So you want to read Middle English lit?

In honour of it soon being the Harrowing of Hell – the greatest episode in Piers Plowman, maybe tied with the dreams within dreams – here is my fun and somewhat irreverent guide to the big names of Medieval English literature. They’re in a subjective order of ascending difficulty when reading in Middle English, but when in translation, it’s similar except Gawain is easier and Piers Plowman is basically just as hard. Onwards, to knights and strange religious dream poems feat. weird Biblical apocrypha.

  • Morte Darthur (/other spellings/Works) by Thomas Malory – More fun than could be expected from a huge book (if you get the bright red complete works edition) written like a five year old tried to spell more modern English. Malory’s prose Arthurian stories have everything you might want from an epic – knights, fights, magic, the chosen one being too good for this world, Gawain recognising Lancelot from how he rides a horse – and some you might not – incest, doomed love affairs, accidentally killing people and starting all-consuming feuds.
  • Various medieval drama – Medieval plays, usually short and part of a cycle that was performed around a city for a special occasion, basically encompass the Bible from creation to the apocalypse. Don’t say they didn’t think big. There are anthologies of some of the best bits and you can find them online too (try the York cycle for a starting point). There’s weird comedy with Lucifer stealing God’s chair and jokes whilst Christ is being nailed to the cross. Really.
  • Geoffrey Chaucer – The big name. I’ve not specified a work first because it depends. Obviously there’s The Canterbury Tales, which true to its name is separate tales told by fictional pilgrims. Some are very dirty (try the Miller’s Tale if that’s your interest). Or read The Wife of Bath’s Prologue because she had a fun life. If you like Greek stuff/the Trojan War/Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, try Troilus and Criseyde, though it is quite long and you will get pissed off at Pandarus. Or if you like a crazy narrative involving retelling part of the Aeneid and also flying on the back of an eagle trying to explain physics to medieval people, go for my personal fave House of Fame.
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by (imaginatively) the Gawain poet – SGGK is a fantastic story told in a cinematic style, but it is also quite tough Middle English so good to read in translation first. Read it for the great descriptions or for the part where Gawain keeps having to kiss the Green Knight as part of a weird deal they made.
  • Piers Plowman by William Langland – On the surface, Piers Plowman doesn’t sound like much fun. A huge medieval dream poem in alliterative verse which features complex theology and dreams within dreams that are less heist-based than Inception. Once you read it, you’ll discover it still isn’t great fun, but it is also is, because it’s incredibly weird and features Christ jousting the devil in Hell.