Building a medieval library

March 4, 2011

Despite my long-standing interest in medieval art and culture, medieval literature has been mostly a closed book – if you’ll pardon the expression – to me. A few months ago, however, I made an overly ambitious resolution to acquaint myself with the greatest of medieval literary masterpieces. My recent perusal of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde was the first fruit of that resolution, but there remain a great number of works that I am eager to read.

For the most part these books were not originally written in English, and, considering that my Spanish, Old French, Anglo-Norman, and Old Norse are all a little rusty, I am obliged to read in translation. I have been hunting through the catalogue to find the available translations, and to try to choose which ones I will read. The notes below are essentially my notes to myself as I was hunting.

If you have read any of these books and would like to comment on the translation you used, I would welcome your remarks. I would also be interested in recommendations of other works, not listed here, that are worthy of attention. (No need to recommend top tier works like the Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Beowulf, and so on; we already have those. But, if in doubt, recommend; it never hurts to be reminded how good something is.)

The Song of Roland. This chanson de geste celebrates the bravery of Charlemagne’s knight Roland as he contends against the Saracens of Spain. There seem to be three verse translations available. The one by Dorothy Sayers (Penguin) attempts to rhyme, which is great, but I worry that doing so will force the language into some awkward contortions. Un-rhymed verse translations from Glyn Burgess (Penguin, also) and Robert Harrison (Signet) read easily, but the poetry sounds a little flat-footed, at least on first perusal.

The Lais of Marie de France. This twelfth-century collection of narrative poems on themes of knighthood and courtly love has interested me for a long time, but I’ve yet to lay hands on it. Only two translations are available, I believe. The first, in prose, is by Glyn Burgess (Penguin), and the second, in verse, is a joint venture between Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante (Baker Academic), both from Columbia University. In this literature verse is going to trump prose nearly every time, and I am tending toward the latter.

El Cid. This is another military poem rooted in the conflict between Christians and Muslims in Spain. Several translations are available, but I can find only one, by Burton Raffel (Penguin) that is in verse. Raffel is a distinguished translator, so this is probably the edition to choose.

Icelandic Sagas. Not all of them, of course, but a few. Some years ago I picked up a hefty volume from Penguin Classics, The Sagas of Icelanders, which contains nine sagas and an assortment of tales, fleshed out with maps, family trees, illustrations, and the like. I’m pretty sure it’s a terrific book, but, not having read any of it yet, I can’t be certain. I do know that it does not include two of the most famous works in the tradition: Njal’s Saga and the Prose Edda. Both are available from Penguin in separate volumes, and I will probably go with those.

Le Roman de la Rose. It is with some trepidation that I put this poem on this list. It is undoubtedly a masterpiece of the courtly love tradition, but it has a reputation for extravagant interminability – all gracious ritual and extensive floral allegory – that strikes fear into the heart of a modern reader. At over 20 000 lines it is no small undertaking. I actually have Chaucer’s translation of the poem (The Romaunt of the Rose), but I am reluctant to add the challenges of Middle English to the native challenges of the poem itself. There is a 1962 translation by Harry W. Robbins, now apparently out of print, which leaves Frances Horgan’s translation from Oxford World’s Classics as the sole viable contender.

Piers Plowman. I have heard William Langland’s great work described as a sort of proto-Marxist tract on account of its fierce assault on political and economic oppression. Such a description is not calculated to endear the poem to me, but I would like to read it on its own terms. It is written in English, albeit a difficult dialect, so I am looking for an edition with helpful annotations rather than a modernization. On that count the Penguin Classics edition is out (it is also in prose, which is an automatic disqualification). I can find three annotated editions: one from Norton Critical Editions (with modern English on the facing pages), one from Everyman (with line-end annotations), and the last from Exeter University Press (also with line-end annotations). The first two editions have the so-called B-text, and the last has the C-text. I don’t know which text I should prefer.

Arthurian Romances — specifically, those of Chrétien de Troyes. There are five romances to consider: Erec and Enide, Lancelot, Yvain, Cliges, and Percevel. We do have some of these tales in our library already, but in prose translations, and I would like verse. Surprisingly, I can find only one complete verse translation in print, by the estimable Burton Raffel. His versions are published by Yale University Press in five separate volumes, so that would get a bit pricey. However, I see no alternative.


Again, any comments or recommendations would be most welcome.

9 Responses to “Building a medieval library”

  1. Christina A. Says:

    So, question, did you pull this list from a syllabus once given by our friend Fr. G.A. OP? He once taught a course on mediaeval vernacular literature that covered many of these choices in this precise order!

    Most of my editions are also Penguin – I have a full shelf devoted to this category of literature at home…

    One of the only major works that I can think of here would be the Niebelungenlied (Penguin), which you should read directly after finishing the Norse sagas. It’s my personal favourite. (We used the earlier Saga of the Volsungs as a prelude to this later work.)

