, these lists are orientated to my particular research interests. In my Victorian list that meant a lot more Hopkins and Hardy and some different texts from canonical authors than might be expected. For example, I’m reading Carlyle’s Past and Present instead of Sartor Resartus, and Brontë’s Villette instead of Jane Eyre.

For this medieval list, that means more liturgical texts like the Book of Common Prayer and texts from the Sarum rite. It also means that I’ll be a little loose with my periodization.

Some of the books on this list happen after 1500, that enchanted year when we magically and suddenly and without knowing it became modern. Of course, that’s a silly oversimplification of the transition from the middle ages and the early modern period with all the accompanying arguments over exactly when we should mark the divide between the two, but I still have texts on this list that were written centuries later.

For instance, there’s Thomas Percy’s Reliques of English Poetry (1765) and Thomas Chatterton’s The Rowley Poems (1778 Tyrwhitt Edition). How can I possibly include eighteenth-century texts on a medieval list?

These are examples of early medievalism, long before Hardy or Hopkins or Morris or Carlyle looked back to a medieval past. Percy collected some ballads and wrote some of his own and pretended they were all from the same source. Chatterton goes even further in pretending to be a fifteenth-century monk in his poems.

Not all of my choices are pedagogical or research-driven though. When trying to figure out which Cynewulf poem to go with, I had to choose Elene for my daughter Eleanor.

Here are a few of the books on the list, and you can follow the link to see the rest.

Beowulf Ecclesiastical History of the English People The Venerable Bede
The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation The Dream of the Rood The Allegory of Love
The 1559 Book of Common Prayer Cynewulf's Elene The Elene of Cynewulf: Translated Into English Prose
Layamon's Brut: The Poem and Its Sources Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo Piers Plowman
Confessio Amantis My Compleinte, and Other Poems The Riverside Chaucer
The Cloud of Unknowing The Shewings of Julian of Norwich The Book of Margery Kempe
The History of the Kings of Britain Complete Works The Poetry of Marie de France
Take a look at the rest of the list at Goodreads

As always, if you’re reading any of these works throughout the summer, let me know. I’d love to hear what you think about them. And if you are also living a summer filled with diapers and reading whenever the newborn is asleep, let us know that too. Solidarity always helps.

And if you’re interested in medieval texts, look at my post about the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo below. I updated Twitter feeds throughout the conference. Try searching #Kzoo2017 and an author you want to know more about from the list and I bet you’ll find something.

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