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The Richness of Medieval English Literature

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. Read the rest of this entry

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The Best Canterbury Tales Everyone Should Read

Ten of Chaucer’s greatest tales

Geoffrey Chaucer left his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, unfinished when he died in 1400, having completed only one-fifth of the projected undertaking. Nevertheless, he left 20-odd tales finished, some of which are somewhat longer than others. What are the ten best Canterbury Tales? Below are what we consider the greatest of the tales told by Chaucer’s pilgrims. If you want to read Chaucer’s vast classic but don’t know the best place to start, these are our recommendations. We’ve been unsure as to whether to link to handy online translations of the Canterbury Tales into modern English, or to link to original Middle English versions. So, we’ve compromised. The interlinear translations offered by Harvard contain a line-by-line translation below the original Middle English.

The Miller’s Tale. Perhaps the most famous – and best-loved – of all of the tales in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ‘The Miller’s Tale’ is told as a comic corrective following the sonorous seriousness of the Knight’s tale. The tale is an example of the fabliau or comic skit, and concerns a lecherous young student at the University of Oxford, Nicholas, and his adulterous relationship with Alison, the young wife of an old carpenter. Flood warnings, farting, and frantic ark-building all ensue, in one of the great jewels in the comic crown of medieval literature. Read the rest of this entry

A Short Analysis of the Medieval Poem ‘Westron Wynde’

A summary of a miniature medieval classic

The anonymous song or poem simply known as ‘Westron Wynde’ (sometimes modernised as ‘Western Wind’) dates from the early sixteenth century, and the tune to which it was sung influenced a raft of English composers such as the Tudor John Taverner (not to be confused with the more recent composer, John Tavener). However, the words to the song may be from even earlier than the sixteenth century, perhaps the fourteenth or fifteenth century. How should we interpret ‘Westron Wynde’? It turns out its meaning is not exactly straightforward.

This four-line poem, in its original spelling, runs:

Westron wynde, when wyll thow blow
The smalle rayne downe can rayne? Read the rest of this entry