Monday, October 22, 2007

Medieval Lit Reading List for the Non-Specialist

In the comments thread of a very old post I received the following inquiry today:
I'm not sure that this is the place for a request, but I'm wondering if you or a reader might provide a concise (20+/-) reading list of must-read MDVL literature(Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon, Germanic) in good English translation editions...? It would be much appreciated.

If I understand the question right, the person is a non-specialist (because he wants English translations) interested in Germanic medieval lit (since, although he asks for general medieval lit, the three examples he gives are all Germanic).

Since I've got a few other things I must do this morning, I invite the Wordhoarders to give their top 5 Modern English translations of Germanic medieval works -- off such a list, we ought to be able to derive a broad list of twenty.

By the way, budding specialists may want to look at WEMSK, What Every Medievalist Should Know.


  1. Well, I'd list the following:

    Beowulf by either Roy Liuzza or Seamus Heaney, both are good for different reasons

    Harrison's inexpensive but very readable The Song of Roland

    Bradley's Everyman edition of Anglo-Saxon Poetry is generally pretty good

    Sagas of the Icelanders by Penguin, intro by Jane Smiley collects a large number of Sagas in one place in readable translations

    Can't recall the author, but 2002 or so West V U press produced a translation of the Heliand that I think pretty good, but I don't know of any recent translations of Muspilli, Waltharius, etc. But the Penguin translation of the Niebelungenlied is readable and readily available.

    Also the "twin" Penguins of Bede's History and "The Age of Bede" are good reads.

    Ok, so kinda heavy on the Anglo-Saxon stuff, but that's what I know best I guess.

  2. I'd echo theswain's list on

    the Liuzza edition of Beowulf,

    Sagas of the Icelanders

    Bede's Ecclesiastical History from Penguin

    I'd add two others though. The first is relatively straightforward:
    Snorri Sturleson's Edda from the Everyman Library. I'd argue for this because Snorri is presenting a Nordic poetics that blends the mythological, grammatical, rhetorical, and rhythmical in a natural manner. (Actually, I'd love to teach this in parallel with Bede's poetics at some point...) The Everyman is my choice because it contains the third section on poetics that is often dropped.

    Now here's the strange suggestion... Medieval literate culture was connected to ecclesial culture. The central entre into medieval ecclesial culture is the Divine Office which anchored life for monastics and canons alike. Furthermore, much of the Scripture and theology was absorbed directly from the daily experience of the Hours. Understanding the Office is the best way to grasp how and why the psalms are so omnipresent and how and why Scripture interpretation happened as it did. Thus, I'd suggest a translation of the Tridentine Breviary. Because of the Breviary reforms of Pius X in the early 1900's the only translations of the Tridentine Breviary I'm familiar with predate that point. The best option is probably that of the Marquess of Bute online at the openlibrary.

  3. Anonymous11:22 AM

    very helpful so far, THANK YOU!

  4. This translation of several works by Hartmann von Aue gives a nice selection of a variety of types of medieval literature.

    J. W. Thomas's Medieval German Tales in English Translation is also good at giving a cross-section of kinds of Germanic medieval literature. Thomas's dedication to translating medieval German lit was prodigious: I'm particularly fond of his Herzog Ernst, although it's probably not a must read. (neither is the Linda Marshall trans of Wernher der Gartenaere's Helmbrecht, although I am quite fond of it).

    Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan and Iseult and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival also strike me as necessary.

    If our questioner is interested in literature written in what's now Germany, even if not written in some Germanic language, the Scivias seems necessary, as does the (closet?) drama of Hroswitha.

    Strikes me too that the German world chronicle listed here would also give a nice introduction to the Xian Middle Ages through Germanic eyes.

    I also understand there was some literature in a Germanic tongue produced in Britain...

  5. I would recommend two things off the Germanic menu:

    Orlando Innamorato by Boiardo, unabridged translation by Charles Stanley Ross, Parlor Press.

    (There was an abridged version published previously, but it did not include the third book in the epic poem. If you are going to invest time reading this poem - get the unabridged published in 2004.

    Also its sequel:

    Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto. My preference is Barbara Reynolds' translation. Although Guido Waldman's is also fine. It would be a good idea for someone interested to read a few passages of both translators works and decide which one they prefer.

    Linda McCabe