I really enjoyed my medieval literature course in college. Which sort of explains why I took another course on the exact same subject later in grad school. It is not at all because I have a terrible habit of making things much harder for myself than they need to be. (That is a lie. I could have taken a class on Stephen King instead. But did I? Nooooo.) And while I did honestly enjoy them and planned on reading The Canterbury Tales in its entirety someday, I did not think that day would be today.
But thanks to the Harvard English Department (and Prof. Anna Wilson), this is happening. No, I did not attend Harvard (though I did hang around it while I attended a different university in Boston). I’m just a giant nerd who likes to explore university summer reading lists. And when I saw this awesome list for 2021, that part of my brain that enjoys torturing me dug it’s sharp little claws in. So I essentially took ANOTHER university-level medieval literature course for absolutely no credit. Does this post count as my final paper?
Here’s the thing, I took two medieval literature courses (one in college and one in grad school)… and I had only read three of the books on this list in their entirety (I had also read bits of The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron). And I honestly was planning on only reading the ones I hadn’t read yet, because this list is A LOT. But I just got a new translation of Beowulf and… well… you know I like to take the hard route and do things I will absolutely regret later. So yes, I read every single book on this list. All three-thousand, nine-hundred and eighty-four pages of them.
This is going to be super long, so let’s just do this:
Judith (and Holofernes)
I figured I would ease my way back into the medieval language with the shortest text on this list. And my first thought was that this is basically super religious but kind of feminist Beowulf. And apparently my medieval literature muscle memory (that’s a thing, right?) is still there because, as it turns out, I was spot on! I’m barely into this and already proud of myself. My degree knowledge hasn’t completely left my brain.
Basically, Judith is based on a book of the Bible (the Catholic version, not the Protestant one – which I didn’t know, so clearly my parents got their money’s worth for twelve years of Catholic school). So this medieval poem having a very strong Bible-y vibe makes total sense. Also, medieval people tended to draw religion into basically everything. AND, the earliest recorded version of this poem was literally in the same manuscript as Beowulf. So, feminist Bible Beowulf is exactly what this is.
This is about Judith (duh) who chops off the head of the drunken military leader Holofernes after he has her brought to his bed. Dude couldn’t resist the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen, but too bad, because God told her to cut off his head to save her people. A slighter looser interpretation (that I just pulled out of my ass) is that a pious woman is brought to the bed of the rival military leader, has no interest in sleeping with him, so cuts off his head to protect her virtue. But it’s totally fine, because she can just say God told her to do it and now she’s a hero! I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where “but God told me to!” is a totally valid excuse for pretty much any crime. I mean, that sounds like an awful place, but you’d be able to get away with a lot of shit. Or get burned at the stake.
I didn’t love this, but it was kind of fun to read an actual OG hero story with a female hero. I’m curious as to why I had no idea this existed, but have read Beowulf like five times already and this is literally part of the same book. Possibly because it’s a lot shorter and generally dismissed as Beowulf’s little sister, or because the lack of an actual demon monster thing makes this less fun. But most likely because the eighteenth century wasn’t exactly welcoming of badass women so they decided to ignore this for the most part when translating the original manuscript. Either way, I am excited to move on to Beowulf. Because it’s still better.
I have read Beowulf multiple times (I was assigned it in high school, college, and grad school). But we were always given the Seamus Heaney translation to read. Which is fine. It’s a good translation. But it’s not the most fun. Until recently, that award went to Tolkien’s translation, which I felt captured the spirit of the original better – it was meant as entertainment, after all. (Note: I have read parts of the Tolkien translation, enough to get the gist of it, but I haven’t yet sat down and read it in it’s entirety.)
Enter Maria Dahvana Headley. Her translation came out last year, and I obviously picked up a copy. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to read it, and I cannot get over how incredible it is! Favorite quote: “Privilege is the way men prime power.” Followed closely by: “Meanwhile, Beowulf gave zero shits.” There are so, so many good lines in here. Easily my favorite translation now. Five stars!
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
I just picked up a translation by none other than J. R. R. Tolkien himself. Which I thought would be really fun to read since I’ve only ever read whatever version was sold in the university bookstore and was probably published in like the 80s. Though I should say before getting into this discussion, I don’t remember all that much about the other translation. It has also been a while since I’ve read any Tolkien. So I can’t really compare this to either Tolkien’s style in his own stories or to a different Gawain translation.