    Another poet that I just personally love and has stood out in my memory are the songs of the Archpoet – usually connected with the Carmina Burana and available online.

    You may not wish to go along these lines, but you could also read Abelard’s Historia Mea Calamitatum as a contrast to Augustine’s Confessions.

    Enjoy the journey!

    • cburrell Says:

      I am a little ashamed to say that it never occurred to me to seek Fr. O.P.’s advice on this matter. I should have done so! As it happens, I drafted the list all on my own.

      The Niebelungenlied is a nice suggestion; I had forgotten to include it. I know that it comes chronologically after the Norse sagas, so I will take your advice and defer my reading of it. But I appreciate the pointer.

      The Archpoet, eh? I think I remember you recommending that to me before. I’ll make a note of it.

      Abelard is already a favourite around here.

  2. Most of these I have not read. I recently bought and read the Burgess translation of the Chanson de Roland (by mistake – I knew that the Sayers translation was published by Penguin, and thought I was buying that version). The Burgess translation is certainly serviceable, but I can’t compare it with any other version.

    I am better acquainted with Langland’s poem – not my favourite work of Middle English, but worth getting to know. The A, B, and C texts were probably intended by Langland successive drafts of the same work, but there are such substantial differences and omissions between them that they can almost be viewed as three different books; substantial episodes appear in the B text and not the C text, and vice versa. Most people consider the B text to be somewhat more readable as a whole, although some of the C-text variants are interesting. I own the Everyman edition, and have no complaints.

    My background in medieval literature is mostly through academic work in Middle English, so I am less versed in the French, German and Norse texts that you mention above (with the obvious exception of Chaucer’s translation of Le Roman de la Rose). Since you’ve asked for recommendations, though, there are lots of shorter Middle English works worth reading: Chaucer’s various “dream vision” poems (available in a nice Norton critical edition with pretty good notes), the short poems “Pearl”, “Patience” and “Cleanness” which originate from the same manuscript as “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (fair warning: the dialect of Middle English used by this author is particularly difficult), and the charming anonymous poems “Sir Orfeo” and “Saint Erkenwald”.

    I am also very fond of a little Penguin book called “Medieval Latin Lyrics”, which has superb facing-page translations by Helen Waddell; the contents range from moving devotional poetry to the bawdy drinking songs of the Carmina Burana. Alas, this is long out of print; I found my copy in a used book store, but there are probably copies available online through the usual retailers.

    • cburrell Says:

      Thanks, Osbert.

      When I think of Sayers’ rhyming translation of Roland it makes me think of her rhyming translation of Dante, which has its merits but also its demerits.

      I didn’t know that Chaucer wrote ‘dream vision’ poems. I wonder if they are included in my Riverside Chaucer. I will check.

      I was given a nice edition of the Gawain poet’s works — including the shorter poems you mention — so they are well in hand. It is a difficult dialect. Would you say it is more difficult than Langland’s?

      I’m making notes about your other suggestions. Thank you!

      • It’s hard to say which of Langland and the Gawain-Poet is the more difficult – neither is exactly easy going, especially when I’ve been away from Middle English for a while. I find Langland’s language harder going, but I think this is mostly because I find his work in general less interesting and so I’m not as motivated. I also find the crisp alliteration in the Gawain-Poet aesthetically pleasing. I love the opening couplet of “Sir Gawain”:

        “Sithen the sege and the assaut was sesed at Troy/
        the burgh brindled and brennt to brondez and askes”

        If you have the Riverside Chaucer it almost certainly contains the dream vision poems (so called because a dream is the basic setup for all of them) – these are the “Hous of Fame”, “Book of the Duchess” and “Parlament of Fowles”.

  3. Adam Hincks Says:

    I’m glad that Pearl has been mentioned because it should not be left out. An anachronistic answer to Wordworth’s Surprised by Joy. (Plus, if I remember correctly, Fr. O.P. considers it the most (or one of the most) beautiful poems in the English language.)

  4. cburrell Says:

    The Riverside Chaucer does contain those poems, Osbert, and I do intend to read them. I did not realize that they were dream poems.

    Our edition of the Gawain poet’s poems (which, incidentally, was a gift from the self-same Dr. Hincks who has also joined the conversation) has line-by-line annotations to help with the thorny dialect.

    Fr. O.P. does indeed think very highly of Pearl, and once sent me an interesting essay he had written about it.

  5. Adam Hincks Says:

    Ah, I was wondering what I had done with that book! It’s a nice little gem. I’m glad it’s in good hands.

  6. cburrell Says:

    The wee one had her hands on it yesterday, but I got it back.

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