Help Build My Son’s School’s Middle English Library

My son is part of a small, creative school that has been very strong in pedagogy and still growing when it comes to infrastructure. Part of this is a library that is coming together bits by bits through hard work, focussed yard sale haunting, and the raiding of other people’s libraries. It works in that typically the books are pretty good, but it is a slow process.

Recently a donor has offered a $250 (CDN) donation with a peculiar purpose: to secure Middle English books in honour of a recently deceased college prof who was himself a student of C.S. Lewis’. I was asked to take this on. Instead of making it up myself, I thought I would throw the building of this list out to the community. You have, I’m sure, a better sense of what is ideal and what will lure unsuspecting teens into this part of the library.

I haven’t done this before, but I am making this a living blog post. As you add ideas in the comments (or on facebook pages where I know it is shared), I will add to the list. I’ll also prioritize it based on your comments here. The dollar amount is low, but some more common things are easier to find used or free than more obscure things. But I doubt there will be any gold embossed leather bound critical editions on the list.

Thanks in advance for the help. And do note that if you are tempted to offer books to the school, we would love that (given they are good quality), but shipping is pretty costly to Canada. Get an estimate and see if you want to donate that before imagining it is like your own intra-national shipping.

So … let’s build this library!

The List Has Begun

Here are the Suggestions: feel free to add your own. And be sure to vote for certain things so I can make the right decisions.

  • Various editions of Gawain (Brian Stone’s edition has been donated–what are other good ones?)
  • Simon Armitage’s The Death of King Arthur (which is verse and parallel with the ME); has anyone looked at Armitage’s other ME work?
  • We have been donated a Complete Poetry & Prose of Chaucer (Fisher)
  • Does anyone know about good parallel editions like Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf?
  • York Mystery Plays A Selection in Modern Spelling
  • Walter Hylton/Hilton (Ladder/Scale of Perfection)
  • Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love
  • Rolle of Hampole’s Fire of Love
  • Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing
  • The Book of Margery Kempe
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Histories
  • The Mabinogion
  • Gower’s Confessio Amantis
  • Langland’s Piers Plowman
  • The works of the Pearl Poet
  • The Ancrene Wisse
  • Tolkien’s translation of Pearl, Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, and Sir Orfeo
  • Marie Borroff’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • See note on Medieval Morality Plays in comments
  • See also Penguin volume called Medieval English Verse
  • Burrow & Turville-Petre, A Book of Middle English (3rd ed.)
  • Donald Sands’ Middle English Verse Romances
  • Garbaty, Medieval English Literature

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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36 Responses to Help Build My Son’s School’s Middle English Library

  1. Melinda Johnson says:

    That’s awesome! I don’t have anything to donate, or any real suggestions but what I wonderful thing to ask your readers! Yes, shipping to Canada can be expensive and sometimes, the receiver is charged with tariffs and such. I could never really figure out the system myself. Your son’s school does some pretty amazing things and I hope some are able to help! God bless!


    • Actually, Melinda, can I ask a question? In the homeschooling world, do you have any links to a curriculum for Middle English literature that has book lists? I won’t buy the curriculum, but I would look at the lists they think teens should read.


  2. A Writer says:

    I would definitely recommend some medieval drama – the morality plays like Mankind or the Corpus Christi cycle plays. They’re great fun! I know there’s a paperback collection of the York cycle from Oxford Classics that would be easy to get cheaply or used.


    • Great! Does the Oxford Classic edition have both of those in it?


      • A Writer says:

        No, only (most) of the York mystery play cycle in updated English. It was a little hard to dig up in an Amazon search, but here’s the ISBN numbers: ISBN-13: 978-0199552535 ISBN-10: 0199552533
        The morality plays can be found in some paperback editions, although I don’t know how good each version is in regards to notes, explanations, etc. The one below seems like it would be the best: Three Late Medieval Morality Plays (ISBN-10: 0713666617 ISBN-13: 978-0713666618). Mankind and Everyman are the two most anthologized/reprinted of the 60 odd English moralities.
        David Bevington’s Medieval Drama is a great anthology resource, containing all of the plays I mentioned, though all the texts are in untranslated middle english and it’s expensive.