I feel like I had preface this little review because this book was difficult to get through in a way I wasn’t expecting. There is a lot (and I mean A LOT) of alliteration in this book. Every line had its own repeated sound. And even though I wasn’t reading this out loud, it kind of started to feel like a giant tongue twister for my brain. I had to slow down my reading speed quite a bit or the words would start to get jumbled in my head. Honestly, I can appreciate the work that went into doing something like that, but it kind of distracted from the story itself, and I’m not sure I enjoyed it all that much.
And because I wanted to experience at least some of the story without Tolkien’s flourishes, I found another translation online to check out. And I think I’m a bigger fan of that version’s simplicity than Tolkien’s probably more authentic style. There are merits to reading medieval literature both in forms true to the source material and as more accessible translations. I do like both, but I have been enjoying the more modern translations lately.
Overall, this was fine. The Tolkien version is not my favorite, but it was good, and I think it accomplished what it was meant to do. I wouldn’t recommend this as the first version of this story you pick up, but it was still interesting to read.
The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
I wouldn’t call any of the books on this list “easy reads”, but this one was a challenge. I honestly think if I had gone into this without any sort of knowledge base of both medieval literature and classic philosophy I might have been a little lost. This book was a lot. It’s told in both poetry and prose, and is about a prisoner (Boethius) and Philosophy, who comforts him.
I actually did some research on this one, because, after reading some of it, I was curious. I decided to read it closer to the beginning of this experiment because it just sounded like one I wanted to get out of the way. But it turns out that was a good plan, because it’s very likely this book influenced at least some of the other books on this list (it definitely served as an inspiration for Chaucer). Boethius was kind of a big deal (and probably did have many leather-bound books – five points to whoever got that reference). This was a huge influence on literature and thought for basically a millennium, and I can definitely see that, especially in the poetry bits. There are some lines that are very similar to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” – which I only noticed because I have it memorized, not because spent time looking for Boethius-influenced art (just to clarify what kind of nerd I am) – and there’s at least one poem written in iambic pentameter, which was very common in English poetry for centuries.
This was originally written in Latin, while Boethius was imprisoned by a Gothic king in Rome around 524. Which is kind of amazing considering this reads a lot like Romantic literature – a movement that happened 1300 years later. I might be the only one super interested in this, but I’m kind of shocked this was never included in any of the many literature courses I’ve taken, so thank you, Harvard! This would have been an excellent addition to my own studies, especially in some of the advanced literature courses. Overall, I liked this quite a bit. Maybe not so much as an enjoyable book to read, but from more of an academic perspective.
I was on the fence when I started this, but I ended up enjoying it. I wasn’t expecting it to go from philosophy to religion towards the end, but I wasn’t too surprised because this is very early Medieval lit AND Boethius was literally writing this while imprisoned awaiting his execution. I do prefer the monsters and heroes side of Medieval literature to the more religious works, but this wasn’t bad. And it did a fairly good job of putting me in a better headspace to get into the rest of these texts.
The Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich
Since I just said I wasn’t super into the very religious side of Medieval literature, I should probably just get this one over with. Apparently Julian of Norwich was famous for her writing and profound thinking. Which sounds nice. Until I read that she was also an anchoress, or a female religious recluse (don’t worry, I’d never heard that term, either). And this book is all about the visions from God she had while suffering from some sort of illness. I’m pretty sure this won’t be my cup of tea, but I’m too far into this already to just skip it. Also, I know there are some very non-religious stories coming up (mostly about everyone being horny all the time), so I have that to look forward to.
Apart from me cringing at having to return to a religious text after recovering from twelve years of Catholic school (I’m doing this for you!), I am a little impressed that Julian of Norwich was one of the first published female authors. All the way back in 1373. So that’s cool. I still don’t want to read this and am absolutely procrastinating right now. Anyway…
This book brought up some memories that I didn’t need to remember. It basically took me right back to that brief time in elementary school, before kids started questioning the religion that was being shoved down our throats, and “seeing” spiritual things was like a badge of honor. Except we were all making shit up but also being so fanatical about it that we sort of convinced ourselves it was real. Honestly that was a little traumatizing for me as a child (my mother was also very into it and it was basically the best way to earn her attention) and I did not need to relive it. So this was not a pleasant reading experience.
My thoughts kind of bounced between “sure, Jan” and “oh, honey, no”. Like, I’m sure Julian wholeheartedly believed what she was writing. But being a religious recluse has to mess with your head, at least a little bit, right?
