Medieval Literature is an extremely broad subject: it consists of anything written during the Middle Ages (circa 6th – 15th Century). Beowulf and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales are some of the most famous works of Medieval Literature, but are unusual in that they were written in the authors’ vernaculars. Most literature throughout the Middle Ages was written in Latin, but more common people would write in Old English, Old French or Middle English. French Literature had a huge influence on English writing, and indeed many English writers and poets chose to write in French, if not in Latin.
Both Old English and Middle English are almost unrecognizable as part of the English language. We are therefore faced with a language barrier that must, one way or another, be overcome before we can begin to read and interpret Medieval Literature. There are of course many scholars who have learnt Old or Middle English in order to be able to read and enjoy Medieval Literature in its original form; however, this is obviously not possible for everybody. For those who have not learnt Old or Middle English, this problem cannot be overcome by simple translation. There are a number of words that are not translatable into contemporary English, as well as numerous long-forgotten idioms that are hard to translate.
The fact that the majority of Medieval Literature is written in verse only serves to make translation even harder. Both the rhyme and the metre must be considered, and it is almost impossible to have a literal translation of the words whilst also keeping rhyme and metre. Robert Frost once said: “Poetry is what gets lost in translation”, and indeed Yevgeny Yevtushenko said: “Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful.” The inevitable question must then be asked: what is more important, the beauty of the poem, or the accuracy of the translation?
If beauty is more important, then it must be accepted that the exact words of the author are not what is being read; the reader must also accept that they are reading a translator’s own interpretation of the poem, and that they are, in fact, reading the translator’s own work of art. Conversely, if the reader accepts that accuracy is more valuable, then the magnificence and beauty of the poem may be lost, and beauty is, after all, the predominant reason for reading poetry. Furthermore, a literal translation does not allow for techniques like alliteration and rhyme, which help to create the tone and mood of the writing and stress certain words – without the use of rhetorical devices, the poem’s meaning can often be lost. The sound of particular words may help to add a certain mood to the poem, and unless similar sounds can be used (which is unlikely) the mood will be lost. Translators are inevitably faced with a dilemma, and it is up to them to set the balance right between tone, accuracy and beauty. However, it is undeniable that the original work of art can never be replicated exactly in both beauty and meaning; otherwise, there would be nothing remarkable about the work itself.
However, language is not the only difficulty; to fully appreciate Medieval Literature, it must be read and understood in context. C.S. Lewis once pointed out that we must approach Medieval Literature with a deeper understanding of the past in order to fully appreciate the text. He compared a superficial reader to an English tourist who “carries his Englishry abroad with him and brings it home unchanged.” There are many unremarkable aspects of medieval life (pilgrimages, holy martyrs, measuring of time and date by means of reference to the signs of the zodiac) that seem extremely peculiar and strange to the modern reader, and so an effort of understanding is required to fully appreciate their significance. There is also the question of medieval morals and opinions; for example, Chaucer’s Knight is very highly esteemed on account of his taking part in numerous wars throughout Europe. However, this would not necessarily be a reason to respect somebody so highly in modern society. Contemporary values are extremely different from those that feature in medieval literature, and therefore the modern reader might not fully comprehend the meaning of particular stories.
Furthermore, a number of medieval writers (particularly Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales) wrote criticisms of certain sects of society. For instance, Chaucer is indirectly criticising the position of Pardoner in the Church, as he saw this role as a scam and morally wrong. However, there is no contemporary equivalent to this, and so it is hard for a modern reader to appreciate Chaucer’s meaning. Moreover, a number of medieval writers allude to certain people and events that would have been well known at the time; it requires a lot of effort for the modern reader to take all of this in.
Of course, the best approach to reading Medieval Literature is to read the original. However, for those who cannot do this, it is best to read the original accompanied by a translation, with notes from scholars explaining the numerous allusions, or indeed a list of medieval vocabulary. Furthermore, the reading of Medieval Literature is most effective when accompanied by an extensive knowledge of its context and the mores of the time.