Tag: Medieval

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Posted November 7, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic, Short Stories / 11 Comments

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey ChaucerTitle: The Canterbury Tales (Goodreads)
Author: Geoffrey Chaucer
Translator: Nevill Coghill
Published: Penguin, 1390
Pages: 504
Genres: Classic, Short Stories
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of over 20 stories which were written near the end of the Fourteenth Century, just prior to 1400. While this is often referred to as an essential in medieval fiction, it is possible to narrow it down a little further and say this is a glimpse of life during the time of the Hundred Years’ War. The collection of tales helps break up this book a bit but it also contains a loose narrative framework throughout the entire The Canterbury Tales. I could go into deep analysis of each tale without doing a disservice to the quality and diversity of Geoffrey Chaucer’s large work. However in an effort to talk about The Canterbury Tales in its entirety, I may have to resort to broad analysis and generalities.

The Fourteenth Century was a violent and unstable period of time in English history; not only was the Hundred Years War raging with the French (1340-1450) but there was the Black Death (1348), famines and rebellions (the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381). This was an unstable time, things were changing; even the Catholic Church which often had a community-building nature was corrupt and abusing its power. Near the end of the 14th Century the Church was a mess, there was the sale of church offices as well as indulgences and pardons as well as greed and moral corruption. The Western Schism (or Papal Schism) took place from 1378 to 1418 where the Church was divided and several men simultaneously claimed to be the true pope. This should give you an idea of just what kind of instability the people in The Canterbury Tales faced.

However this book explored more than this instability; it is a medieval tapestry exploring the whole feel of this period but it might be easier to narrow it down to three major themes. The political, since The Norman conquest of England  (1066) the country was gradually processing toward political consolidation and unification, a theme that comes through a number of times within this book. Social and economic changes, following the story of many people around England as urbanisation takes affect and London becomes a more modern city. Finally The Canterbury Tales explores the cultural changes of a changing time; social classes are shifting but still play a big role within this country.

I know I am probably looking at this book through modern eyes but this is the best way I found to wrap my head around what is written. Luckily I didn’t have to read this book in Middle English and got to rely on Nevill Coghill’s translation but I am not going to deny that this was a very difficult book to get through. I found trying to understand the situation as if England changed from medieval into a modern society helped me pick up on the social, economical and political changes. I know London didn’t become an urban city like we know it today but it helped me follow the shifting times. I am not sure if viewing the book this way helped me understand it better or sent me down the wrong path but it doesn’t matter, is there a right or wrong way to interpret literature?

Symbolism, imagery and allegory play a huge part in Chaucer’s tales but it is hard to go into details on this topic because they change from story to story. What I found surprising about this book is not the beautiful poetic lines but how real and raw the emotions played out in each tales. I read an exploration into marriage, growing old, morality, rape, sexual pleasure and even anti-social behaviour. I never expected this from the book and it really surprised me. From a general overview The Canterbury Tales looks at a changing time but each tale goes into a personal look into different people’s lives.

As the narrator, Geoffrey Chaucer plays with the narrative from tale to tale; sometimes he comes off as naïve but then he can be very knowledgeable. I picked up on how  heavy he is on the irony, but in all honesty I didn’t have enough knowledge of the times to be able to explore this as much as I would have liked. If it wasn’t for the fact that I read this for a university subject I might have really struggled with this book. A lecture and some reading guides really helped me get something out of this book but like I said, I don’t have enough knowledge of medieval history to fully grasp this book in its entirety.

I mentioned to my dad that I had to read this book and he told me not to bother; he called it crude and vulgar but that only made me excited. I understand now that he had to read this book for high school and found it difficult but I can’t say vulgar is a good word to describe this book. Sure, there are some crude scenes but life is never full of well-mannered moral people. Chaucer explores life at this time and doesn’t shy away from the tough topics; but I think that is what makes this book so great.


Beowulf by Anonymous

Posted October 19, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 0 Comments

Beowulf by AnonymousTitle: Beowulf (Goodreads)
Author: Anonymous
Translator: Michael Alexander
Published: Penguin, 800
Pages: 137
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Beowulf is one of the oldest, complete surviving epic poems in existent. There are a few others from the same era that have survived in fragments, so the significance of Beowulf remains in regards to English literature. Written in Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) the manuscript of Beowulf is believed to date back to the 10th century (1,000AD). This is an example of a heroic poem, which can be defined as a text that deals with heroic actions in battle. Beowulf focuses on three great battles, with Grendel, Grendel’s Mother, and a Dragon.

