An Introduction to Medieval English Literature with Henry Eliot

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Join Penguin Classics Creative Editor Henry Eliot on a voyage of discovery through Medieval English literature.

Starting with the earliest examples of oral storytelling, and ending with the wit of Chaucer, Henry will guide you along the way in this engaging introduction to the founding texts of English literary culture.

This course is split into six lessons. Each lesson offers an introduction to a seminal work.

Lesson One: Beowulf (24:11)

An introduction to the oldest surviving piece of English literature, an epic poem by an unknown author which follows the adventures of Beowulf in the land of the Danes. In this lesson Henry discusses the real meaning of the term Middle Ages, the courtly politics of medieval kings and modern adaptations of this iconic heroes tale.

Lesson Two: The Exeter Book (23:40)

Henry delves into the often overlooked Exeter Book, one of only four surviving manuscripts of Anglo Saxon poetry. Discover the fascinating history of the book’s Christian context, its stories of female martyrs and the high literary form of riddles or ‘enigmata’. ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘The Seafarer’ are perhaps the two best known individual poems from this collection, from which Henry reads aloud.

Lesson Three: Sir John Mandeville (20:40)

Jumping forward a few centuries, Henry introduces the stories of Sir John Mandeville, perhaps the first piece of travel writing in history. Old English had now ended with the Norman Conquest, and Latinate and French words entered the culture to form Middle English, much more readable than Old English for a contemporary audience.

Lesson Four: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (25:09)

Enter the world of Arthurian legends with the story of the Green Knight, who interrupts a New Year’s feast at Camelot with a daring challenge. In this lesson Henry discusses the meaning of the colour green and changing ideas of romance and chivalry. He also reads from Simon Armitage’s translation of the poem.

Lesson Five: Piers Plowman (17:55)

Henry explores the complicated question of authorship in the Middle Ages and asks whether William Langland really did write Piers Plowman while he was ‘lolling’, or idling, in London. Learn about the poem’s links to medieval morality plays and discover the earliest recorded reference to Robin Hood.

Lesson Six: The Canterbury Tales (31:47)

The course finishes with Geoffrey Chaucer’s monumental anthology The Canterbury Tales. Henry gives an insight into the many jobs of Chaucer which gave us the public records from which to study his life and prolific writing. From the comic to the mystical, Chaucer defied traditional categories of genre and narrative in his revolutionary epic. Learn about the most famous figures from the Tales, a text which many consider to be the jewel in the crown of Medieval English Literature.

About the tutor

Henry Eliot has led guided walks through London for Google, the National Trust, the City of London, City Lit and the cheese shop in Leadenhall Market. He is the Creative Editor of Penguin Classics and the author of The Penguin Classics BookFollow This Thread and, with Matt Lloyd-Rose, Curiocity: An Alternative A-Z of London, which Philip Pullman described as the “most ingenious, insightful, inspiring, intoxicating, and simply interesting guide to the great city that I have ever seen”.