Reading the Medieval

6994616_f520When I retired and was no longer in a position of having to give all my time to the subjects I taught, I made my way straight back to my first academic passion, Shakespearian Studies. However, decades had past since I’d done any serious work in the area and things had changed with a vengeance.  Instead of simply concentrating on the texts of the plays themselves and trying to find ever deeper and more complex meanings behind them, the discipline had expanded enormously to take in not only theatre practice, textual veracity and education and heritage studies, but also the political and cultural history of the time in which the works were written and the way in which that influenced what Shakespeare produced.  It is this aspect of the work that I found most enthralling.  I love tracking down obscure references to matters at court that might just have influenced half a line here or the choice of a particular word there.  I want to know how all the various art forms reflected not only each other but also the society out which they grew.

One thing that has become apparent, however, as I’ve read around this subject, is that as well as being aware of what was going on in Late Tudor and Early Jacobean England I also need to have a better understanding of the foundations upon which that particular society was built.  With that in mind I have been building myself a programme for the next two years that I hope will fill in the gaps (many and varied, I promise you) in relation to my knowledge of the history, philosophy, religion, science, art, music and of course, literature of the the period from the Conquest to the fall of the Plantagenets, so from 1066 to 1485.  I’m trying to be as broad as I can and so I shan’t just be considering England in this period, but in respect of overseas developments the way in which they influenced what happened here will be my ultimate focus.

Collecting materials that I can both afford and access easily has occupied quite a chunk of the last couple of months and now, as the new academic year approaches, I’m ready to start.  However, it struck me last night that one way in which I could embellish my plans would be to include novels that are set in this period in my reading for pleasure and so I’m looking for suggestions.  I don’t really want crime fiction, of which there is an almost endless supply, and neither am I really interested in books that are purely historical fiction.  What I have in mind are novels like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, or Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play, which have something more universal to say but which happen to be set in the Medieval period. Of course, if you think there is an historical novel that has the literary worth of a Wolf Hall then I’m happy to know about that as well.  I’m probably very badly biased against historical fiction from teenage reading of bad examples of the genre that were really poorly researched and only an excuse for a second rate romance so perhaps I need my horizons expanding in that area as well.  As usual I know I can rely on the wider reading community to help me in this matter and I promise that all suggestions will be gratefully received and that you have my heartfelt thanks in advance.


37 thoughts on “Reading the Medieval

  1. If you’ve not read The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn I cannot recommend it too highly. OK, it’s non fiction but it is an amazing book….

    1. Mary, you were the one who recommended ‘The Sparrow’ to me; anything you suggest goes to the very top of the list. By the way, I met someone yesterday who always keeps spare copies of ‘The ‘Sparrow’ on her shelves just to give to visitors who have never read it.

  2. Well, you say you’re not interested in “crime fiction,” so I hesitate to recommend this one, which is often billed as a “mystery” to get it to sell, I suspect. But it’s less of a mystery than an examination of the Princes in the Tower and Richard III, so maybe I’ll just go ahead and mention it, in case, and if you’ve already discarded it from your list, I won’t be the least bit offended. It’s Josephine Tey’s “The Daughter of Time,” and I found it quite enjoyable and have heard that it’s well-researched, though I don’t have the background myself entirely to make that judgement. Happy reading, whatever you choose, and worthwhile researching!

    1. Oh this is one of my all time favourites and I think it is fairly well researched. I have a friend who is such a devoted Ricardian that she believes every word. I may not go that far but I do think Tey makes a good case.

  3. What a coincidence! I’ve just finished reading Ariana Franklin’s second in her Mistress of the Art of Death and about to start the third – and I know you’ve read these books (I first heard of them through you!) so I’ll be very interested to see what other novels you discover. I’ve also recently read Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth and whilst I’m not recommending this as I don’t know how accurate it is historically and it is far too long and repetitive but it did spark my interest in the period – it covers 1123 – 1174. It ends with the murder of Thomas a Beckett which made me remember that I’d read T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral when I was at school and I was thinking I’d like to re-read that soon.

    1. That early part of the Middle Ages doesn’t get covered very much does it? Richard Lionheart features occasionally but really there is very little written about the years before The Wars of the Roses. After that you’re falling over historical fiction every way you turn, but as you say you can’t always be sure how much serious research has gone into it.

  4. I can’t remember if you’ve read Dorothy Dunnett? Her House of Niccolo series opens in 1460, in Bruges, and moves on from there all over Europe, into Africa and the Near East. Her King Hereafter, about Macbeth, opens in 1050, but it doesn’t get quite up to the Conquest, so it may be too early for you.

    I will follow your reading with great interest – what an amazing project.

    1. If Dunnett doesn’t open until 1460 then she’s really going to be too late for this part of the project, Lisa. When I’ve worked through my current two year syllabus I’m hoping to go on the the Renaissance and then I can look at that. I might give the Macbeth book a look though because the Shakespeare side of my work is on-going as well.

