The idlers of medieval English literature

4 Apr|Henry Eliot

Henry Eliot guides us through some of the most iconic idlers of medieval fiction

Medieval English literature is stuffed full of idlers. Here are some of my favourites.

Admittedly Beowulf, the monster-grappling hero, can hardly be described as idle: even as a seventy-year-old he slings on his armour and wrestles with a fire-breathing dragon. He does recall a youthful sea swim, however, with his childhood friend Breca, which could almost be described as recreational. In fact it would have been a jolly outing if he hadn’t stopped off to kill nine sea-monsters along the way.

‘The Ruin’ is an elegiac poem in the 10th-century Exeter Book. The narrator loiters beside the ruins of a great British Roman city: he contemplates its fallen towers, snapped rooftrees, crumbled walls. There are thermal springs, so perhaps these are the remains of Aquae Sulis, the Somerset city that today we call Bath. The narrator imagines ‘throng-noise’, the sound of ‘meadhalls men filled with loud cheerfulness’ as he gazes ruminatively on the silent, overgrown stones.

In contrast, Sir John Mandeville travels to far-flung lands and details his extraordinary journeys in his Book of Marvels and Travels. Some of the idlest people he meets are the inhabitants of the ‘Isle of Chermes’ in the Persian Gulf. It is so violently hot that men and women spend the best part of the day lying naked in the rivers: ‘they lie totally under water,’ Mandeville writes, ‘except for their heads.’ Another sad effect of the heat is that ‘men have their testicles hanging down to their thighs’. They have to apply astringent ointments, ‘otherwise they could not live’.

Sir Gawain is generally impulsive and adventurous in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but in Sir Bertilak’s enchanted castle he spends three days in bed, dozing under richly embroidered covers. There is more to this extended duvet day than meets the eye, however. Gawain’s chivalric credentials are tested to the utmost when Bertilak’s beautiful wife attempts to seduce him: Gawain must summon all of his courtly wit so as not to offend either his host or his voluptuous hostess.

The narrator of William Langland’s Piers Plowman spends most of the poem asleep. He lies down beside a brook in the Malvern Hills and ‘slumbers into sleeping’ while gazing at the water. He proceeds to describe a series of dream visions. At one point he happens across the wonderfully gross figure of Sloth, all ‘bislabered’ with filth. Sloth needs a stool at all times, so that he doesn’t fall asleep where he stands.

The idlest of Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales is Hubert, the Friar. Hubert should be wandering the country as a celibate mendicant, begging meekly for alms, but he appears surprisingly well fed and well dressed. He is familiar with all the ‘worthy wommen’ of the town and enjoys spending time in the taverns. He sings and play stringed instruments, and he affects a lisp to ‘make his Englissh sweete upon his tonge’.

Henry Eliot is the Creative Editor of Penguin Classics leads the online course with the Idler Academy on medieval literature.