There are many strange books in the bowels of Neilson Library.
I first realized this in college, yea these many years ago, when I happened upon the Women's Studies section on one of the lower levels. I'm not sure what exactly I was looking for - maybe something on early feminism? - but down on one of the lowest shelves I found some of the most fascinating, unexpected, and downright weird books it has ever been my privilege to encounter anywhere, let alone in the stacks of a college library.
A complete set of Lippincott's Magazine from the 19th century, including the first American appearance of Sherlock Holmes...crumbling biographies of once-famous historical figures...daring and scandalous gynecological texts from the late 1800's that not only included anatomical drawings of lady bits, but hand-colored pop-up pages of women who were naked (eek!) and PREGNANT (fetch me the smelling salts, Shegundela!)....
Oh, there were some beauties. Most I'm sure were perfectly fine in their day, but by the time I got there a century later the best that could be said about all too many was that they were "quaint." I even used one of them, Mary Margaret McBride's 1932 German travel guide Beer and Skittles, in a BSBTG diary due to the author's complete inability to see that something awful was about to make it very, very difficult for anyone who wasn't a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant to have a good time drinking all that lovely alcohol and enjoying those pretty Rhineland views.
And then there were the once-popular, now moldering texts that had been used by long-departed professors.
I'm not talking about science textbooks, or even historical tomes. One expects those to be superseded as new information comes to light and Time! Marches! On! No, I'm talking about literature, poems and novels and essays that were once the backbone of the English curriculum, yet haven't been touched in decades. Whether due to changing tastes, inclusion of better books by formerly neglected populations, or the simple realization that hey, this book really isn't all that good, a fair number of these sad old books took up shelf space in the Dewey Decimal stacks at Neilson, at least until the annual Friends of the Library Book Sale.
One book in particular exemplifies this strange academic obsolescence. It seems that back in the Old Days, when Sophia Smith was still remembered as much for being a cranky deaf spinster in Hatfield as the founder of a degree-granting college for young women, someone at Smith had decided that the said young women being educated thanks to her largesse needed a thorough grounding in medieval literature I'm not sure exactly which professor first came to this conclusion - it probably wasn't the same individual who decided that complete sets of George Meredith, Owen Meredith, and John Ruskin were necessary additions to the collection - but sometime in the early years of the 20th century, about twenty copies of the same obscure little chivalric poem were purchased, cataloged, and took their place in the stacks of the main library.
This poem, The Squire of Low Degree, is one of the few extant pieces of medieval literature written for the average literate person rather than the aristocracy. Written sometime in the 15th century, this tale of unrequited love, chivalry, requited love, snobbery, mistaken identity, timelines that make no sense, grief, prowess, and a happy ending that fits with the characters about as well as Pip and Estella walking off hand in hand at the end of Great Expectations, exists in three manuscripts, or two more than either Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Why The Squire of Low Degree was so popular isn't clear. It's readable enough, with a plot that just manages to avoid being ridiculous, a surprisingly lighthearted tone, and a serviceable but not outstanding style. Today the author would likely be writing bestselling thrillers with a romantic subplot (or possibly bestselling romances with a thriller subplot, take your pick), likely under more than one name, and would make a decent living. Literary immortality likely wouldn't enter into the equation any more than it informs the vast majority of today's books. Writers gotta eat, you know.
The poem being popular isn't what puzzles me. No, I'm still trying to figure out just why someone on the faculty at Smith decided that the school needed so many copies for the library. A similarly undistinguished poem, the Scottish religious allegory The Cherrie and the Slae, had reportedly been edited by a member of the faculty, who then insisted on inflicting it on generations of students, but I was unable to discover any such connection between The Squire of Low Degree and my beloved alma mater. It seems fated to remain a mystery...
Unless I somehow confused The Squire of Low Degree with The Cherrie and the Slae.
Which is entirely possible. My memory isn't what it used to be, you know. The dust kicked up when one shoves a marshmallow peep into the Insinkerator and lets 'er rip can do strange things to the human brain.
As you might have guessed from the above, I've read a lot of medieval literature, to the point that I may or may not have trouble keeping the titles straight. I actually considered getting a doctorate in medieval literature, only to realize partway into my first year of graduate school that I was more interested in the stories as stories than in the shredded remains left by a deconstructionist turning the text inside out, upside down, and through the Looking Glass.
For all that, I still love medieval literature, both poetry and prose. Some of it is blindingly obscure today, some is surprisingly readable, and some of it is downright appalling to modern eyes, but the best is still worth the time and attention.
Tonight I bring you ten medieval works that have touched my heart in one way or another. Some you'll likely know, others perhaps not, but why not give them a try? Medievalism may not be as cool as a fez, but then again, what is?
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, tr. JRR Tolkien - this wonderful chivalric romance is ostensibly about the adventures of Sir Gawain, noble but not necessarily pure, after he accepts the challenge of a huge Green Knight to "exchange blows" (cut off each other's heads, and yes, the Green Knight does do The Decapitation Tango without apparent harm, why do you ask?). There's a trip to the Green Chapel, the noble (and secretive) Sir Bertilak and his wife (boy does she have a secret, also La Cleavage de Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious), an exchange of winnings that is both delightful and somewhat creepy, and a long, fascinating explanation for why Gawain's shield has a pentangle on it. Tolkien's edition of the original is still the standard, and his translation is excellent.