While this is an English poem it is interesting to note that it is not set in England but southern Scandinavia, half in Denmark and the other in Geatland (or Götaland) which is one of three lands of Sweden. Beowulf does incorporate a large amount of Norse and Germanic history and legends, however I don’t have the knowledge to pick up on this within the text, just information I learnt after the reading. I suspect that this information was added into the poem to help pass on the information to Anglo-Saxon people, like a history lesson or as the poet calls it “the treasured repertory” (line 871). It is believed that Beowulf was composed in a time of stability, in a time of some democracy; an early medieval Christian civilisation. One might say this was an age where art and literature were flourishing and often used as methods of education.

Beowulf was no exception. What I got out of this poem was a reflection of the cultural and, to a lesser extent, political views of the time; a civilisation that values courtesy and formality. Chivalry, generosity and thoughtfulness are valued but still have a strong sense of precariousness, ready of imminent attack and war. Strength is still considered important; Beowulf is a warrior willing to fight against enemies both human and demonic. He even travelled to another country to fight a demonic menace. However you have to look to the other warriors as well, who appear as strong and capable as Beowulf but without their faith are rendered useless.

The role of the poet (or bard) is actually depicted in the poem itself several times. The poet is “…a fellow of the king’s” (line 868) which suggests that he is of a high rank. One who knows old and traditional stories, “Whose head was a storehouse of the storied verse, whose tongue gave gold to the language” (line 870). This allows the poem to have a unique perspective on the events that unfolds within Beowulf, a tactic that doesn’t always get explained within modern literature.

It is said that you can interpret this poem as having both Christian and pagan themes; however for me this had a very strong religious message. A battle of good and evil but I suspect this wasn’t a conflict of morality but an inevitable clash between the two. In a Christian context, Beowulf could be compared to Jesus, coming to save our souls from evil. You can even compare it to the story of Cain and Abel which is referenced within the text of Beowulf.

Given that Beowulf is meant to be experienced a spoken word I found myself struggling to read this as a written text. I had a look for the Michael Alexander translation (which was assigned to me for my university course) but was unsuccessful. However I did try to think about the text as if it was a story been spoken and I found it difficult. For me the narrative felt too slow, it lacked suspense and felt a little awkward (possibly the translation). The obscure historical allusions may not have been an issue back in the 800AD but it was for a modern reading.

I was nervous about reading Odyssey by but ended up loving it; I was hoping I would have a similar experience here. I suspected that Beowulf will remain a difficult text. There is some historical context that would be helpful before going into the poem that I just didn’t get. Reading the epic poem as part of a university course did help but for me it wasn’t enough. Medieval literature will remain difficult for me and would rather enjoy something a little more recent, like the 19th century. If you have read Beowulf and have some interesting insights that might help get my head around it, please let me know.


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous

Posted May 18, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 4 Comments

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by AnonymousTitle: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Goodreads)
Author: Anonymous
Translator: Brian Stone
Published: Penguin, 1390
Pages: 176
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Personal Copy

Buy: AmazonBook Depository (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

When I found out we had to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for a current university subject, I was a little worried. I often struggle with analysing poetry and something written in Middle English was not going to be easy. Thankfully we had to read the Brian Stone translation, which only hints at being Middle English. This is a famous 14th century Arthurian romance that is often known for the beheading game.

This is a typical quest narrative; The Green Knight exposes the Knights of the Round Table as timid and cowards when he challenges them to the beheading game. The rules are simple, one knight tries to behead the Green Knight and in a year and a day he will meet them for the returning blow.  The Arthurian world is governed by a well-established code of behaviour. This code is one of chivalry, a romantic notion that is deeply rooted in Christian morality, being a beacon of spiritual ideals in a fallen world.

The beheading game is a plot device used as a test in the quest narrative, Sir Gawain is thrown into participating in the game and he is left with a choice, to be a man that lives by his code or not. A game that is meant to measure the inner worth of the knights and it does it in a big way, it exposes the Knights as cowards but Gawain steps up, sort of.

There is a whole lot of humour in this story that often gets over looked when trying to analyse this difficult text. The idea of beheading someone and them returning for a reciprocating blow should have given that away. However the supernatural elements might have made this difficult to pick up on the comedic value. The Green Knight can be interpreted as an allusion of Christ and the strong religious overtones might lead you to think that but I saw him more as a plot device to represent life’s challenges.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a rather beautiful and interesting exploration for me. The translation I read did make it easier to understand, I don’t think I could handle learning Middle English. I had to do an assignment on this text and the quest narrative so I feel like I’ve already said plenty about this poem before sitting down to writing this review. I hope there is plenty of information here and gives the reader an idea of what to expect when reading this poem. It isn’t hard to understand if you have the right translation and is well worth reading.