The best medieval books, from travel writing and history to works of poetry
Say ‘medieval literature’ and a few names will spring to mind: Geoffrey Chaucer, Dante, the anonymous author of Beowulf. But where does one start exploring the wonderful and colourful world of medieval writing? Here are our ten recommendations, which give a sense of the rich panoply of medieval literature. Rather than order this list as ‘worst to best’ and attempt to proclaim one ‘best work of medieval literature’, we’ve avoided putting these ten books in any preferential order. Still, readers will doubtless have their favourites. What’s the best medieval book, for your money?
Dante, The Divine Comedy. Composed in the early fourteenth century, Dante’s Divine Comedy is a trilogy of poems charting the poet’s journey from hell (Inferno) through Purgatory (Purgatorio) to heaven (Paradiso), guided by his fellow poet, Virgil. Featuring lakes of filth and farting demons, it’s much more fun than its theological subject might suggest, and it influenced a whole raft of later poets, especially T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. It’s even been called the ‘fifth Gospel’, so clearly and effectively does Dante detail the medieval view of Christianity. Recommended edition: The Divine Comedy (Oxford World’s Classics).
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales. John Dryden said that Chaucer’s magnum opus contained ‘God’s plenty’, and indeed, all human (medieval) life seems to be here, among the pilgrims travelling from Southwark in London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket at the Cathedral. On their way, famously, the travellers take it in turn to tell stories, many of which Chaucer adapted from existing literary sources. Among the highlights are the miller’s tale (about a student trying to have it away with an older man’s young wife – many fart gags feature), the nun’s priest’s tale (a great little beast fable featuring talking animals), and the knight’s tale (about two men in love with the same woman – later used by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher as the source for their play, The Two Noble Kinsmen). Recommended edition: it’s worth reading Chaucer in the original Middle English, and the superb edition of Chaucer’s collected works, The Riverside Chaucer: Reissued with a new foreword by Christopher Cannon, contains some very useful notes and glosses.
Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe. For over half a millennium, this book was lost; the manuscript was only rediscovered in 1934. It’s a fascinating account of a woman’s life in medieval England. It’s even been called the first autobiography written in the language – though its status as true autobiography has been questioned. Recommended edition: The Book of Margery Kempe (Penguin Classics).
Marco Polo, Travels. Marco Polo, who recently got his own TV series, was an Italian traveller who was born in 1254. He dictated stories of his travels throughout Europe and Asia to a cellmate after he was imprisoned during a war between Venice and Genoa, and the Travels was born. It became, by medieval standards, a bestseller, 150 years before the invention of the first modern printing press. His account of his adventures sometimes has to be taken with a pinch of salt and is sometimes a little dull and slow-moving, but is a valuable insight into the medieval world (and Polo probably saw more of the world than anyone else living at the time). It’s one of the finest medieval books out there, for sheer breadth of geographical coverage! Recommended edition: The Travels (Classics).
Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain. Among other things, this chronicle, written in Latin in the twelfth century by a Welsh monk, popularised the story of King Arthur. Like Polo’s Travels it was a bestseller and is one of most exciting medieval books in existence. And like some other popular ‘histories’ of the time, such as the fascinating Vinland sagas, the line between ‘history’ and ‘fiction’ was something drawn rather vaguely. Geoffrey’s account of the legendary king contains the first appearance of many of the iconic features of the Arthurian legend, including the wizard Merlin. (The nineteenth-century French scholar Gaston Paris suggested that Geoffrey changed the Welsh Myrddin to Merlin to avoid resemblance to the Latin merda, ‘faeces’.) Recommended edition: The History of the Kings of Britain (Classics).
Anonymous, The Mabinogion. This collection of eleven tales constitutes the first substantial prose work written in Britain. It was composed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by unknown Welsh monks, who wrote down earlier oral tales about love, war, and heroism. They are important in offering an alternative view of ancient Britain to the one presented in Arthurian legend. Recommended edition: The Mabinogion (Oxford World’s Classics).
Anonymous, Beowulf. Is this the greatest English poem of the medieval era? It’s certainly one of the first. As we’ve discussed in our detailed summary of Beowulf, this poem is part of a rich literary narrative tradition that encompasses Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the story of St George and the dragon, and even Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’. It chronicles the hero’s exploits, notably his slaying of the monster Grendel – actually only the first of three monsters Beowulf has to vanquish. Perfect fireside reading, and an archetypal work of English literature, composed when the notion of ‘England’ itself was only just beginning to emerge. Recommended edition: now sadly out of print, but available second-hand, this Norton Critical Edition includes Seamus Heaney’s acclaimed translation of the poem along with invaluable background information and a selection of critical essays on the poem: Beowulf: Verse Translation: A Verse Translation (Norton Critical Editions) by Heaney, Seamus New edition (2002).
Anonymous, The Nibelungenlied. This long Germanic poem has been called ‘the German Iliad‘, such is its centrality to German culture. Like Beowulf (another Germanic story), the poem focuses on a dragon-slayer, Siegfried. Following his death, his wife avenges him. The poem inspired Wagner’s Ring Cycle and is one of the great epic poems in medieval European literature. Recommended edition: The Nibelungenlied: The Lay of the Nibelungs (Oxford World’s Classics).
Omar Khayyám, The Rubáiyát. Meaning ‘quatrains’, the Rubáiyát is an extraordinary work by an extraordinary figure: Khayyám (1048-1131) was a Persian poet, philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician – a ‘Renaissance man’ four centuries before the Renaissance even came into being. The Rubáiyát is a great long poem of Arabian love and mysticism, translated into English by Victorian poet Edward FitzGerald, whose edition is available (in a very affordable edition) as The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (Wordsworth Classics).
Anonymous, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This long Arthurian poem was composed by a poet roughly contemporary with Chaucer, who lived in a different part of England from the author of The Canterbury Tales (probably the West Midlands or the North West of England). The poem focuses on King Arthur’s nephew, the young Sir Gawain, who accepts the challenged issued by the mysterious Green Knight who arrives at Camelot during the New Year’s celebrations. Gawain can cut off the Green Knight’s head, on condition that he honour the other side of the bargain and allow the Green Knight to return the favour the following year, at the Green Chapel. But when Gawain beheads the stranger, things do not go quite as planned, and the Knight survives. Will Gawain honour his pledge? This is perhaps the greatest story in all of medieval literature, told in lively alliterative verse and full of action, colour (especially, as you’ll have guessed, green), and interesting moral questions. The same poet probably also composed the long elegy for a dead child, Pearl, as well as two poems about Christian virtues, Cleanness and Patience. All four poems are available as Sir Gawain And The Green Knight/Pearl/Cleanness/Patience (Everyman’s Library (Paper)). This is the edition we recommend, because – unlike most modern editions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Everyman edition reprints the poem in the original Middle English (and helpful footnotes summarising what is going on in each part of the poem, which make things easier to follow). There have been good translations by J. R. R. Tolkien and Simon Armitage, among others, but these are no substitute for experiencing the poem in its original language.
In this list we’ve tried to offer a range of texts from different genres (poetry, travel writing, prose romances), to give a sense of the sheer variety of the medieval writing that has survived. Continue your medieval odyssey with our facts about Geoffrey Chaucer and read ten short medieval English poems here.
Image (top): Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer by Thomas Hoccleve (modified, 2012), Wikimedia Commons. Image (middle): Wiglaf speaking to Beowulf after his battle with the dragon by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall, 1908, Wikimedia Commons, public domain. Image (bottom): Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (author unknown, late fourteenth century), Wikimedia Commons.