Monday, September 14, 2009

The Song of Roland

We are a little behind on our reading schedule (due to some family illness), so we are just beginning to read "The Song of Roland." This will be one of our first Medieval Literature stories.

"The Song of Roland (French: La Chanson de Roland) is the oldest surviving major work of French literature. It exists in various different manuscript versions, which testify to its enormous and enduring popularity in the 12th to 14th centuries. The oldest of these versions is the one in the Oxford manuscript, which contains a text of some 4,004 lines (the number varies slightly in different modern editions) and is usually dated to the middle of the twelfth century (between 1140 and 1170). The epic poem is the first and most outstanding example of the chanson de geste, a literary form that flourished between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries and celebrated the legendary deeds of a hero." - Wikipedia

Read the entire entry here:


There are a number of translations for this text available online. I have linked to several below. Feel free to read which ever text you find enjoyable. offers a free online study guide with some background and plot summaries -- good to use for review.

From the Medieval Internet sourcebook (O'Hagan trans.)

From Harvard Classics (O'Hagan trans.)

From Sunsite (UC Berkeley - Moncreif trans.)

Librivox (Moncreif trans) - Audio

Schedule of Readings

I have adjusted our readings since we lost two weeks between reading Heloise's Letter and the start of this poem.

September 14-18
The Song of Roland
Verses I - LXXXVII

September 21-25

September 28-October 2

October 5-9

Study Questions

I will be posting study questions as we move through this story. Enjoy!

Update - November 9, 2009

Our readers are behind, so we are going to stay with this poem for a few more weeks. If you are just joining us, feel free to begin with this study!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Peter and Heloise

When I was in college, I was required to take a Medieval History course. It was a Humanities course, so we didn't just study history. We studied philosophy (a lot), literature, poetry, religion, and history. It was taught by a very kind older man, who loved, I mean loved, the Middle Ages. I didn't think I would like this period in time, and was terrified of studying philosophy (everyone I knew told me it was DIFFICULT!) This professor, though, was great. He made the study of these classic works really interesting. Yes, they were difficult to read and understand, but he had a way that made them come alive. He especially liked to read to his students (something very old fashioned), and we spent most every day listening to him read to us. One particular favorite of mine were the letters written by Peter Abelard to his lover, Heloise. My professor had a real affinity for St. Augustine and Peter Abelard. He loved them both, and we spent the majority of the semester studying these two men.

Our classical study group has just finished reading through 1001 Stories of the Arabian Nights. This series of stories was really enjoyabled, far more enjoyable than I thought possible. I had only read Ali-Baba (years ago), and while familiar with the tale of Alladin (thanks to Disney), had not really spent any time at all reading the other stories. I am glad we spent a couple weeks reading through them -- they are all great moral tales -- stories that make you chuckle a bit, but leave you with a definite impression of good/evil, wrong/right, etc.

As we close out our early Medieval readings, we begin to turn towards more significant "classical works" (not to put down Ali-Baba, but we are talking about Dante here!) Our next several readings will take us through the end of the year. These include the former mentioned letters of Peter Abelard, the Song of Roland and Summa Theologica (briefly chucked in between), then the power house book, The Divine Comedy. The latter will take the majority of our reading time, approx. 10 weeks to complete (probably longer, given the nature of the text). However, before we press on into the Middle Ages, we need to address the little letter written by Friar Peter Abelard (c. 1079-1142). Fr. Pierre Abélard, a 12th century philosopher, theologian and logician, is called "the keenest thinker and boldest theologian of the 12th Century" (by Chambers Biographical Dictionary). His love affair with Heloise is legendary -- true Medieval Soap Opera. We will only have time to read one letter, but the story itself is worth the investment of time.


I am not going to post a bio of Peter Abelard, because this one over at Wikipedia is pretty good:

Our text is coming from the following resource at Fordham University (Internet Medieval Sourcebook). We will read the introduction and overall guide to the letter first. The actual letter will be read the following week. Both are short readings -- not more than a few pages -- so this week and next will be rather light (giving our readers time to finish up Arabian Nights, if they need to).

Discussion will be limited, unless our readers have insight or questions.