(Note: This isn’t meant to insult any religion or spirituality in general, I just personally had some traumatic experiences with that whole thing as a child and have since moved away from it. If you are religious – specifically Catholic – or into Christian spirituality, you might really enjoy this book, and that’s totally fine.)
I didn’t hate this book, it just really was not for me. I’m definitely not the target audience for this, though I am surprised it wasn’t assigned to us in high school a some sort of religion/English class hybrid. There was honestly something about the writing that really worked for me, but just not the kind of book I would willingly pick up at this point in my life.
Thankfully, it was a quick read and now it’s time for some inappropriate liaisons with knights…
The Lais of Marie de France
This is actually my third time reading this collection of stories. I read it once in college, and then I read it again a couple years ago because I was bored at work and this was free to read online. This time around, I actually picked up a new copy, which I did not do any research on and ended up being something a little different. Instead of simply translating the lais from French to English, this translator duo turned the poetry into prose. And I was kind of into it.
Every single time I read this book, it brings up one specific memory from the time I read it in college. In the first story, our handsome knight is injured in the thigh with his own arrow (clearly a genius). My professor made it very clear that “thigh” is a euphemism for… something else. And then he’s cursed to suffer from his wound until a woman comes to make it better. But don’t worry! There is a married lady in a tower that is going to instantly fall in love with him and answer all his problems! But then her husband finds out and is pissed and locks up his wife (again), so the knight puts together an army and starves an entire town so he can kill the husband and be with the lady. Totally rational, nothing to see here.
Basically this book is all about courtly love, which is the only kind that is noble according to Marie. Down with rich husbands, every lady needs a knight to save her. Just don’t get caught, because then you’ll be exiled and all your children will be born noseless! (Seriously, that is a thing that happens in one of these stories.)
I actually ended up enjoying The Lais of Marie de France more this time around. This particular translation really worked for me. It was a fun read, and a nice departure from the last one.
Roman de Silence by Heldris de Cornualle
The tagline of this book is “a thirteenth century French romance”. Which didn’t completely convince me that I would enjoy this book at all. But then I (reluctantly) started reading and was entirely captivated by the pure snark of this author. I’m paraphrasing here, but it basically starts with (and I’m paraphrasing here) “I’m really tired of all these fake bitches at court, only like two kings don’t suck, and everyone else is literally the worst”. And if you know me, you know I am here for the medieval drama. I would probably watch reality TV more often if it was about women who jumped out of a tower window to escape the husband that was forcing them to attend mass by having his knights stand on her gown. The confessionals would all be about how she’s a witch or possessed, and oh, her poor husband who is sadly now single and rich. (That is an actual example from a Medieval history book I read earlier this year.)
I was kind of loving this, and then there was a long religious bit that got kind of anti-semitic, which is not cool no matter how old this book is. It kind of made my excitement wane, even though it was literally followed up by the slaying of a dragon, which should be fun, damn it! (I mostly just felt sad for the dragon.) Also, I didn’t realize that there were three female characters until like halfway through the book because two of them are literally named Eufeme and Eufemie. So that was not my fault. The other, main female character is literally named Silence – take from that whatever implications you will. I hate it.
In the end, I had kind of complicated feelings about this one. It was kind of like a Medieval French Mulan, with the main character being a woman who was raised as a knight, which was fun. But I was not a fan of the names of the female characters (seriously, why?) or the kind of iffy views on Jews. I liked the snark, but feel a little weird saying I liked this book as a whole. I’m going with meh.
Moving on to the big, scary books…
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
I am honestly not sure how much of this I’ve actually read over the years. Because so far, most of it is vaguely familiar. Except for The Miller’s Tale – that is the tale I remember most vividly (because that’s what happens when you make a teenager read a book where someone literally kisses ass). But it’s basically about a group on a pilgrimage who tell tales and low-key insult each other as they walk. And – shocker – pretty much all of the stories are about religion or sex (sometimes both).