        Liked by 1 person

    • The is also a selected edition of the Chester cycle in paperback. Read alongside the selected edition York cycle (ed. Pamela King), we get to see how important the sponsoring of cycles was to urban communities in particularly in the north of England.


  3. dalejamesnelson says:

    Would there be merit in forming a small collection of the major spiritual writers, i.e. Walter Hylton/Hilton (Ladder/Scale of Perfection), Julian of Norwich, Rolle of Hampole’s Fire of Love, and the Cloud of Unknowing? I’m not sure if all of these were written in ME, without checking, but I am pretty sure they’re the most commonly-cited mystical writers; also there’s Margery Kempe.

    Dale Nelson

    Liked by 1 person

  4. An opened grave: Sherlock Holmes investigating series by L. Frank James
    I loved the thrill, teens will

    Elinor Carlisle’s books are also engaging


  5. wanderwolf says:

    What a great idea! And generous donation. And it sounds like your son is attending a great school.
    Your list is looking to be filled with middle-English writers, no?
    I know Beowulf isn’t Middle English, but if it’s not in the library, it should be. Also concur about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (you have a few pictures). The Canterbury Tales would probably be enjoyed. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s writings, obviously need to be included (for good measure, alos put in a movie (if the library has those things) Monty Python and the Holy Grail)
    The Mabinogion in translation is fun reading (though may not be as much fun as the others).
    Piers the Plowman is a great intro to allegory and could be a nice addition as well.
    There. I’ve done the easy work of naming all the usual suspects. Others can now show their knowledge of the time period. I’m limited to my own once-interest in the tales of King Arthur and his knights, as well as this one class I took in college a while ago. 🙂 Happy gathering! I’m sorry I have no suggestion about how to actually collect these books, though. However, there are a lot of online book sellers (not just Amazon) that you can take advantage of. And if you order several books from the same place, you should be able to save on shipping?


    • Yes, we have Beowulf already (though it isn’t ME). Is Geoffrey of Monmouth in ME or in Latin? (or both) Still important as background.
      The Mabinogion–I didn’t know about this! It is Middle Welshe, but I’ve added it to the list.
      Yes, we are a private library so we don’t have to buy the books new. Shipping to Canada is a bit pricey.
      Do you have a favourite Gawain?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Richard Raiswell says:

    Brenton: this is a lovely gift and a great idea. But it is quite challenging to think of ME material that’s interesting to teenagers. Some of the suggestions here are good. Malory might be appealing (although I find him a yawn). On the opposite end, I really like Piers the Ploughman, but I suspect no teenager would. I should note that the Mabinogi is in middle Welsh not ME. Also, Geoffrey of Monmouth is Latin–I don’t know of a ME trans. However, it is trans. into French as the Roman de Brut which La7amon renders into ME as /Brut/. That would be fun, but it is fairly early ME and so not the easiest. The Canterbury Tales makes the most sense–enough there to please most tastes, esp. if you engage them by reading the naughtier tales. I’d put in a plug for the Golden Legend. I don’t know of a critical edition of the ME text. But it was one of the first things Caxton prints, and that edition is widely available–and he’s before the vowel shift so technically ME. A good edition of some mystery plays (like the York cycle) would be fun as it would encourage it to be acted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Volumes Two through Seven of the Dent ‘Temple Classics’ edition of the Caxton translation of the Golden Legend edited by F.S. Ellis are all scanned in the Internet Archive, with Volume One available there in what I take to be a transcription.

      This raises the point of the value of at least complementing any actual books with some kind of a list of editions, modernizations, and translations of ME books available in the Internet Archive, where the presentation is (usually) in page-by-page form rather than continuous scroll (though I think some Project Gutenberg transcriptions indicate page numbers), but with the added advantage of (usually) being searchable.

