Reading to Write About Medieval Literature

The most obvious advice is to build on what you learned in 211 and 212.  After that, the most important strategic moves you can make listed below.  If you come up with questions about anything, even if it seems silly, call me or send me an email asking for help.  Often the reasons you don't understand are very important and in any case, there are no silly questions for undergraduate students of medieval literature except the ones you neglect to ask.

--Read the introductions to each work—the medieval audience was less interested in novelty than in familiar stories told in inventive ways (cf. Pop music). To find the novelty, readers have to know what story the medieval audience was expecting to hear. That you should find in the introduction.

--Look in the back of the books for glossaries and helpful appendices in which key terms or unfamiliar customs are explained. Look at the bottom or side of the page for glosses of difficult or tricky usages—sometimes that’s where you’ll get the jokes or the innuendoes (political or sexual). Since all these works were produced in a manuscript culture, before mass audience printing, be alert to their textual history and the possibility that variant versions of the same author’s work may exist. Don’t be afraid to challenge the editor’s decision to relegate a variant reading to the textual notes at the back of the book or the foot of the page.

--Before you quit reading, make sure you understand the basic plot or circumstance, the personae or characters, and what is being said, at least at the literal level. Metaphors and similes require more work in early literatures because the "familiar" referent of the vehicle may no longer be familiar to us. Remember the Miller’s description of John’s young wife, Alison, as more fair than a new pear tree in blossom? Give yourself time to think about them.

--Keep reminding yourself that literature is not the same as history or biography. The aesthetic experience should involve your emotions and your intellect—if it’s not reaching you, give me a call and ask for help reaching that level of response. Keep in mind that these works are messages from a lost civilization whose inhabitants cared dearly for them, enough to sacrifice time and treasure to preserve them against accidental and intentional destruction which threatened them countless times in the last five hundred years.

The less obvious advice arises from the fact that literature grows out of culture and is manufactured for the culture which gave it birth. Once that culture has evolved into something alien to the one which created the literature, even if the people in the culture still are called "English-speaking people," the culture loses its ability to perform the literature competently, to read it with subtlety and feeling. Recovering that kind of competent performance ability requires extra work, but the reward is access to a lost world of human experience.

Medieval societies constructed human identity differently from modern America, and the concepts of individual freedom, autonomous responsibility, human rights, etc. which were invented by later eras are meaningless or even horrifying to inhabitants of earlier eras. Try to lay aside your faith in "progress" and test the possibility that older cultures had good reasons for turning out the kinds of people they produced.

--Ask yourself, "how did various sorts of medieval people understand the rules for being what they were?" If they’re knights, what makes a "good" knight vs. a merely competent or even bad one? If they’re husbands or wives, how did the medieval institution of marriage shape what they thought they ought to do in those roles?

--In what sorts of situations did medieval authors stop to evaluate characters’ behaviors? Who comments on, judges, punishes, or rewards characters, and where and when does this take place? Does the author seem to be following the status quo (and how do you know what it is?) or does the author try to subvert or openly challenge it? 

--If "race, class, and gender" most commonly control who has social power in modern America, what attributes do the job in medieval cultures? What determines who serves whom? Remember that capitalism, so natural an environment for the modern reader, is not yet thoroughly controlling medieval culture. What takes the place of "free" markets for goods and services , the sale of labor, paychecks and benefits, contracts and regulations? If the modern exchange of rings at wedding ceremonies grew out of the early medieval warlord’s gifts to warriors sworn to serve him, what other modern cultural features may we discover transformed in the medieval text?

--Medieval genres differ from modern ones, especially from the modern novel, especially in their approach to plot pacing, character construction, episode transition, and (most importantly!) rhyme and meter. Adjust your reading to a world in which story telling filled the winter evenings and a sense of "timelessness" often was essential to the author’s intentions. Characters might appear more "flat" than the modern psychological creations we are used to dissecting, but they were quite complex enough to serve the authors’ and audiences’ psychic needs. Episodes might seem disconnected by modern standards of plot development, but perhaps they serve some other aesthetic. Look for logical developments that resemble the forms of visual arts, including painting and architecture. Finally, nearly every work of medieval "literature" we will read this semester will be in verse. Pay attention to poetic form. Anything you know about rhyme schemes, enjambment and end-stopping, stanza construction, and internal rhyme and rhythm will serve you well. Ask me for help if any of these terms is unfamiliar to you.  Also, look at the Medieval Poetic and Narrative Forms pages for some more specific help.