Come to think of it, I’ve never given medieval literature a chance. And that is considering that the period that produced these marvelous works spans over a thousand years! Besides, if you think of all the calamities like fires, wars, poor storage in addition to limited copies published, it is mind-boggling we still have any medieval works surviving to this age. Yet they survived. Maybe not all of them, and maybe not in a perfect condition, but we get to sneak a peek into the lives of people that are separated from us by a millennia of time and an abyss of worldview. The author of Reading the Middle Ages, Theodore L. Steinberg, agrees: “Reading the material about knights and ladies, heaven and hell, saints and sinners puts us in touch with minds that were alive hundreds of years ago and that continue to live through literature. We may not have access to an actual time machine, but literature is a good substitute.” If it wasn’t for a slim chance that a single manuscript and a few unreliable copies made it to present time, maybe we would never know writers like Dante or Chaucer. That’s a scary thought.
The book opens with a general introduction to medieval literature: what to expect from it, how to digest its contents, the essentials. First thing it taught me was to realize the impact that religion made on any kind of medieval writing. The themes of original sin, divine intervention and search for eternal life after death are in one way or another mentioned in all of the stories. This fact also reminded me that I am ridiculously behind on my knowledge of theology. I’ve never really read a Bible (though I am interested in learning more about it), and my closest encounter with church happens every time I attend a wedding. I need to learn more in order to fully appreciate the medieval texts, and perhaps many other great representatives of literature heralding all the way into contemporary writing. Even though the thought of taking on a Bible makes me pretty anxious, I think I might have to tackle it eventually if I want to get any meaningful insight into literature.
Another great point brought up by Steinberg has to do with the medieval authors’ style of narrative. Now I know exactly why I felt so off when attempting old texts. Apparently the writers of the past could care less about descriptions, tone, or emotions. As a modern reader I felt somewhat robbed. Great works of art like Beowulf or Pearl purely state history (or the author’s vision of it) with very little self-analysis. People might be dying left and right in a gory battle scene, but it would be described in the same kind of tone and language as if the warriors were feasting together instead. But sometimes it happens that the characters indeed will be fighting and celebrating on the same page. Medieval writers liked to jump from scene to scene with little transition or point in mind. This makes some works hard to follow. That is why Steinberg brings up an excellent suggestion: slow down and read out loud. The tales of bravery and chivalry used to be told to each other, passed on, and re-interpreted. They were living, breathing, and constantly changing representatives of those who told them. Books are approached so differently nowadays.
The last lesson I learned from Steinberg was to constantly look for symbols and symmetry in medieval writing. His essay on Pearl was probably the best example to illustrate the concept, though Dante’s Divine Comedy came pretty close. The words and structure of stanzas in poetry created patterns and shapes that became representative of the work’s main themes. Just like Pearl’s stanzas are aligned in perfect harmony to create a circular pattern, the Divine’s Comedy’s circles of Heaven and Hell are perfect reflections of each other. It would be interesting to see a contemporary work laid out in a similar way.
After the introduction Steinberg included a series of fascinating essays on famous medieval works like Arthurian romances, Chaucer’s poetry, The Tale of Genji, works of Marie de France and many others. However, the book stood out for me thanks to all essays being connected in themes, supporting each other and outlining connections between the works. After reading several in a row you start seeing the pattern, a kind of map for medieval thought and belief. If I was a medieval literature professor I would use this book exclusively to provide a brief but solid overview of some of the most intimidating works of writing yet.