I was kind of enjoying myself. I feel like this book is a staple of English literature, and I was excited to finally be reading it. But then I got to The Prioress’s Tale, which is one of the religious ones (obviously) and turned out to be legit anti-semitic. I thought Silence was iffy, this one is downright bad. Apparently Christians really hated Jews in Medieval Europe. It doesn’t surprise me that much (Christians were historically the worst), but it’s weird that I was never taught about this. The more I learn about how whitewashed my education was, the more I feel like my degree in European history wasn’t actually complete. Anyway, back to Chaucer…
The only other tale in this book I was looking forward to was that of The Wife of Bath. Which I actually really enjoyed (even though it wasn’t really what I remembered). The wife of bath is a woman who has had five husbands (apparently, she took the “go forth and multiply” thing super seriously). She tells a tale that is pretty reminiscent of the old hag in the beginning of Beauty and the Beast, except the hag marries a knight (as his “punishment” for raping a young woman) and basically gives him the options to hate his hag of a wife forever or kiss her and take his chances. Spoiler: he kisses her and she turns into a beautiful young woman and they live happily ever after. Because all knights deserve a reception arc after committing rape. Honestly, the story would have been way more fun if she’d stayed an old hag and laughed in his face. Just saying.
Overall, I did like The Canterbury Tales. It is definitely a product of it’s time – in both good and bad ways – but I can see how it has become such a staple of English literature. But I won’t judge you at all if you skip The Prioress’s Tale. I guess it makes sense now that my professor didn’t have us read this entire book, because there are maybe some things that might have made for a not-so-great class discussion. (Note: I graduated college almost a decade ago – I know, I’m old – and times were different. I think people are more open to the difficult discussions now, and that’s awesome.)
The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
Right off the bat, this book is “poor women, they just have to sit around all day and do absolutely nothing while the men get to do all these super fun things like horseback riding and hawking.” This is going to be a very long nine-hundred pages. Or twenty-eight hours, because I decided to listen to the audiobook and it is literally longer than a full day. I cannot count the number of times I have regretted starting this experiment, but now is absolutely one of them.
I had actually been toying with the idea of reading The Decameron this past year. Because it’s set during a pandemic (the Black Death) and that seems like a terrible idea to read right now, which means the part of my brain that convinced me to do this experiment really wanted me to read it. I read The Stand last year (also about a pandemic), so this kind of feels like a natural progression of things that might haunt me later.
If you are not familiar with The Decameron, it’s about a group of young people who decide to escape the plague by leaving the city. Their journey takes ten days (hence, Decameron) and they entertain themselves with telling a bunch of stories each day. Sound familiar? Yeah, Boccaccio did it first (by about fifty years). But they’re still all about religious horny people. In case you were wondering, I am not having fun.
Honestly, I enjoyed this. It was basically just more of The Canterbury Tales, but more Italian (yes, I am aware that makes no sense, but this book hurt my brain so whatever). I think I’m just really tired and very ready to be done with this whole thing. This book was very long. And I probably made a mistake reading this and The Canterbury Tales at the same time (I listened to the audiobook of this one, so they overlapped a bit). Not that any of you are crazy enough to attempt this, but I do not recommend trying to cram all of these books into a few weeks (as expected, it is melting my brain) or reading these two books specifically back to back because it’s like adding an extra step of difficulty with keeping all the stories straight (both of them literally have stories about monks tricking young women into sex, so that might not be entirely my fault). The writing was a little different – I liked both – but I think my brain was too tired to differentiate constantly. Learn from my mistakes. And also please send me all the coffee.
I obviously saved the two more contemporary books for the end because I was sure my brain would be fried by this point (and it is). But one of them is a fairly chunky fantasy novel from the 50s, so…
The Once and Future King by T. H. White
As glad as I am to be done with all of the actual medieval literature, I am not particularly looking forward to jumping into a six-hundred page fantasy novel. I really hope this is entertaining enough to push me through to the end. But while this is definitely a lot more modern than most of this list, it was originally written during WWII as short stories before being revised into a novel in the 50s.
First impressions: I can definitely tell this was written in the 30s In the same way that older period costumes were a blend of the era they were meant to portray and the decade they were from (don’t look to Elizabeth Taylor if you want to know what Cleopatra looked like). In this case, everyone is “chap” or “dame” or “fellow”. It kind of feels like I’m reading The Great Gatsby, but it’s King Arthur. There were also references to Uncle Sam, Einstein, and Robert Baden Powell, who founded the Boy Scouts in 1910, so this was very obviously written for a 1930s audience. The writing took some getting used to, but I think I’m king of enjoying it. You know, apart from the casual racism, which no one is surprised about at this point in the experiment. I just don’t know how I feel about this book being so many people’s childhood favorite when there is literally a hawk that uses the n-word. And says a lot of other stuff you might imagine coming from an unhinged racist. Except it’s a bird and this is a children’s book (no idea why it’s not classified that way on Goodreads, because this definitely reads like it was meant for children – maybe because of the racist bird).
