Summer Reading Suggestions

From the Middle Ages (or about them)

By Prof. Anna Wilson

Looking to broaden your literary horizons and flex your reading muscles over the summer with some medieval and early modern literature? The following reading list offers some recommendations for excellent reads from before 1500 CE for COVID-19 times, and a few modern texts inspired by the middle ages. Attached are links to translations and other resources, including podcast episodes and digitized manuscripts; almost all the texts should also be available in affordable translations online or from your local bookstore (look for Penguin or Everyman editions). If you have any questions about any of the texts below or, if you've read one and want to discuss it, email Professor Anna Wilson,

Texts starred with an asterisk (*) are typically on the syllabus of Prof. Wilson's Arrivals class, which is running in Spring 2021. That class uses the Broadview Anthology of British Literature, and translations may differ from those available for free online.

Partly available on Google Books.


Summer Reading Suggestions: Medieval List

A classic of Old English literature, written down between 600 and 900CE, but probably composed long before that and passed down orally for many generations. This is the only surviving complete epic poem of the Old English tradition, heavily influenced by Germanic and Scandinavian literatures (Old English, a language spoken in England before the Norman Conquest of 1066, is quite different from the Middle English of Chaucer and other later medieval poetry). The poem recounts two great deeds by the hero Beowulf: his vanquishing of the monstrous Grendel and his mother, and, many years later as an old man, his fight to the death with a dragon. Beautiful, strange, and poignant, this is a window into a different world.

Where to read it for free:

LION (translation by Seamus Heaney):

If purchasing:

Seamus Heaney's translation is excellent and easily findable second hand. Both the Broadview and Norton anthologies also contain a full translation of the poem.

Go deeper:

The British Library web exhibition on the Beowulf manuscript:

The trailer for the 2007 movie adaptation with Angelina Jolie as Grendel's Mother (!):

The Bible provided favourite material for medieval poets, and this Old English retelling of the story of Judith and Holofernes, in which a widow seduces and then murders the king oppressing her people, is justly popular.

Read online

If purchasing:

Judith is very short, and not usually published as a standalone poem in print; it's contained in most medieval literature anthologies.

Go deeper:

The extremely graphic painting of Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, c. 1620:

(Read more about this fascinating woman painter of the Italian Renaissance and see more of her paintings of Biblical women here:

After entering into an ill-advised game of mutual decapitation with a mysterious green knight at a Christmas party, Sir Gawain leaves the court of King Arthur to plunge into the wilderness, to fulfill a promise that will mean his certain death. Finding his way to a castle in the woods, he falls into another ill-advised game, this time one of sexy one-upmanship with the gorgeous lord and lady of the castle. Caught in two impossible situations at once, Gawain must navigate the dual codes of the upstanding Christian knight and the romantic hero of chivalric literature. A poem of rich surfaces, lush description, wit, violence, and sexuality.

Read it online:

Simon Armitage translation via LION:

Jessie Weston introduction and translation (prose, 1898):

A more recent translation by W.A. Neilson:

JRR Tolkien translation (verse):

If purchasing:

I recommend the Simon Armitage translation, which can be bought individually or is included in the Norton textbook.

Go deeper:

An introduction to the poem by British poet Simon Armitage, who translated the poem, with images from the manuscript held by the British Library:

The text in the original northern dialect of Middle English, alternating with modern English translation:

The trailer of the new film adaptation, The Green Knight, starring Dev Patel, slated for release in 2020:

The trailer of the extremely awful 1984 film adaptation starring Sean Connery: