In the film Annie Hall, Diane Keaton confesses to Woody Allen her interest in attending some college classes. Allen is supportive, and has this bit of advice: "Just don't take any course where you have to read Beowulf."
Yes, it's funny; those of us who, by professorial demand, have plowed through books written in other centuries know just what he means. Yet it's sad, too, that these ancient masterpieces have come to represent a form of scholastic torture.
Why bother anyway? You may ask. Literature isn't history, and I want to know what actually happened, not some story about unrealistic heroes who never existed. However, for anyone truly interested in history, I think there are some valid reasons to bother.
Medieval literature is history -- a piece of evidence from the past. While the stories told in epic poems can rarely be taken for actual fact, everything about them illustrates the way things were at the time they were written.
These works were morality pieces as well as adventures. The heroes embodied the ideals to which knights of the times were encouraged to strive, and the villains performed actions they were cautioned against -- and got their comeuppance in the end. This was especially true of Arthurian tales. We can learn much from examining the ideas people had then of how one ought to behave -- which, in many ways, are like our own views.
Medieval literature also provides modern readers with intriguing clues to life in the Middle Ages.
Take, for example, this line from The Alliterative Morte Arthure (a fourteenth-century work by an unknown poet), where the king has ordered his Roman guests to be given the finest accommodations available: In chambers with chimpnees they changen their weedes. At a time when the castle was the height of comfort, and all the castle folk slept in the main hall to be near the fire, individual rooms with heat were signs of great wealth, indeed. Read further in the poem to find what was considered fine food: Pacockes and plovers in platters of gold / Pigges of pork despine that pastured never (piglets and porcupines); and Grete swannes full swithe in silveren chargeours, (platters) / Tartes of Turky, taste whom them likes . . . The poem goes on to describe a sumptuous feast and the finest tableware, all of which knocked the Romans off their feet.
The likely popularity of surviving medieval works is another reason to study them. Before they were set to paper these tales were told by hundreds of minstrels in court after court and castle after castle. Half of Europe knew the tales in The Song of Roland or El Cid, and everyone knew at least one Arthurian legend. Compare that to the place in our lives of popular books and films (try to find someone who never saw Star Wars), and it becomes clear that each tale is more than a single thread in the fabric of medieval life. How, then, can we ignore these literary pieces when seeking the truth of history?
Perhaps the best reason for reading medieval literature is its atmosphere. When I read Beowulf or Le Morte D'Arthur, I feel as if I know what it was like to live in those days and to hear a minstrel tell the story of a great hero defeating an evil foe. That in itself is worth the effort.
I know what you're thinking: "Beowulf is so long I couldn't possibly finish it in this lifetime, especially if I have to learn Old English first." Ah, but fortunately, some heroic scholars in years past have done the hard work for us, and have translated many of these works into modern English. This includes Beowulf! The translation by Francis B. Gummere retains the alliterative style and pacing of the original. And don't feel you have to read every word. I know some traditionalists would wince at this suggestion, but I'm suggesting it anyway: try looking for the juicy bits first, then go back to find out more. An example is the scene where the ogre Grendel first visit's the king's hall (section II):
Found within it the atheling band
asleep after feasting and fearless of sorrow,
of human hardship. Unhallowed wight,
grim and greedy, he grasped betimes,
wrathful, reckless, from resting-places,
thirty of the thanes, and thence he rushed
fain of his fell spoil, faring homeward,
laden with slaughter, his lair to seek.
Not quite the dry stuff you imagined, is it? It gets better (and more gruesome, too!).
So be as brave as Beowulf, and face the fearsome fables of the past. Perhaps you'll find yourself by a roaring fire in a great hall, and hear inside your head a tale told by a troubadour whose alliteration is much better than mine.
Find out more about Beowulf.
Guide Note: This feature was originally posted in November of 1998, and was updated in March of 2010.