Documentary Sources in Literature

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Andreas Capellanus, Art of Courtly Love (1185)—Written under the patronage of Marie of Champagne, this treatise on conducting relationships according to the rules of fin'amors influenced the depiction of love in medieval romances and lyric poetry.

Beowulf (c. 1000)—The earliest extensive literary work produced in England, this alliterative heroic narrative poem in Old English (Anglo-Saxon) tells the story of a hero with super-human strength who slays the monster Grendel and the monster's vengeful mother, and then, many years later, is killed in a confrontation with a fire-breathing dragon. The poem demonstrates the tribal heroic code of thanes and lords, and illustrates oral-formulaic style.

Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron (c. 1351)—This Italian-language collection of "One Hundred Stories" uses a frame tale about ten young people fleeing the plague in Florence to take refuge in a country house where they tell stories illustrating a wide range of medieval genres and themes.

Chanson de Roland (c. 1101)—The most famous example of the French chanson de geste, this heroic poem, based on an historical episode in 778, recounts the defense of a pass in the Pyrenees Mountains by a small French rear-guard against the overwhelming Saracen forces. It portrays the tragic downfall of a hero who fails to maintain a balance between physical courage and good judgment.

Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales (c. 1380s–1400)—In this most famous story collection in medieval literature, the descriptions and interactions of 29 pilgrim storytellers on their way to Canterbury presents a cross-section of late fourteenth-century English people and professions, while their stories offer a sampling of almost every available prose and verse genre, made new and original by the overall work's complex and often ironic tone.

Chrétien de Troyes, Yvain (c. 1170–1185")—This French-language poem by the "father of Arthurian romance" tells the story of a knight who goes off on an adventure with Gawain and suffers severe consequences when he fails to keep his promise (a rash vow) to return to his new wife within one year. This poem is one of several long verse narratives in which Chrétien expands the story of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table into complex psychological and moral studies.

Christine de Pizan, City of Ladies (1404–1405)—In this dream vision, Christine, the first professional woman writer in medieval Europe, is visited in a vision by three allegorical female personifications—Reason, Rectitude, and Justice—who instruct her to create a new literary tradition about women by "constructing" a metaphorical "city" of ladies, a story collection in which each building block/story narrates the achievements of a praiseworthy, virtuous woman.

Dante, The Divine Comedy (c. 1314–1321)—This epic allegory in three parts, written in Italian, relates a visionary pilgrimage to Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Heaven), through which the narrator is guided first by the classical Latin author Vergil and then by his muse Beatrice. Most famous for its portrayal of the punishment of sins in the descending circles of the Inferno, the work combines a realistic treatment of contemporary Florentine politics with a spiritual voyage and the experience of reunion with God.

John Gower, Confessio Amantis (Confession of the Lover; 1390–1393)—Containing over 30,000 lines of narrative verse, this collection of biblical, classical, legendary and popular narratives is recounted by Genius, priest of Venus, to whom Amans, an elderly lover, confesses the various sins committed against love in seven books of stories organized according to the Seven Deadly Sins, with one book assigned to each mortal sin.

Jean de Meun, Roman de la Rose (1275)—This 18,000-line continuation of Guillaume de Lorris's allegorical love poem about a dreamer's quest for a rose adopts a satirical tone and incorporates the rediscovery of Aristotelian and Platonic texts that had occurred in the twelfth century.

Marie de France, Lais (c. 1160–1180)—This collection of twelve short verse narratives by medieval Europe's first identifiable female writer (probably a native of France living in England) transforms stories from Celtic oral sources into formal Anglo-French courtly poetry. Marie's sparely written narratives feature settings in the magical Celtic Other World, rash promises, erotic entanglements between humans and fairies, and an ambivalent code of ethics.

Juan Ruiz, The Book of Good Love (1350)—This Spanish story collection presents a meandering, episodic series of accounts of the narrator's fourteen attempted (and sporadically successful) adventures in love, incorporating many literary genres and a wide spectrum of tones.