Classic Remarks: Medieval Literature

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted by Krysta and Brianna at Pages Unbound. Each week, they pose a question about classic works of literature in order for readers to engage in a continuing conversation about elements of classic literature, the literary ‘canon’, and the timelessness of story. If you’re interested in participating, you can find the schedule here.

In the spring at the time when kings go off to war, the mind naturally turns to medieval literature. And of course, when one thinks of medieval literature, Beowulf is at the forefront of the mind. Of course it is. This sixth century poem is rightly regarded as the height of Anglo-Saxon (aka ye Olde English) poetry. It has boastful warriors! It has battles! Monsters! A dragon! It discusses the nature of loyalty and proclaims how friendship helps create a circle of light against the darkness! It shows the old Germanic pagan motifs and how they were subsumed by a newer Christian spirit which gives it a far different tone from the the grim ones of Eddaic lays and Icelandic sagas!

And to this I say, “It’s always Beowulf, Beowulf, Beowulf!”

Seriously. The medieval period of western Europe ran from the fall of Rome in the west (the mid-400s CE) up to the Renaissance, as late as 1500 CE (depending on where you are and how you classify things). That’s a THOUSAND YEARS of history, and despite the popular Victorian opinion (and thanks to the Victorians, our modern opinion), people of the medieval era did not just up and decide to stop telling stories, neglect to write things down, or generally decide to become raging idiots who lacked customs and social graces. The Middle Ages was a time of vibrant cultural development that gave us things like gothic cathedrals, Arthurian legends, and Gregorian chant. And outrageous shoes.

So instead of waxing rhapsodic about Beowulf, I’m going to talk about some other works of medieval literature.

  • Le Roman de Silence (Old French, 13th century), by Heldris de Cornaulles (Heldris of Cornwall), translated by Lewis Thorpe

Re-discovered in the 1920s, Le Roman de Silence (The Romance of Silence) is a French roman in verse about a young person, Silence, who is born a girl and raised as a boy by her/his father Cador (an Arthurian figure) in order to inherit lands and property that would be denied to a woman. The poem deals with notions of nature vs nurture: Silence is biologically female, but raised to do things like ride and fight the way a noble would have been. Though he spends most of the story indentifying as male, there are parts where Silence identifies as female, and is referred to as ‘she’ instead of ‘he’.

Silence’s story begins when, at birth, the midwife conceals Silence’s true gender and declares that Silence is a boy. Cador swears the midwife and his seneschal to secrecy and has the child raised quietly– and as a boy. As he grows up, Silence is the smartest boy who is good at everything he does, but at the age of twelve he realizes that he is not who he thought he was. Cador explains the reasons behind Silence’s unusual upbringing, and Silence agrees to keep the secret and continue living as a boy. A few years later, Silence takes up with wandering musicians and runs away from home, gaining fame as a musician and wandering into adventure. But when his travels take him to the courts of kings, his secret becomes harder to keep, and exposure could mean death.

Finally, sent on a mission to England to capture the sorcerer Merlin, Silence finds that he has finally met his match.

The story of Silence gives us a look at how medieval minds were considering gender and gender roles, and Silence is not the only character who presents as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. It shows us that matters of gender have always been more fluid than our black and white view of a gender binary allows for, and reveals that queer identities are most definitely not unique to the twenty-first century.

  • Laxdæla Saga by Unknown (Old Icelandic, c. 1245) translated into English by Hermann Pálsson, Magnus Magnusson, and others

One of the most beloved of the Icelandic Sagas, Laxdaela Saga is believed to have been written by a woman, and its characters are some of the most vividly written female characters in the history of Icelandic Sagas. Beginning in Norway during the reign of Harald Finehair, it follows the travels of Unnr the Deep-Minded as she seeks freedom and safety for herself and her family. She travels from Norway to Scotland and the Orkney and Faeroe Islands before settling down in western Iceland. There she grows wealthy, and upon her death is given a ship burial. The saga then follows the line of her descent as they travel and raid around Ireland and back to Norway.

