Medieval Top 10

1)      Beowulf, Anon.

The oldest known piece of literature in English. Also a great pair of stories, whether Beowulf v. Grendel or Beowulf’s last fight v. the dragon. Bonus feature: It offers some insight into Danish and Saxon upper class life.

2)      Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain-poet

Probably my second or third favorite on this list. Fun piece of Arthurian lore by an obscure poet writing in an obscure dialect. Features Gawain, a head chopping challenge, illusion, deception, attempted seduction, and a bit of questioning the ideals of Camelot.

3)      Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer

The classic English response to Boccaccio. Some of the tales are dry and mildly dull, but there are significant fun ones as well—Miller’s and Reeve’s tales. The piece also gives us an interesting insight into late-14th century cultural views about people in various walks of life. Ultimately, unfinished (there were supposed to be over 100 tales) despite some later claims of “lost” Chaucer tales (actually written by the people who “discovered” them).

4)      Yvain: Knight of the Lion, Chretien de Troyes

Probably my favorite of Chretien’s Arthurian pieces, in part because of some links to Tolkien. The story features giants, knights, wars, and Arthur’s conquest of Europe. But it also involves a magic ring that makes the wearer invisible . . .

5)      Lais, Marie de France

While all of Marie’s lais are good and interesting, my favorites are “Bisclavret” and “Yonec” for their shape-shifting elements. Nice pieces of 12th century literature, possibly written in London.

6)      The Romance of William of Palerne, Anon.

A 14th century translation of an earlier French work. A fairly popular and fun werewolf tale taking place mostly in Italy with a few scenes in Spain. Although named for William, Alphouns the werewolf tends to take center stage throughout the romance.

7)      “Arthur and Gorlagon”, Anon.

Short werewolf piece in the Arthurian corpus, much more violent than the two previously mentioned above. Basically, Arthur offends Guenevere and goes on a quest to make things up to her. He meets Gorlagon, hears the other king’s story, and goes home (oddly, it’s not quite clear whether Arthur’s quest was successful).

8)      The History and Topography of Ireland, Gerald of Wales

Gerald’s account of Irish life, legends, and culture as recorded during one of the Norman invasions of Ireland. Interestingly, Gerald, like many of the soldiers, was half-Welsh, half-Norman, on the margins of society, invading a place on the margins of Europe. Among the stories is the tale of the Ossory werewolves that presents both history and a theological conundrum for Gerald.

9)      Volsunga Saga, Anon.

Classic epic song of the Volsungs, from the gods’ slaying of a dwarf prince to the theft of Andvari the elf’s gold to Sigurd’s fight with Fafnir to the rise and fall of the Volsungs.

10)  Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Anon.

An excellent account of Mandeville’s travels around the world . . . that is, even for the places in Europe, probably totally fictitious. Even so, it’s a great piece to read, partially because it was considered one of the top travel narratives and travel guides in England for roughly four centuries. That said, from what we can tell, the actual author never left England and had no firsthand knowledge of Europe, much less the rest of the world.