MEDIEVAL literature has often been discussed as though it were not to be read in the same way we read the literature of other periods. One sometimes hears that, because of the extraordinary leisure and aesthetic tolerance of the class for whom the more sophisticated poetry was composed, the good medieval poet characteristically made use of extremely familiar plots rather than bothering to make up plots of his own, quoted conversation at length where we might summarize, and spent excessive time on descriptions of dress, landscape, and such activities as hunting, jousting, and lovemaking. The argument seems to be that if we are bored the fault lies less with the poetry than with the hurry of life in our time; or perhaps it is that we too would like such poetry if we were creatures of the unenlightened Middle Ages.
But in fact, poets of every age deal with roughly the same human emotions, and for the experienced reader, whatever his time and place, poetry is interesting or not depending upon the moment by moment intensity of the appeal. The question is not really whether one ought to excuse second-rate poetry on the grounds that once it did not seem unoriginal or thin, but whether one has understood and appreciated all that is going on in the poetry. Unfamiliar techniques, together with qualities we are not in the habit of noticing -- both of the poems and of the larger reality which the poems reflect -- can blind us to poetic merit.
Working with familiar stories, the medieval poet was in a position the modern writer, restricted by copyright laws, might envy. Whereas the modern writer generally must start from scratch and waste much of his energy simply working out character and action, the medieval writer was free (like Shakespeare, or like Homer or Sophocles) to concentrate his attention on manipulating his traditional material to release its full significance or to find in it new possibilities of meaning. He