Literature

The Best Fourteenth-Century Poems Everyone Should Read

The fourteenth century was, in many ways, the century in which English poetry truly arrived, with the work of Geoffrey Chaucer and the development of Middle English as a supple, vibrant language for vernacular poetry. In Italy, too, the language of the local, common people was used in verse by the pioneering poet Dante, who chose to write in Italian rather than the high Latin of many religious works. Below, we’ve selected some of the very best fourteenth-century poems, both big and small, epic and lyric.

Dante, The Divine Comedy. We begin this pick of fourteenth-century poems in Italy, in the very early 1300s. 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. Specifically, the final part of the trilogy, Paradiso, is of particular interest here, where the poet is guided by his muse, Beatrice, to heaven.

Anonymous, ‘Mon in the Mone’. ‘Mon in the Mone’ (i.e. ‘Man in the Moon’) is a medieval poem dating from the early fourteenth century, a good half a century before Geoffrey Chaucer, the Pearl poet, John Gower, and the Gawain poet all arrived on the scene and English poetry really came into its own.

Mon in the mone stond and strit;
On his botforke his burthen he bereth.
It is muche wonder that he na doun slyt;
For doute leste he valle he shoddreth ant shereth.
When the forst freseth muche chele he byd.

Anonymous, ‘I Have a Gentle Cock’. This poem probably dates from the fourteenth century, as the Middle English spelling suggests. And yes, there is a bawdy double entendre going on in the title of this short medieval lyric: ‘cock’ is not just a cockerel, one suspects, especially as it appears, suggestively, in the ‘lady’s chamber’ at the end of the poem…

I haue a gentil cook,
Crowyt me day.
He doth me rysyn erly,
My matyins for to say…

Anonymous, ‘When the Nightingale Sings’. This medieval poem dating from the early fourteenth century begins, in Middle English, ‘When the nyhtegale singes, / The wodes waxen grene, / Lef ant gras ant blosme springes / In Averyl, Y wene’: in modern English, ‘When the nightingale sings, the woods grow green, leaf and grass and blossom spring in April, I believe’. This happens across England, ‘Bituene Lyncolne ant Lyndeseye, / Northamptoun ant Lounde’ (‘Lyndesey’ or Lindsey probably refers to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the north of England, what is now East Yorkshire).

Anonymous, ‘Why have ye no routhe on my child?’ This poem is a lament for a lost child: ‘rode’ is the ‘rood’ or Cross, and ‘routhe’ is ‘ruth’ or compassion – which is why someone who lacks compassion is described as ‘ruthless’:

Why have ye no routhe on my child?
Have routhe on me ful of mourning;
Tak doun o rode my derworth child,
Or prik me o rode with my derling!

That’s how the poem begins, but click on the link above to read the full poem, which is the sixth on our list of the best medieval poems. It’s the oldest poem on this list of mourning poems, dating back at least six centuries to the late fourteenth century, though it may be even older.

Anonymous, Pearl. One of the first great elegies in the English language, Pearl was written by an anonymous poet in the late fourteenth century – probably the same poet who also gave us Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. A lament for a child who has died, and a classic example of the medieval dream-poem, Pearl is a long work but is well worth reading, whether in the original Middle English that summons up an age long past or in a modern translation, such as the recent one by Simon Armitage.

Anonymous, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. One of the jewels in the crown of medieval English literature, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – probably written by the same, unknown, poet who wrote Pearl – fuses Arthurian legend, moral fable, and beautiful descriptions of the English countryside. The narrative poem tells of how, during the Christmas feasting at Camelot, a mysterious green knight showed up at Camelot and challenged the revellers at Arthur’s court: if someone steps forward and cuts his head off, they must promise to let the Green Knight return the favour a year later. Young Sir Gawain takes up the challenge, but hasn’t realised what he’s let himself in for…

William Langland, Piers Plowman.

Ac on a May morwenynge on Malverne hilles
Me bifel a ferly, of Fairye me thoghte…

In other words, ‘But on a May morning on the Malvern hills, a marvel befell me, of fairy methought.’ One of the great dream poems of the Middle Ages, Piers Plowman sees the poet William Langland (at least that’s his probable name) falling asleep in the Malvern Hills and dreaming a series of visions, recounted in unrhymed alliterative verse, which the poet experienced (contrary to popular belief, Piers Plowman is one of the figures who appear in the dreams, not the dreamer himself). These dream-visions focus on a quest for personal salvation, corruption in the Church, and the value of the human heart over the power of cold intellect. What he had for his lunch is not recorded.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales. Not so much one poem as a whole series of poems, The Canterbury Tales was begun in the mid-1380s and remained unfinished upon Chaucer’s death in 1400. To begin exploring the sheer range and scope of Chaucer’s eclectic compilation, begin at the beginning with his General Prologue, in which he sets the scene – a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of St Thomas Becket – and introduces his cast of colourful characters, including a monk, knight, miller, reeve, manciple, prioress, nun’s priest, and, of course, the Wife of Bath…

2 Comments

  1. Middle English bewitches – so close to our understanding and so distant too. The history of a nation in its formation and development into Modern English. This selection is a tasty selection. I read Canterbury Tales years ago but not all in Middle English. This post makes me want to dip my toe in more Medieval poetry

  2. Not 14c, but you have reminded me of John Donne (1571 – 1631). “The Flea” – someone suggested the flea in the poem was a lost lover. That thought has stuck with me ever since.
    The Canterbury Tales – Geoffory Chaucer – I have reread and enjoyed, but honestly the story haunted my teenage years.

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