A few generations on from Unnr, the story’s focus falls upon two friends: Kjartan and Bolli, who are as close as brothers. They both, in their turn, fall in love with the beautiful and clever Guðrún, who is said to be the most beautiful and cleverest girl who ever grew up in Iceland. Kjartan and Bolli both fall in love with Guðrún, though it is Bolli who wins her reluctant hand in marriage after she hears that Kjartan, who is now in Norway, will be gone for years and seems to be in love with King Olaf’s sister. Thanks to impulsive gift-giving and idle boasting, Bolli and Kjartan find themselves at odds when Kjartan finally returns to Iceland, and this sets off a series of tragic events that leads to betrayal, murder, and bitter vengeance.

Years later, when all is said and done, Guðrún’s young son asks her which of the two friends she loved more– Kjartan or Bolli. After a while, Guðrún replies with one of the most famous lines in all the Icelandic Sagas, whose ambiguity has driven readers to distraction for centuries: “I was worst to the one I loved the best”.

  • The Wanderer by Unknown (Anglo Saxon, before 975 CE), translated by J.R.R. Tolkien, Aaron K. Hostetter, and others

If you’ve read J.R.R. Tolkien’s book, The Lord of the Rings or seen Peter Jackson’s film version of The Two Towers, then you’ve read or heard part of The Wanderer:

"Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow..."
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers 

Given the popularity of the Jackson films, it’s a safe bet to say that most of you, Readers, are at least somewhat familiar with those verses. I’m betting you didn’t realize that gave you a passing familiarity with Anglo-Saxon poetry, did you? Well, now you know. Cool, huh?

The Wanderer is a poem about a man who is wandering the cold sea-roads and the aimless paths overland. He meditates on his past life as a member of his lord’s closest retainers. He feasted and fought alongside those brave men, but after a turn of fate that led to their deaths in battle and his exile, he is now alone and friendless. As he reflects on his sorrows and the pain that people suffer in life, he comes to an understanding of things that helps him to accept his circumstances so he can better focus on salvation and his faith in a heavenly God.

As with Beowulf, The Wanderer shows the modern reader a world in flux. In the centuries between 450 CE and 1000 CE, northern Europe was shifting from earlier polytheistic beliefs into the monotheistic religion of Christianity. But the shift in religion did not lead to a complete destruction of earlier stories– over the years, they changed and blended into stories that suited the newer times, much as we take fairytales or Arthurian legends and remake them with modern themes and ideals. The Wanderer provides an insight into an old warrior’s frame of mind as he looks back at his youth and mediates upon how his world has changed, and how he has changed to adapt to it.

Read Dr. Aaron K. Hostetter’s very modern translation here


Read a bilingual version with the original Anglo-Saxon side by side with modern English here

A page of The Wanderer By unknown – Bernard Muir’s 2006 edition of The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poems [1], Public Domain,

8 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Medieval Literature

  1. Well, you’re not wrong. I absolutely LOVE Beowulf! I think a lot of people naturally think of it because it’s one of the few medieval works they’ll read in school, maybe with a few poems like “The Wanderer” (which I also love). However, there are so many other great works! I really do like the work of the Gawain-poet, as well. I haven’t read Silence yet, but Briana always speaks highly of it, so I guess I should find a copy!

  2. Definitely find a copy of Silence! We read it in my Medieval Lit. and Theology class in college. Weird story, not at all what I expected from France of the time. Could have done with a different ending, but it’s medieval. What’re you gonna do?

  3. I loved this post. Medieval gender fluidity and notions of change and loss anglo saxon style. I’ve been reading Tolkein for years and knew he was an expert in anglo saxon literature and languages but never thought to look at the individual works behind his thinking. Thank you so much.

  4. Awesome, I appreciate this selection. This is a time period I’ve read very little from other than perhaps a history book here and there. I’d love to try some of these. Le Roman de Silence brought back memories of The Wolf in the Whale, one I really enjoyed.

  5. You’re welcome! I had a write-up for Gawain and the Green Knight, but the WordPress Editor was being a pain and deleted it. Fabulous. But I do recommend it– especially Tolkien’s translation. I don’t think Tolkien read Silence, as it wasn’t rediscovered until 1927. So he might have, but I haven’t seen anywhere that says he was familiar with it. I think he would have found it fascinating, though, given the bold women that show up in his own stories.

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