8 Must-Read Medieval Classics

A few posts ago, I wrote about why everyone should read the classic books of western civilization.  Then I gave a recommended reading list of the must-read Ancient classics, beginning with Homer’s captivating Odyssey.

With the beginning of a new year, the time has come to write up your reading plan for the coming months.  And to help you with this task, here’s my recommended reading list for the medieval period.

St. Catherine Reading

The medieval period can be difficult to define, but this list spans the time between the Christianizing of Rome to the dawn of the English Renaissance (350-1580 AD).  Usually, the Middle Ages are considered to end with the Renaissance, but I included Spenser’s Faerie Queene because of its close connections and similarities to some of the other medieval texts.

My background in literature shows in my list, but for me these books have been the most helpful at shaping my understanding of the Middle Ages–not to mention how powerfully they have shaped me as a human being.

These books are not just my favorites, but are arguably the best works of the Middle Ages.  And they are all thoroughly Christian, demonstrating the incredible cultural fecundity of medieval Christendom.

The 8 Must-Read Medieval Classics

  1. Confessions–One of the most famous autobiogaphies from one of the most influential men in western history, Confessions tells the story of Augustine’s journey from classicism to Christianity.  Seeking “to love and be loved” Augustine moves through sensuality, mysticism, philosophy, and finally to faith.  Remarkably, the entire book is written as a prayer to God, the One in whom Augustine’s restless heart finally found rest. Because Augustine’s journey is universally familiar, Confessions helped shape the entire Middle Ages, influenced the Reformation, and continues to give direction and inspiration to Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians around the world.  Recommended translation:  Henry Chadwick
  2. Beowulf–This famous Anglo-Saxon poem is the story of a single remarkable hero who journeys across the sea to rescue a foreign people from the evil that haunts them.  He may succeed, but can he overcome his own internal monsters?  This remarkable poem was written as the culture of Anglo-Saxon Britain transitioned from paganism to the new glories of Christianity.  The author challenges his audience to see that true heroism comes not by strength of arm through sacrifice and suffering.  Recommended translation:  Seamus Heaney
  3. The Song of Roland–This chanson de geste (“song of noble deeds”) sings the last stand of Roland, Charlemagne’s greatest knight, against an enormous army of Spanish Saracens.  Betrayed by his jealous father-in-law, Roland and the rest of the Twelve Peers fight to the death to protect their king.  This legend exemplifies the virtues of chivalry, depicts the serious threat the Muslim invasion posed to Christian Europe, and exposes how pride threatens the entire community.  Recommended translation:  Dorothy Sayers
  4. Summa Theologica–St. Thomas Aquinas’ massive work of systematic theology, the Summa was actually written as an introductory text of theology for students who had mastered the seven liberal arts.  This work formed the backbone of medieval thought and culture. Aquinas deals with every theological and philosophical issue of his day by first considering all the various arguments against his position, refuting them, and then presenting his own case.  The Summa is a masterwork of logic and precision thinking, and has lost none of its relevance for our own day.  Every American would do well to read Aquinas’ chapter on Happiness, which is included in Peter Kreeft’s excellent Summa of the Summa (the abridged edition I recommend to everyone who isn’t up to reading all 4,000 pages of the original).  Recommended editionPeter Kreeft
  5. The Divine Comedy–Built on Aquinas’ theology of love as the central force of movement in the universe, Dante’s Comedy tells of a pilgrimage from fire to Fire–through the horrors of Hell, the purifying fires of Purgatory, and the dances of Heaven, until he beholds the very face of God.  Ingeniously structured, deeply symbolic, and thoroughly Christian, the Comedy is a masterpiece of literature, a crown jewel not only of the Middle Ages, but of all Christendom and western civilization.  The central theme of this poem is that God’s love initiates all movement: everything in the world moves in response to God’s love.  Men who hate God flee from him toward the frozen center of Hell where there is no movement at all.  Men who love God move toward him, having their love purified and amplified through the cleansing fires of instruction and the Spirit.  I’ve yet to have a student who hasn’t fallen in love with Dante’s vision of the world.  Recommended translation: John Ciardi.
  6. The Canterbury Tales–Though only partially completed, Geoffrey Chaucer’s collection of stories is a masterpiece of English literature.  The Tales consists of a story-telling contest among a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury cathedral.  A bawdy rough-and-tumble of stories, legends, and personalities, The Canterbury Tales provides an incredibly complete cross-section of medieval culture, imagination, and social issues.  But most importantly, the stories are remarkably entertaining and instructive.  I recommend reading the original Middle English of Chaucer, but Neville Coghill has written an excellent “translation” into modern English.  Recommended edition:  Jill Mann (original language) or Neville Coghill (modern language)
  7. Le Morte d’Arthur–This work is Sir Thomas Malory’s compilation of all the Arthurian legends available to him at the time.  Le Morte exemplifies the chivalric values of Arthur’s knights in their battles against evil men and their struggle to establish a society founded in justice and the rule of law.  Beginning with Arthur’s birth, Le Morte tells of the rise of Arthur, the founding of Camelot, and the blessings that come from Arthur’s reign.  The book ends with Camelot’s downfall through the treachery of one of her own knights. Recommended editionJanet Cowen and John Lawlor (a two-volume edition)
  8. The Faerie Queene–Edmund Spenser’s famous epic tells the story of several knights, each of whom represents a different virtue.  The adventures of these knights teach them the true nature of their virtue, and Spenser’s brilliant symbolic mind helps shape the reader’s virtue as well.  The first book is the most famous, containing the story of the St. George, the Redcrosse Knight, and his quest to kill an enslaving Dragon.  Though Spenser wrote in the sixteen century and his poetry is accessible, footnotes greatly enhance a first reading of The Faerie QueeneRecommended editionRoy Maynard (for Book 1) or Andrew Hadfield, et al. (entire poem in several annotated volumes).
  9. The Next Eight–When you’ve finished these eight, give these a try:

As the new year gets underway, get started on your pile of winter reading!