Medieval History Through Literature
- Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Studying medieval history using a literature approach offers a rich opportunity to mine some fabulous treasures of classic and historic works. The terms Middle Ages and medieval were first used by Italian Renaissance historians “as they sought to separate their own rapidly advancing era from what was often referred to as the ‘Dark Ages.’ ”1 While no one living during the period that is generally accepted as the Middle Ages (400–1500) considered they were living in a dark age, in contrast to the rapidly advancing, emerging, and awakening world of the Renaissance, the difference was dramatic. This article will present a brief collection of those works that have status in the Western canon or have achieved noteworthy awards in the world of children’s literature.
Just as no study of the ancient cultures would be complete without its greatest epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, the medieval period opens with the first Anglo-Saxon epic: Beowulf. Based upon a Norse myth set in the year 500 A.D., the great hero Beowulf saves the Danes from the man-eating monster Grendel. There are many excellent editions for children, but one that can be used across many levels is Michael Morpurgo’s, with its lyrical alliteration and vigorous illustrations by award-winning artist Michael Foreman. For junior high students, Ian Serrallier evokes the sparse beauty of the original in his simple straightforward verse in Beowulf the Warrior. For high school students desiring to absorb the full epic, Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf includes the original Anglo-Saxon opposite his translation and is notable for winning the UK’s prestigious Whitbread Book Award.
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is based upon the legendary Arthur of the late fifth and early sixth centuries, who seeks to push back the evil and injustice of corrupt lords and Saxon invaders. Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Holy Grail, Merlin, the beautiful Queen Guinevere and the tragic Lady Elaine all continue to capture modern readers. Lady Elaine’s heart-rending story is immortalized in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s nineteenth-century poem, “The Lady of Shalott,” and would make a rewarding follow-up to the study. A popular edition for middle grade students is one written by Roger Lancelyn Green—a classicist himself and student of C. S. Lewis. Older students will enjoy Howard Pyle’s edition of this work, with his beautiful line drawings, or The Boy’s King Arthur; the original Scribner’s edition has incomparable illustrations by N. C. Wyeth.
The Viking discovery in North America around the year 1000 is engagingly told in the children’s classic, Leif the Lucky by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire. The D’Aulaires’ lavish stone lithographs feature beautiful Norse runes, majestic fjords, and the muscular beauty of Viking life amidst Northern expanses. Leif Erickson’s North American discovery comprises an important component of the movement of Christianity westward as Leif was converted to Christianity in the courts of the Norwegian King Olav Tryggvason; he then carried the Gospel to Greenland. This well-researched text has been popular since its original publication in 1940.
The Adventures of Robin Hood reflects the enmity that existed in England subsequent to the Norman Conquest (1066) and which was still a factor over a hundred years later, when Richard the Lionheart came to the throne. Robert Fitzhooth, Earl of Huntington, is unjustly stripped of his lands and must resort to the life of an outlaw, under the assumed name of Robin Hood. Robin and his merry men of Sherwood Forest resist the corrupt civil and religious leaders and set things aright by “robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.” Roger Lancelyn Green and Howard Pyle have both written wonderful editions for middle grade students (and up), and Marcia Williams has a lavishly illustrated edition for primary students. N. C. Wyeth’s illustrations for the Scribner’s edition by Paul Creswick capture the romance and adventure of this enduring story.
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