A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature

By Laura Cooner Lambdin; Robert Thomas Lambdin | Go to book overview

12

The Epic Genre and Medieval Epics

Richard McDonald

If you are reading this chapter, then you are interested in epic poetry, meaning that you and I have something in common. We find something in epic stories worthy of our attention and consideration. As twenty-first-century readers, often we look back on the literature of the past and find ways to group different varieties of writing under generic headings. Why we make generic demarcations is probably the stuff of another study, but at the outset of this chapter two questions oblige us to become theoretical about our appreciation of the epic or epic poetry (poetry being the vehicle of most epics). The first is, “Did medieval writers and readers of epics see ‘epic literature– the same way we do?” A second, related question would be, “If our perceptions are different, how do our differing beliefs about ‘the epic– influence what we see as the ‘medieval epic–?”

You will come to recognize as this chapter proceeds that ideas about epic literature vary from scholar to scholar. Commentators have traditionally recognized the difficulty of defining and listing all the characteristics of an epic, mainly because epics, although often similar, differ significantly in terms of what generic conventions they include. After discussing some distinctly medieval problems with solidifying a description of “the epic,” I will include a list of conventions that epics tend to employ and finally provide a list and brief synopsis of specific works that might qualify as medieval epics.


THE “EPIC” AND THE MEDIEVAL WRITER/READER

Probably one of the central obstacles to achieving an acceptable and useful definition of the medieval epic is that “epic,” as Ann W. Astell points out, was not a word used by medieval writers (17). The Oxford English Dictionary establishes the first use of the term “epic” in English in 1589.

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A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction ix
  • 1 - Old English and Anglo-Norman Literature 1
  • Selected Bibliography 23
  • 2 - Religious and Allegorical Verse 26
  • 3 - Alliterative Poetry in Old and Middle English 37
  • Selected Bibliography 48
  • 4 - Balladry 50
  • Selected Bibliography 66
  • 5 - The Beast Fable 69
  • Selected Bibliography 84
  • 6 - Breton Lay 86
  • 7 - Chronicle 98
  • 8 - Debate Poetry 118
  • Selected Bibliography 152
  • 9 - Medieval English Drama 154
  • 10 - Dream Vision 178
  • Selected Bibliography 196
  • 11 - Epic and Heroic Poetry 210
  • 12 - The Epic Genre and Medieval Epics 230
  • Selected Bibliography 253
  • 13 - The Fabliau 255
  • 14 - Hagiographic, Homiletic, and Didactic Literature 277
  • Selected Bibliography 294
  • 15 - Lyric Poetry 299
  • 16 - The Middle English Parody/ Burlesque 315
  • Selected Bibliography 333
  • 17 - Riddles 336
  • 18 - Romance 352
  • Selected Bibliography 373
  • 19 - Visions of the Afterlife 376
  • Selected Bibliography 394
  • Selected Bibliography 399
  • Index 425
  • About the Editors and Contributors 431
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