Up Next

The Song of Roland (four weeks only)

Summa Theologica (just one essay - one week)

The Divine Comedy (ten weeks)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Next Book: Stories from 1001 Arabian Nights

Dear Readers -- Good Tuesday Morning to you all!

I hope you all had a chance to finish up Beowulf last week. I am late postingour next readings, so please forgive me. Our next few weeks will be devoted toreading some of the 1001 Arabian Night stories (circa 800 AD). You do not haveto read them all, unless you wish to do so. Some of the more familiar taleswill come towards the middle to end of this series of readings (Aladin, Sinbad,Ali Baba, etc.)

If you don't want to read all of this post -- the schedule and link to the textare at the end. I would encourage you to read the Wikipedia article on thesetales. It will give specific literary device information that I think will behelpful to place these stories in their proper context as well as demonstratehow influential they became through succeeding literary generations (in story,play, music, and film).


BRIEF BACKGROUND (Harvard Classics)

"THE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS" is one of the great story-books of the world. Itwas introduced to European readers by the French scholar Galland, who discoveredthe Arabic original and translated it into French in the first decade of theeighteenth century; but its earlier history is still involved in obscurity.There existed as early as the tenth century of our era a Persian collection of athousand tales, enclosed in a framework which is practically the one used in thepresent collection, telling of a King who was in the habit of killing his wivesafter the first night, and who was led to abandon this practise by thecleverness of the Wezir's daughter, who nightly told him a tale which she leftunfinished at dawn, so that his curiosity led him to spare her till the taleshould be completed. Whether more than the framework of the Arabian collectionwas borrowed from this Persian work is uncertain. The tales in the collection of Galland and in more complete editions discovered since his time are chieflyPersian, Indian, and Arabian in source, and in ultimate origin come from all theends of the earth. No two manuscripts have precisely the same contents, and someof the most famous of the tales here printed are probably not properly to beregarded as belonging to the collection, but owe their association with theothers to their having been included by Galland. Thus "Ali Baba and the FortyThieves" is found in no Oriental version of the "Nights," and "`Ala-ed-Din andthe Wonderful Lamp" was long supposed to be in the same situation, though withinrecent years it has turned up in two manuscripts.

Both the place and the date of the original compilation are still matters ofdispute among scholars. From such evidences as the detailed nature of thereferences to Cairo and the prevailing Mohammedan background, Lane argued thatit must have been put together in Egypt; but this opinion is by no meansuniversally accepted. As to date, estimates vary by several centuries. Burton,who believed in a strong Persian element, thought that some of the oldest tales,such as that of "Sindibad," might be as old as the eighth century of our era;some thirteen he dated tenth century, and the latest in the sixteenth. There isa fair amount of agreement on the thirteenth century as the date of arrangementin the present framework, though they were probably not committed to writingtill some two centuries later.

Of a collection of fables, fairy-stories, and anecdotes of historical personagessuch as this, there can, of course, be no question of a single author. Bothbefore and after they were placed in the mouth of Shahrazad, they were handeddown by oral recitation, the usual form of story-telling among the Arabs. As inthe case of our own popular ballads, whatever marks of individual authorship anyone story may originally have borne, would be obliterated in the course ofgenerations of tradition by word of mouth. Of the personality of an originaleditor or compiler, even, we have no trace. Long after writing had to someextent fixed their forms, the oral repetition went on; and some of them could beheard in Mohammedan countries almost down to our own times.In the two hundred years of their currency in the West, the stories of the"Nights" have engrafted themselves upon European culture. They have made thefairy-land of the Oriental imagination and the mode of life of the medievalArab, his manners and his morals, familiar to young and old; and allusions totheir incidents and personages are wrought into the language and literature ofall the modern civilized peoples. Their mark is found upon music and painting aswell as on letters and the common speech, as is witnessed by such diverseresults of their inspiration as the music of Rimsky-Korsakoff, the illustrationsof Parrish, and the marvelous idealization of their background and atmosphere inTennyson's "Recollections of the Arabian Nights," "Barmecide Feast," "OpenSesame," "Old Lamps for New," "Solomon's Seal," "The Old Man of the Sea," "TheSlave of the Lamp," "The Valley of Diamonds," "The Roc's Egg," Haroun al-Raschidand his "Garden of Delight,"—these and many more phrases and allusions ofevery-day occurrence suggest how pervasive has been the influence of thiswonder-book of the mysterious East.

The translation by E. W. Lane used here has been the standard English versionfor general reading for eighty years. The translations of "`Ali Baba" and"`Ala-ed-Din" are by S. Lane-Poole and for permission to use the latter we areindebted to Messrs. G. P. Putnam's Sons.

INTRODUCTION (from Wikipedia)

One Thousand and One Nights is a collection of folk tales and other stories. Itis often known in English as the Arabian Nights, from the first English languageedition (1706), which rendered the title as The Arabian Nights' Entertainment[1].

The original concept is most likely derived from a pre-Islamic Persian prototypethat probably relied partly on Indian elements,[2] but the work as we have itwas collected over many centuries by various authors, translators and scholarsacross the Middle East and North Africa. The tales themselves trace their rootsback to ancient and medieval Arabic, Persian, Indian, Egyptian and Mesopotamianfolklore and literature. In particular, many tales were originally folk storiesfrom the Caliphate era, while others, especially the frame story, are mostprobably drawn from the Pahlavi Persian work Haz?r Afs?n (Persian: ???? ?????,lit. Thousand Tales). Though the oldest Arabic manuscript dates from the 14thcentury, scholarship generally dates the collection's genesis to around the 9thcentury.

What is common throughout all the editions of the Nights is the initial framestory of the ruler Shahryar (from Persian: ??????, meaning "king" or"sovereign") and his wife Scheherazade (from Persian: ???????, meaning"townswoman") and the framing device incorporated throughout the talesthemselves. The stories proceed from this original tale; some are framed withinother tales, while others begin and end of their own accord. Some editions contain only a few hundred nights, while others include 1,001 or more.

Some of the best-known stories of The Nights, particularly "Aladdin's WonderfulLamp", "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" and "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad theSailor", while almost certainly genuine Middle-Eastern folk tales, were not partof The Nights in Arabic versions, but were interpolated into the collection byits early European translators.

Note 1: For the rest of this introduction, please see:

Note 2: See the Harvard Classics introduction here:


These stories are short, so it is possible to read through them quickly. Feelfree to read a few or all of them!

July 13-17
Tales from 1001 Arabian Nights: Nights 1-3, 3-9

July 20-24
Nights 9-18, 24-32

July 27-31
Nights 32-36, Nights 537–566

August 3-7
Nights 566–578, 738–756

August 10-14
The Story of `Ala-ed-Din and the Wonderful Lamp and The Story of `Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves


Harvard Classics (follows our schedule)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Beowulf, an Introduction

Beowulf. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.
Introductory Note
"WHEN our Teutonic ancestors migrated to Britain from the Continent of Europe, they brought with them the heroic songs in which their minstrels were accustomed to celebrate the deeds of their kings and warriors. In Section xvi of “Beowulf” will be found a short description of the recitation at a feast of this kind of lay. Perhaps as early as the seventh century of our era, after the introduction of Christianity, an unknown poet gathered material from these lays and composed the epic of “Beowulf.” Besides the stories, he took from the older songs their metrical form and many features of style; but how far he retained their actual language there is no longer any means of knowing. A good deal of comment and reflection he must have added; and the structure of the epic is certainly due to him. He did not sing or chant to a harp as his predecessors in the treatment of this material had done; he wrote a book to be read. “Beowulf” is thus not folk-song, but belongs to a much more conscious and developed stage of art than the popular ballad.

The exploits narrated in the poem belong to the life of Germanic peoples before they crossed the North Sea, and at least one of the characters can be identified with a historical personage. Hygelac was the Danish king Chochilaicus, who was killed in a raid into the countries near the mouth of the Rhine, not far from 520 A.D.; and as he was the uncle of Beowulf, this fixes approximately the date for the historical prototype of our hero. But the events of the poem are legendary, not historic. The fights with monsters and dragons, which occupy so much of the poem, are clear evidence of the large extent to which the marvels of popular tradition had attached themselves to figures whose historical identity had already become shadowy. Some scholars have even tried to interpret the persons and events of the poem as mythology; and while one can not deny that mythical elements may have become interwoven, yet the poet believed his hero to be thoroughly human, and his foes to be such ghosts and monsters as are still believed in by the peasantry in many parts of Europe.

From Professor Gummere’s translation, which preserves with great skill the essential metrical features of the original, accent and alliteration, one can get a good idea of the rhythmic vigor of the old English. The translation is made from the solitary text which has come down to us, a manuscript of the tenth century, now in the British Museum.

Although, as has been said, the chief materials of the poem must have come from the Continent, much of the detail giving a picture of life at an old Germanic court is likely to have been drawn from the England of the writer’s own day. “Beowulf” thus comes to have, in addition to its interest as the earliest extended imaginative work extant among the Teutonic peoples, a special value for the light it throws on the culture and ideals of character prevalent during the first centuries of the English occupation of Britain."


Some readers may find a children's retelling of the story easier to digest at first. If you choose to read a children's version, make sure to follow it up with the original (links provided in previous post).

Stories of Beowulf told to Children by H.E. Marshall

Legends of the Middle Ages by Helene Guerber

Legends Every Child Should Know by Hamilton Wright Mabie

European Hero Stories by Eva March Tappen

How to Use a Children's Story

The advantage of reading a children's story is that the myth is told in a simplified way. You will be quickly introduced to the main characters and given a very simple and straightforward plot. Once you are familiar with the tale, how it unfolds, and who the major characters are, you can then begin to read the adult version (modern prose if you are still faint of heart). It is also a good idea to use and read through the character analysis, plot summaries, etc. along the way.



This will be our first classic read during our summer session. The following links will provide access to online texts or to paperback versions, should you wish to purchase a copy or find one through your libary.

HTML Versions

Available at Amazon.Com or other book stores:
Paperback edition, verse translation by Seamus Heaney (W.W. Norton & Co, 2001, 215 pg). Paperback edition, verse translation by R.M. Liuzza (Broadview Pr, 2000, 248 pg).
Paperback edition, verse translation by Ruth P.M. Lehmann (Univ of Texas Pr, 1988, 119 pg). Paperback edition, verse translation by Charles W. Kennedy (Oxford Univ Pr, 1978, 121 pg). Paperback edition, prose translation by David Wright (Penguin USA, 1957).
Paperback edition, prose translation by E. Talbot Donaldson (W.W. Norton & Co, 2001).
Thrift Paperback edition, translation by Robert Kay Gordon (Oxford Univ Pr, 1992, 57 pg).
Audio Cassette edition, unabridged? (record says "unabridged selections"), read by Flo Gibson (Audio Book Contactors, 1999, 2 cassettes).
Audio CD edition, unabridged, read by translator Seamus Heaney (HighBridge Co, 2000).

Monday, April 13, 2009

Summer Schedule 2009

Our reading group will be moving into the Middle Ages after we complete our study of Church history. The schedule for summer and fall reading is listed below:

Session 1

  • Beowulf (c. 725)
  • Tales from the 1001 Nights (or, 1001 Arabian Nights) (c. 850?)
  • Letters of Abelard and Heloise (c. 1130-1136)
  • The Song of Roland (c. 1100)
    Summa Theologica (1265-1273)
  • The Divine Comedy (c. 1306-1321)
  • Canterbury Tales (c. 1386)
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Late 14th Century)
  • La Mort D'Arthur by Thomas Malory
Session 2

  • The Prince (c. 1505 or 1515; pub. 1532)
  • The Courtier (1528; Hoby's tr. 1561)
  • Utopia (1516)
  • Ninety-five Theses (1517)
  • Essays (1575)
  • Don Quixote (1615)
  • The Faerie Queene (1596)
  • Essays (1601)
  • Doctor Faustus (1593?; pub. 1604)
  • Sermons (c. 1615-1631)
  • The Leviathan (1651)

For a PDF schedule of our reading list and assignments, click here!