Suggestions for English literature 1400-1600
June 28, 2014 2:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in reading English literature between Chaucer and Shakespeare and would like suggestions.

What are the great works of this time? What's not to be missed? What's an unknown gem? I'm looking to make a personal reading list for what should be a formative time in English but often seems rather skimpy in terms of classics.

I'm open to anything written in the English language between about 1400 and 1600, or the times of Chaucer and Shakespeare. It can be poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction, translations (made during the time in question, not translations of works from this time) or original compositions, so long as it is written in English, and preferably available in the original spelling and grammar.
posted by Thing to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Wyatt rules.
posted by neroli at 3:14 PM on June 28, 2014

Similar time to Chaucer are: Piers Plowman, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

In your time period are: Malory (La Morte d'Arthur); More (Utopia); Spenser (The Faerie Queen). Also Julian of Norwich; Margery Kempe.

Similar time to Shakespeare are: Marlowe (Doctor Faustus); Sidney; Jonson; Donne; Herbert; the King James Bible.

Here's a timeline from the Norton Anthology of English Literature that gives a few others (also tab forward to the next page of the timeline). I think stage plays were a dominant form during the time you're talking about, but I don't know much about them and I don't know whether we have the equivalent of scripts from them.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:19 PM on June 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm only suggesting you read selections and/or up to your tolerance limit, but some things I've enjoyed to a point include Sidney's The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, Caxton's translation of The Golden Legend, and Hakluyt's Voyages.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:32 PM on June 28, 2014

Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, Gavin Douglas: a lot was going on in Scotland that largely got sidelined until Hugh MacDiarmid and his contemporaries embraced them in the mid-20th century.

John Skelton, who often has a freshness and simplicity that is especially fun if you get stodged out by Spenser.
posted by holgate at 3:44 PM on June 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'd also suggest looking at the early English translations of the Bible as they help shape the emerging English written vernacular as much as anything: Tyndale, Wycliffe, Coverdale etc.

Seconding Skelton, Dunbar & Gavin Douglas. Sir Philip Sidney is fantastic.
posted by kariebookish at 3:51 PM on June 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

And how could I forget Margery Kempe?

I always enjoy looking through The Penguin Book of Renaissance Poetry, incidentally. It overruns your chosen period a bit, but a small dose of metaphysical poets never hurt anyone. Iirc, it also has a great introduction..
posted by kariebookish at 3:56 PM on June 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is the best time period in all of English Literature. Fact*.
None of the suggestions below are particularly "overlooked", but they're all of them gems of the highest (or at least middling) order. Most of my suggestions come from the upper end (and a little beyond) your dates, and most of these dudes (and sadly, my list is mostly dudes) wrote in many different genres, so the categorization is a little spurious. Enjoy your reading!

Drama: Ben Jonson, Middleton and Dekker (Bonus: comes in both individual or collaborative flavours!), John Webster, Philip Massinger, Fulke Greville, Beaumont & Fletcher

Poetry: in addition to all the biggies who are legitimately The Shit (Wyatt, Sidney, Spenser, Donne, Jonson et al), try George Gascoigne, Henry Howard Earl of Surrey, Robert Southwell (not read nearly enough!), Amelia Lanyer (props to the LADIES!),

Prose: Thomas More (especially the Tower works. Fuck "Utopia"...the Tower Works are where it's at!), Robert Burton (his bajillion-volume "Anatomy of Melancholy" is one of the most bizarre and rewarding things you will ever devote a million hours of your life to), Donne (sermons and "Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions", which goes by the alternate title of "The Greatest Thing Ever Written Anywhere Ever"), George Puttenham (yay for early literary theorists!), Thomas Nashe ("The Unfortunate Traveller" is pretty wacky); John Foxe's "Acts and Monuments" will blow your mind and an AMAZING online version is available here

Translations: Arthur Golding's translation of Ovid's "Metamorphoses" was influential for a lot of these writers (Spenser and Shakespeare especially), and his translations of Calvin's sermons are worth a look; Mary and Philip Sidney's translations of the Psalms are gorgeous as translations and as poetry in their own right

This is not an exhaustive list. If you have to choose just one, choose Donne. ;)

*Actually not a fact. More like an extremely biased opinion which happens to be very useful at justifying my chosen course of study. :p
posted by Dorinda at 4:47 PM on June 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

Seconding Henryson, Dunbar, and Douglas—Scotland was where it was at in this period.
posted by languagehat at 6:00 PM on June 28, 2014

Fairie Queen by Edmund Spenser. About queen Elizabeth. Unfinished, but fun while it lasts.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:14 PM on June 28, 2014

Seconding Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is delightful. Pearl (possibly by the same poet) is a moving and beautiful poem about bereavement and consolation. The only reason these aren't better known is that their language is more difficult than Chaucer's; in terms of artistry they're in the same league. (There are excellent translations of both by Tolkien which you could consult as needed.)

Nthing the Scots; you could start with "The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy" or Dunbar's "Lament for the Makars".

The Owl and the Nightingale.

Chroniclers and travelers: Froissart in the Lord Berners translation (early 16C), Purchas, Holinshed.

Slice of 15C life: the Paston Letters.
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 8:03 PM on June 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

nthing Pearl, which is so technically exquisite that it's worth the effort to follow it with glosses rather than in translation. It and Gawain are late 14th-century, so contemporaneous with Chaucer although from a different part of England and in a different tradition.

Oh, mystery plays, to get a sense of popular drama, including the fist-fights between Noah and his wife that remind me of Punch and Judy shows.
posted by holgate at 8:22 PM on June 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Heywood et al translations of Seneca (Seneca, his tenne tragedies translated into Englysh) are incredibly influential for Elizabethan and Jacobean drama; reading them will make a lot of Shakespeare make even more sense. There's also North's translation of Plutarch, which Shakespeare lifts chunks of for Antony and Cleopatra.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 11:08 PM on June 28, 2014

Seconding John Skelton, "Woefully Arrayed" especially is wonderful.
posted by mani at 12:32 AM on June 29, 2014

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