During the medieval period the overwhelming authority in the western world was the (Catholic) Church, and many of the rulers of the numerous kingdoms, clans, and other feudal provinces often claimed divine right to rule. Often times they did this with the backing of the Church. As a result, most of the stories, epics, tales, and books which surfaced during this time were meant as a way of showing the common people how they were suppose to live their lives, the basic principles coming down to complete devotion to God, the Church, and their divinely chosen king. Despite the heavy influence of the Church, as always, artists found ways of producing works of literature which detailed political situations of the time (mainly wars), and political commentaries. As with any of these lists, the four books I have chosen is by no means exhaustive, and is merely meant to be a starting point for you if you are interested in understanding some of the common references which still show up in today’s media.
Grail Quest (Arthurian Romances)
It would be impossible and irresponsible to speak of influential medieval literature without talking about the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. There is an array of stories and collections relating the heroics and adventures of the Knights of the Round table, but the one I suggest looking into is Arthurian Romances by Chretian De Troyes. This collection relates the stories of several different knights and their famous escapades, most notably Perceval’s discovery of the Holy Grail. The quest for everlasting life, and the cup which caught Jesus Christ’s blood at his crucifixion is one which has fascinated storytellers for a long time, from medieval writers to Steven Spielburg to J.K. Rowling. Amongst the tales of the King Arthur, who reportedly united the Britons and defended Britain against the Saxons, you will find many other themes and tropes which still ring true today (wise wizard guiding a young boy sound familiar? How about finding and responsibly using an unparalleled weapon?), but it seems as though little has caught the imagination of humanity as the quest for immortality.
The Divine Comedy (Inferno)
Dante Alighieri wrote The Divine Comedy, which details the journey of an unnamed protagonist (perhaps himself, perhaps a political figure) through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Each location is housed in a different book, and, if I am being honest, the only of the three books you need to read in order to understand more references is Inferno, or the trip through Hell. The epic is a masterfully written poem, which takes jab after jab at political, religious, and societal hypocrisy and corruption. Unless you are really confident in your medieval Italian political history (in which case you have probably already read Inferno), I suggest you find a translation with excellent footnotes and illustrations so you can understand just how poignant and scathing Dante was, and see some pretty interesting and ghastly illustrations. As far as references go, ever heard of the 9 circles of Hell? Dante’s creation. If you read Inferno you will find out exactly what sins and atrocity each circle is suppose to be reserved for. Since Dante published his epic, there have many iterations of a character being guided through the possibilities which await them (A Christmas Carol) if they do not change their ways. It is not uncommon for authors to supplant their own characters in Dante’s world either, as Neil Gaiman does in the first installment of his graphic series Sandman. If nothing else, when you go to the Renaissance Fair, you will have a better understanding of the the jokes being made in the Mud Show!
First of all, Chaucer’s collection of 20 stories was ground breaking because it was one of the first major works of literature which was written in the vernacular language spoken at the time. This meant it was written for the common people to read and understand for themselves. That’s pretty powerful stuff. The structure of Chaucer’s collection is that 20 people are gathered, and they each share their own story, and though it does not seem to revolve around a theme, it does all relate because the people are sharing their stories with each other in the same place. In my opinion, other authors have done something similar with their own collections of short stories, such as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. As for a a direct reference, the 2001 romantic comedy, A Knight’s Tale, takes its name directly from one of the stories in Canterbury Tales, and Heath Ledger’s herald, a gambling addict with a flair for the spoken word and bad decisions, is billed as Geoffrey Chaucer himself.
An epic of the North, Beowulf is the hero-tale of the title character who leaves his homeland to do battle with the creature Grendel and its mother. In typical epic-fashion, Beowulf rises to great heights after his great military conquests, (killing Grendel with his bare hands, and killing Grendel’s mother with a sword in her own lair) eventually becoming king. As with many of the heroes we encounter in epics, Beowulf is undone by his arrogance. He decides to take on a dragon by himself in his later years. Though he succeeds in slaying the dragon (with some help), he is mortally wounded and dies. The battles with Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon are all pieces which have been retold, and embedded in other stories. Parts of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit bear some resemblance to Beowulf’s encounter with the dragon.
Bonus: Gawain and the Green Knight
This is a quick bonus, mostly because it is my favorite of the Arthurian tales, and you won’t find it in De Troye’s collection. We often hear about Arthur, Lancelot, Perceval, and Galahad, but rarely do we hear of Gawain, who is described as one of the mightiest knights at the Round Table. In this tale he takes on the challenge of a great green and hairy knight and exemplifies, strength, courtesy, and chivalry.
I wish you good reading and good learning in the medieval age in your constant pursuit of a well-rounded life.