I might have spoken too soon about (sort of) liking this book. I know I’m going to get a lot of hate for this, but I am so bored! I made it a hundred pages before my eyes started to drift shut. I don’t hate it, and I know this is a children’s book, but I hope someone dies so there will be something to make me care. You know what this is? This is the Harry Potter of the 1950s – super problematic, but no one realizes it until later (if at all) and everyone who experienced it as a child loves it and feels super nostalgic about it. And I get it. I would probably have loved this, too… if I’d read it twenty years ago. But I’m not twelve, it is not 2001, and this book is not making me feel warm and fuzzy. The feelings I currently have are boredom with a dash of uncomfortable.
I made it through book one, even though I was so bored I didn’t care at all about the whole pulling the sword from the stone thing. And then came book two. (Trigger warning for animal abuse in this next sentence.) As the owner of a black cat, and general animal lover, I am not okay with a black cat being graphically boiled alive in a children’s book! That would have traumatized me as a child. Pretty sure it still did as an adult, and I love watching true crime. I think the exact words I said out loud before putting the book down was “nope, no, nope, nope nope”. This book should come with major content warnings. One of which should be “not suitable for children”.
I honestly tried with this book. I went into this thinking I would enjoy it, if not love it. It’s so beloved and treated like a prime example of classic English fantasy (according to the cover, it is “The World’s Greatest Fantasy Classic”) and the seminal King Arthur story… and I hated it. This was painfully boring and slow and I did not enjoy reading 80% of this book (the first hundred pages weren’t too bad). This book has earned the distinction of being one of a few books I have ever rage-read (because I am stubborn and have come too far with this post to DNF this book). It is racist, does not portray disabled people kindly, features animal abuse to an extent that made me uncomfortable, and it’s not even fun enough to distract from all the garbage. Even the non-racist cultural references were modern and felt weird in context. Every single other book on this list was more enjoyable to read and they’re all at least five-hundred years old. It’s a hard no from me. We can do so much better than this book. #sorrynotsorry
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
I have been hearing great things about this for years and I’m sure I’ll like it, so I decided to make this my reward for completing this list. And I really deserve a reward after that last book. I wasn’t totally sure how this fit into the rest of the list, but apparently Helen Macdonald turned towards a T. H. White book, The Goshawk, as she was attempting to train a goshawk, and writes about it in this memoir. Not gonna lie, I was very tempted to read that first. At least I was until I read The Once and Future King and decided to never read another T. H. White book again.
And I won’t lie, this book did give me a little more understanding of White. Sure, he was kind of a jerk, but he was a jerk who was bullied (probably for being gay) and had kind of mean parents. I still don’t think The Once and Future King is a good book (definitely not as great as everyone says it is), but at least now the vibe I was getting that White was entitled and angry makes sense. Even Macdonald admits White had a “desire for cruelties and dreadful politics”. So I don’t feel even a tiny bit bad about disliking his book.
Now, H for Hawk on the other hand is a great book. I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir. I did go into it with fairly high expectations, just based on having heard so many great things about it for the last few years. And while it is not the new favorite I was kind of hoping for, it was really good. I ended up listening to the audiobook – which I like to do for memoirs in particular, especially if they’re read by the author – and would definitely recommend that.
You did it! Thank you for sticking with me until the end, because this was A LOT. But it is done! We all survived! This was so much reading, and I don’t think I’ll be doing anything like this again. At least not anytime soon.
So, what did I learn? College is hard and maybe I don’t miss it as much as I thought I did. Also, medieval people were obsessed with sex and religion. Oh, and they were super racist. Which didn’t surprise me so much, I was just a little thrown off because it was something that was never discussed while I was in school, so it wasn’t something I thought about all that much in a medieval history context. Which just goes to show that you can learn something from reading classics.
I hope you enjoyed this post. I can’t say that I enjoyed putting this together, but I do feel accomplished. And tired. So I think I’ll end this here. We’ve both been at it long enough.
I would love to hear what you think of this post! Have you read any of these books?
And check out my bookshop, where you can buy books and also shop my curated collections of my personal favorites AND all of the books I’ve read for my reading experiments. Or you can just buy whatever books you want to. I get a small commission at no extra cost to you, and you get to support your choice of indie bookstores – it’s a win all around!