      Not only lots of Temple Classics and Everyman’s Library volumes are thus available in the Internet Archive, but lots of Early English Text Society editions, too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Richard Raiswell says:

        Because stuff on the Internet Archive has to be copyright free, all the material dates from the first part of the last century. This means that editions do not conform to modern critical standards. Certainly, most of the Everyman series (I don’t know about Temple Classics) are based on a single witness–often unacknowledged. Thus, there is no sense as to whether the text reproduced is typical of the MS tradition or is an uncontextualised variant. This is an enormous problem with the earlier volumes of Loeb Classics, for instance (although they’re Latin & Greek). With respect to translations, these are generally exceptionally stilted and frequently archaic. Moreover, where I have needed to translate material myself whether from ME or Latin, often very free.

        These editions are not not useable. But modern editions are generally produced to much higher standards.

        To what extent this is relevant for Brenton’s school, though, is a different question!

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          It would certainly be good to get people at school thinking about things like manuscript traditions, and manuscripts and printed books as objects and artifacts – in whatever degree of detail. (A big event in my life was noticing something anomalous in an ‘Authorized Edition’ of Sherlock Holmes stories and boldly writing D. Martin Dakin, author of A Sherlock Holmes Commentary (1972) asking about it – and getting a kind and detailed reply!)

          How usable old editions are naturally varies considerably – sometimes perforce, where there is as yet no modern edition. And, of course, there is the question (which can well be articulated) of how one is using them – is this what we know, say, one of the Inklings to have used, or, something they are likely to have used, etc.? Is one to a certain extent duplicating the youthful experience of Lewis or Tolkien, by reading this edition or translation first, before catching upon the scholarship? Such are enjoyable considerations in my experience, as well as scholarly ones in the relevant contexts.


        • Richard, there are problems with the Loeb series, but boy if someone offered me a wall-length shelf of them, I would find space in my home!


    • Thanks so much, Richard. I was hoping for some monstrous suggestions!
      I’ll probably get something of Malory (but hoping someone will give it to us from an old collection). Have Chaucer and we’ll get some Gawain.
      The Brut is interesting but I have never held a paper edition to see if a translation would be best.
      Copies of the Golden Legend are a wee bit pricey.


  7. Richard Raiswell says:

    Oh, there are also the Robin Hood ballads. “A Lyttell Geste of Robyn Hode” is late 15th C. and it’s the first.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. L.A. Smith says:

    Gosh, what a great idea! Boy, it’s tricky to think of books that are both appealing to teens and also Middle English. Although sometimes perhaps we give our kids too little credit. I’m not all that familiar with the Middle English era and/or literature – the suggestions you have here are all good ones as far as I can see. Does it have to be “fiction”? Would it be useful to have a copy of the Magna Carta there? Also on the “non-fiction” side of things, but from the early Middle Ages, Bald’s Leechbook is a fascinating look at Anglo-Saxon medical practices and cures. I bet the kids would love it, with it’s mixture of practical and magical advice. Or if you are looking for anything else from that era, I love the Anglo-Saxon poems, such as The Wanderer, The Dream of the Rood, Caedmon’s Hymn, or even some of their riddle poems (which teenagers would definitely love, given the double entendres), and of course, Beowulf, which I see someone has already suggested. I don’t have a collection to suggest, I just find these online. But maybe there is a volume somewhere that has these collected? I don’t know….I’ll have to search around and find out!

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Your asking “Does it have to be ‘fiction’?” and referring to Bald’s Leechbook makes me think there is some enjoyable scope for an encounter with palaeography, and calligraphy, here – and, for that matter, mediaeval cookery – though I can’t think of a particular book to recommend, I know there are interesting things presenting a recipe text, then interpreting it and testing a practical reconstruction of it!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Lisa! I have added an anthology of poems to the wish list.


  9. Thanks everyone for comments. I’m compiling a list for a vote.


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