In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews Stephen Coote’s English Literature of the Middle Ages
Stephen Coote’s English Literature of the Middle Ages (Pelican) was published thirty years ago, in 1988. It’s taken me until this week to read it, but it’s one of the most illuminating and important introductions to medieval English literature you could hope to find. Clear, accessible, and endlessly informative, Coote’s book covers everything from Beowulf to the Morte Darthur, taking in alliterative and rhyming verse, courtly dream-visions and Arthurian narratives, Anglo-Saxon kennings and Middle English prose.
It took a train journey to Doncaster to get me reading Coote’s book, which I have been meaning to read for a while now. But a longish train journey and plenty of time freezing on a cold and dark railway platform in Yorkshire proved the perfect opportunity to rediscover the joys of medieval literature. It also helps that it’s December. When he appeared on Desert Island Discs, Philip Larkin talked of ‘the Christmas of the illuminated manuscripts and the books of hours with the red and blue robes and the gold crowns and the gold haloes and the snow’, as opposed to the ‘Christmas of Dingly Dell’. And for me, Christmas literature has always been more about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the anonymous Middle English lyrics than Tiny Tim and Scrooge, much as I revere Dickens.
Coote is a mine of arresting insights and surprising facts. For instance, virtually all of the Anglo-Saxon verse which we have – in other words, all of the verse that’s survived from Saxon times – has survived thanks to just four manuscripts dating from around AD 1000. One of these manuscripts even had to survive being used as a chopping board and, at another point, a beer mat. And then there are the surprising revelations about little-known medieval works of literature. Who first wrote La Belle Dame Sans Merci? The answer is ‘we don’t know’, assuming we’re referring to the anonymous medieval poem in Middle English written in around 1350, rather than the later John Keats poem. This translation of a French original about a cruel lady who refuses to be ‘ruled by mannes governaunce’ presents a curious medieval precursor to Keats’s faux-medieval Romanticism.
It was also fascinating to learn that Beowulf’s name is itself an example of a kenning, that distinctive feature of Anglo-Saxon verse whereby two things are used to describe a third, e.g. ‘whale-road’ for the sea: Beowulf, literally ‘bee-wolf’, is thus a raider of hives, and therefore like a bear. Beowulf is, like a later ursine figure from English literature, a bear who loves honey. Dame Sirith, the thirteenth-century comic poem which provides a notable early English example of the fabliau, was also a new one to me: like Chaucer’s later and more famous Miller’s tale from The Canterbury Tales, Dame Sirith is about a clerk’s attempts to sleep with an attractive married woman. The clerkly hero – if that is the word for him – is Wilekin, who, having been rejected by his beloved Margery, goes to consult the titular Dame Sirith, who hatches a plan for him, which involves her smearing mustard round her dog’s eyes and taking the creature (which appears to be crying) to Margery and telling her that the animal is her own daughter, who has been transformed through magic powers because she spurned a man’s advances. Margery, terrified that she will be turned into a dog for rejecting Wilekin, promptly submits to the lecherous clerk’s desires. Coote says of such fabliaux that they represent ‘the bawdy antithesis of romance and are to the vast body of romance what the gargoyle is to the cathedral.’
Chaucer, of course, looms large in Coote’s book, but he also devotes considerable space to lesser-known gems of the Middle Ages, such as the masterly debate-poem The Owl and the Nightingale, thought to date from the early thirteenth century, around the time of the reign of King John. There is also a chapter on Chaucer’s contemporaries and followers – men like John Gower, the author of Confessio Amantis, and the prolific John Lydgate.
One other thing which reading Stephen Coote’s English Literature of the Middle Ages (Pelican) brought home was the extent to which English literature had its roots in defeat: the early Saxon poem ‘The Battle of Maldon’ is a notable example, telling as it does of an Essex battle of 991 in which the Vikings defeated the Saxons, but it is not the only such instance. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which made King Arthur one of medieval Europe’s most popular fictional characters, was careful to emphasise that Arthur nearly made the Britons rulers of the world when they defeated the Roman emperor Lucius. However, in Geoffrey’s account, this ‘possible glory was eclipsed … by the sinfulness of Mordred (his adultery with Guinevere in particular), and from this moment on the Britons are shown descending to ever deeper levels of humiliation until their final routing by the Anglo-Saxons and their retreat to the coasts of Wales – Geoffrey’s home.’ Out of military defeat came literary triumph.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.