The Song of Roland, tr. Dorothy L. Sayers - most people today remember Dorothy Sayers for her Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, or perhaps her theological writings, but toward the end of her life she produced two major translations for Penguin Books. The critics are divided on her attempt at Dante (see below), but her take on this, the greatest of French romances, more than holds its own. Readable, heroic, and genuinely tragic, the story of Roland, the betrayed Paladin of France, and his friends fighting a doomed rearguard action against the Moors exemplifies the best and worst of the chivalric warrior ideal.
The Book of the City of Ladies, by Christine de Pizan - Christine de Pizan, daughter of a physician and Councillor to the Republic of Venice, turned to writing to support herself and her children after her husband's unexpected death. A court favorite, she wrote primarily love ballads and other sentimental poems until the early 15th century, when she became involved the brouhaha over the explicit (and frequently misogynistic) sexual content of Jean de Meun's La Roman de la Rose. Pizan saw this work, which began as a love allegory and ended with a thinly disguised rape, as an attack on her gender. Her response, this long, brilliantly argued defense of women's contributions to society, was one of the first explicitly feminist works in the Western canon. Years ahead of its time, and surprisingly (and unfortunately) still relevant six centuries later.
Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach - the best of the Grail narratives, this magnificent German poem is also a brilliant coming of age story. Most people today know it from Wagner's opera, but the original is so much deeper, and so much more mysterious, that it's well worth the read. Parzival, the naive, well meaning, oh so callow youth, has to learn some very hard lessons about faith, honor, responsibility, family, and love on his way to his happy ending, and if you can get through this without wanting to shake some sense into him, you are officially now anointed Monarch of the Glen, Queen of the May, and Captain from Castile.
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer - scholars have traditionally regarded this book as the wellspring of modern English language and literature, and they're not wrong. Chaucer, a minor court functionary who also happened to be a poetic genius, included just about every popular poetic genre of his time in his masterwork. Beast fable, fabliau, courtly romance, sermon, saint's tale, sex joke...it's all here, and if some of the selections are queasily bigoted (I can't read The Prioress's Tale without wincing), well, it was a different time.
Warning: do not, under any circumstances, attempt to read The Miller's Tale while eating or drinking. REALLY.
Beowulf, tr. Seamus Heaney -this poem, one of the greatest and most influential epics in any language, barely survived to the present day; a fire in 1731 scorched the single handwritten copy, and time and bad treatment have caused further loss. Fortunately the tale of Beowulf, young warrior who frees the land from monsters and old king who sacrifices himself to save his people from an even more dreadful blight, lasted long enough to be printed, translated, and shape future generations of fantasy. Heaney's translation, which is lean, brilliant, and almost colloquial, was a surprise bestseller a few years ago, and deservedly so.
Aucassin and Nicolette, tr. Andrew Lang -this sweet, lovely, almost silly romance about the Christian warrior Aucassin and his beloved Nicolette, was originally intended to be recited and sung before aristocratic audiences. Part satire, part love story, part vindication of the court tradition, part send-up of its excesses, it's as much fun today as it was all those centuries ago. Andrew Lang's translation is a bit dated, but if you want something that will make you smile from beginning to end, this is it.
The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccacio - this collection of one hundred tales, ostensibly told by a group of young aristocrats who've taken refuge from the plague in the clean, green, uncontaminated countryside, is one of the first anthologies in Western literature. Satires...romances...rants against unfaithful lovers...reversals of fortune...critiques of the clergy and society in general...The Decameron is not only entertaining, but has a deeper meaning based on medieval numerological and theological concepts. It's surprisingly deep, and surprisingly sexy, and most of the tales are short enough to be read individually.
The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri - the greatest and most influential vision of the Christian afterlife every written, this long allegorical poem is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the medieval mindset. Simultaneously a religious tract, a look at contemporary politics and culture, and a rapturous ode to the power of love to lift the soul toward the Divine, The Divine Comedy is simply one of the greatest pieces of literature in any language. Inferno, the first and best known section, is a riveting look at Hell and the punishment that awaits the cruel, the evil, and the unfaithful, but the rest is equally worth reading. As one reader put it, you need to keep reading or you'll never know why the pagan Emperor Trajan is in Paradise.
The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman, by William Langland - this magnificent dream allegory, which begins with the unnamed narrator taking a nap in the Malvern Hills, is nothing less than an exploration and indictment of a Christian society that has fallen far, far short of the Biblical ideal. The book is often seen as a Lollard manifesto arguing for the right of individual conscience, but it's also a political document that's squarely on the side of the common man against the rich and the greedy and the wasteful. The Penguin prose translation is decent, but if you can, try to find a verse translation to get a sense of the lost alliterative tradition.
These are some of my favorite medieval texts...what about you? Is there a book from the past that you love? That's shaped your life? Have you read any of these? Is there something I missed? Something you'd add? Let's all party like it's 1414 and share....
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