High School Must-Reads for Medieval Literature
Many Catholic homeschools will devote an entire year to the history of the European Middle Ages. The Middle Ages comprise (roughly) the period from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Renaissance, almost a thousand years of history. If you are studying medieval Europe, you’re definitely going to want to dive into the literature of the medieval world as a supplement to your historical studies. The culture of the Middle Ages provides a rich treasure trove of literature soaked in Christian themes ideal for a Catholic homeschool. In this post, I will cover ten works of medieval literature you definitely want to touch on during your medieval year!
1. The Confessions by St. Augustine
Composed shortly after his conversion in 386, the Confessions is an autobiographical account of Augustine’s life and his journey to the Catholic faith. The Confessions is important in many respects: as the first true autobiography in the West, as an exposition of Augustine’s early theological beliefs, and as a testimony to the way the Holy Spirit ceaselessly calls people to conversion. Though the narrative sometimes breaks to follow Augustine’s favorite theological rabbit holes, it is still accessible to most well-read high schoolers and should be included (at least in part) in a study of medieval literature. Augustine’s thought was formative to the medieval world, so his classic autobiography is a great place to start!
Beowulf is an early Danish medieval battle epic coming from the fascinating period when Viking paganism was in the process of giving way to Christianity. Beowulf is the story of the titular hero’s adventures against a foul creature named Grendel, who is assaulting the hall of Hrothgar, ruler of the Danes. Beowulf’s struggle will pit him against Grendel and the monster’s kin in the classic tale of Viking prowess. Beowulf is an interesting story as it combines the style of the ancient Viking epic with the sensibilities of the emerging Christian monastic class. It’s an exciting peek into Scandinavian civilization in the act of transition.
3. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Written in the 1380s by English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales is a collection of short stories told by pilgrims on the way to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury. The short stories run the gamut from tales of comedy to morality and even spirituality. Beloved by generations of readers, The Canterbury Tales are widely considered the beginning of English literature. Just a word of advice: The Canterbury Tales were originally written in poetic meter in Middle English, which is going to be incomprehensible for most high school readers. Make sure you are getting a prose version translated into modern English, such as the edition adapted by Geraldine McCaughrean, linked above.
4. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
A lonely poet wandering the woods in the throes of a midlife crisis is accosted by the shade of an ancient pagan poet who sets the poet off on a journey that will take him through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. So begins the most famous of all Italian poems, the Il Divine Commedia, or Divine Comedy in English. In this three-part poetic adventure, the Florentine Dante is led on a journey through the afterlife, where he encounters saints, sinners, and everyone in between. His encounters teach him about the nature of virtue and vice, of sin and grace, and of the mercy of God, and culminate in the vision of the Blessed Trinity. The Divine Comedy is a dense work that requires a three-volume commitment if you’re going to get through the entire thing, so unless you are planning on committing an entire semester (or even a year) to it, it may be best to consider looking at excerpts that are representative of the whole. I recommend the Dorothy Sayers versions, as they have solid Catholic introductions (Volume 1 is linked above; you can easily find the other two volumes on Amazon inexpensively).
5. Piers Plowman by William Langland
Piers Plowman is a classic work of late medieval allegory, written in England during the tumultuous generation after the Black Death. It introduces us to the life of Piers the Plowman, an allegorical “Everyman” character who encounters various allegoricalized figures representing virtues, vices, and other aspects of the Christian life. The tale weaves back and forth between a spiritual exhortation to moral living and a satirical critique of the immorality of the royal court and the late medieval Church. Like Canterbury Tales, it is considered a foundational piece of English literature.
The Song of Roland is a war epic composed during the High Middle Ages but hearkens back to a famous story from the time of Charlemagne about the last stand of Roland against the Muslims at the pass of Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees. With its emphasis on honor, knightly duty, courage, and battle prowess, the Song of Roland perfectly exemplifies the Christian values of the age of chivalry.
7. The Arthurian Romances of Chrétien de Troyes
The tales of King Arthur and his court were a perennial source of inspiration for medieval storytellers. Some of the best-known Arthurian tales come from the cycle of romances written by the 12th-century French poet Chrétien de Troyes. A “romance” in medieval parlance does not necessarily mean a story about romantic love (although they include romantic love). Rather, they are about a hero’s quest for self-discovery and overcoming obstacles through the power of virtue. Chrétien de Troyes’s Arthurian tales are entertaining stories about some of the best-known fictional characters of the medieval world.
It is the court of King Arthur on Christmas Day. In the midst of the festivities, a mysterious green knight walks in an offers to allow anyone to strike him a blow if he be allowed to strike a blow in return. Who will take the stranger up on this bizarre offer? Thus begins the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of the greatest medieval romances. What begins as a mystery turns into a tale on the importance of virtue as Gawain journeys to uncover the mystery of the green knight’s identity. I highly recommend the translation by J.R.R. Tolkien, linked above.
9. Le Morte d’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory
Sir Thomas Malory was a 15th-century knight who wrote another famous piece of Arthurian lore known as Le Morte d’ Arthur (“The Death of Arthur”). Whereas earlier Arthurian romances deal with the glories of Arthur’s roundtable, Le Morte d’ Arthur dwells on the later adventures of the knights, the breakup of Camelot, and the downfall and death of Arthur. If Le Morte d’ Arthur is a little darker than earlier tales, its not surprising—Malory wrote much of it while imprisoned. His lifetime also saw the collapse of the English monarhcy amidst the bloody conflicts of the Wars of the Roses. While much of Le Morte D’Arthur retreads old ground, the final sections on the scheming of Morgan le Fey, the rebellion of Mordred, the adultery of Guinevere, and the death of Arthur are absolutely worth the time.
10. The Imitation of Christ & Imitation of Mary by Thomas à Kempis
While these are not narrative works, per se, they are nevertheless classics of medieval literature. Written by the German canon Thomas à Kempis in the early 1400s, these two books provide an invaluable glimpse into personal piety at the close of the Middle Ages. The Imitation of Christ and the Imitation of Mary take the form of literary dialogues between the soul and Christ and Mary, in which the soul is guided towards holiness in thought, word, and deed through the wisdom of Our Lord and Lady.
It would be a lot to tackle all these books in one class, even if you had an entire year, so don’t feel like you have to go all in. For some of the longer works—like the Confessions or Divine Comedy—you may want to just assign a few excerpts so your student gets a taste for the work. The important thing is that children get exposed to some of these classics of medieval Catholic literature during their medieval studies, so as to better enter into the mindset of people of that era and see how their worldview and spirituality was reflected in these amazing works.
Homeschool Connections offers a variety of courses that include the above books as well as several Medieval history courses. You can learn more at our Online Catholic Homeschool Course Finder page.