      1. Ah, I misunderstood – reading too fast. I thought you were looking for fiction set in the 1066-1485 time frame (reading so much Victorian literature, my fingers keep typing 1845 instead of 1485).

  5. I read and loved John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk. Justin Cartwright has just published a new novel on Richard the Lionheart called Lionheart – that one is on my pile.

    1. I’m trying to put more time to one side for blogging this year, Rebecca because I think writing is such an important part of consolidating learning and advancing thought so you may even find that there is too much medieval.

  6. I’m seconding Lisa’s Dorothy Dunnett suggestion. (You’ll find that those of us who love her books are somewhat vociferous in our passion. They’re just so good.)

    I often dislike fiction set in the medieval period, so I generally avoid it, despite being interested in the period, but I hear good things about Sharon Kay Penman’s books, so you might look those up.

    1. As I said to Lisa, Teresa, it sounds as though she might be just that bit too late for this project, but I will keep the thought of her ready for the next stage. One of the reasons I’ve asked here for suggestions is that much of the fiction I’ve read set in the medieval period has been really poor, so I know what you mean about avoiding some of the worst. However, a number of people have mentioned Penman so I will see what the library has to offer.

  7. I’m always looking for something Name of the Rose, and never finding it. I love historical fiction, including the crime ones. Iain Pears can be hit or miss, in my opinion, but An Instance of the Fingerpost was great – it’s set in the 17th c., in England, so a bit after your period, and I suppose it has a murder mystery at its heart, but I didn’t think it read like crime fiction. In any case, I look forward to hearing your developing reflections on all this.

    1. I love ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ but only ‘Stone’s Fall’ has ever come anywhere near it. He was due to publish a new book this September but I’ve just checked and it’s been put back a year.

  8. Sharon Kay Penman’s Sunne in Splendour is magnificent, and provide a wealth of social history as well as War of the Roses history. Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror is a non-fiction work, and is centered in France, for a change of locale.

    Enjoy your project–should be great fun to immerse yourself like this.

    1. You’re the second person to mention Penman, Jane, so she’s definitely going on the list of possibles. I’m certainly not intending to stick just to English history so anything that broadens the perspective is welcome.

    1. So, that’s a third vote for Penman. I will certainly be looking to see what I can find, Claire. Willis is a completely new name to me so I shall go and investigate her immediately, thank you.

  9. Off the top of my head, these are a couple of books we have really enjoyed: they are only coincidentally all set in Italy.

    Late medieval:
    Leonardo’s Swans by Karen Essex set in Italy, Ferrara and Milan
    In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant, set in Rome and Venice

    Early Medieval:
    A Ruby in her Navel by Barry Unsworth set in Sicily

    1. I know the Dunant, which just about catches the end of this period, but the other two are completely unknown to me and sound very interesting indeed. I love Unsworth’s books so have no idea how I’ve managed to miss this. Thank you.

  10. No books to recommend but just wanted to say what a compelling project!

    And I love this: I want to know how all the various art forms reflected not only each other but also the society out which they grew.

    I admire your passion and discipline in putting together your own course-ware and following through on it. Would be lovely if you share your thoughts as you go along with your blog readers!

  11. I’ve enjoyed Sharon Kay Penman’s novels tremendously. I also like the Cadfael mystery series, but that’s more for fun than for serious study. Do you read French? I have a number of classic medieval texts in my home library that I’d be happy to lend you. (ie – Les Lais de Marie de France, Le Roman de la Rose, Le Conte du graal, La Chanson de Roland, etc.)

    1. I don’t read French, unfortunately, Naomi, because a lot of the primary literary sources from this period are written in French and I would love to come to them in their original language. Thanks for the offer, though. Penman is clearly very popular indeed. I wonder how I’ve missed her?

  12. Hello Alex, so glad you’re better! I don’t know any good historical novels to add, sorry. Like Stefanie I’m looking forward to reading about your project. You know, if you have even a little French you might be able to manage the Marie de France: my knowledge of French is very limited (GCSE) and with a translation and a dictionary to hand I found it manageable.

    1. I started today, Helen, filling in the historical background. I’m afraid I failed ‘O’ level French, so I’m in an even worse position than you but if I can’t get decent translations then I may give it a go. I’ll let you know how I get on.

  13. I liked Company of Liars by Karen Maitland. A group of people fleeing the plague travel together in 14th century England. Kind of a guilty pleasure, but entertaining and historical enough. The non-fiction stuff is really much better. I liked The Last Duel by Eric Jager. It’s the true story of the last official trial by combat which took place in 1386, in France. Think of it as history that reads like a novel.

    1. I couldn’t get past the first few pages of the Maitland but you’re not the first person to tell me that I ought to give it another go. Perhaps I should dive in at chapter two.

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