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English Translations of Obscure Medieval Texts Go Online

Stanford University’s Global Medieval Sourcebook is a new online compendium of English translations for overlooked Middle Ages texts.

Woman with an open book and a king on horseback, illustrated in MS Burney 275, f.120 (1309-16) (via British Library)
Woman with an open book and a king on horseback, illustrated in MS Burney 275, f.120 (1309-16) (via British Library). The image illustrates “The Trust That I Have In You” 15th-century song on the Global Medieval Sourcebook

Images from medieval manuscripts have had something of a revival on social media, with viral accounts sharing their strange scenes of bizarre beasts or cavorting knights and monks. Yet the reading of those manuscripts by non-scholars remains low, partly due to a lack of access. The recently launched Global Medieval Sourcebook (GMS), curated by Stanford University faculty and students, offers English versions of previously untranslated Middle Ages literature.

“These images are often shared without text, and it can be hard to contextualize them if you’re outside of a formal educational environment, without access to books on the topic, and with no real way to sift through information that is out there,” Mae Lyons-Penner, a PhD student in comparative literature and the GMS project manager, told Hyperallergic. “That’s a barrier that we hope to break down by presenting a diverse array of short medieval texts within their cultural and historical context: sharing what we know about who produced them, who read them, what their importance was, and how it has shaped the way we think about the Middle Ages today.”

Global Medieval Sourcebook (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
Global Medieval Sourcebook (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

The initial offerings of the online compendium, which will be expanded as the GMS develops, range from a 15th-century song translated from Middle French that bemoans a lost love (“Two or three days ago / my sweet love went away / without saying anything to me. Alas, who will comfort me?”) to five selections from Hong Mai’s 12th-century Yijian Zhi (or, Record of the Listener, hereafter the Record), a sprawling 420-chapter chronicle that is an invaluable record of society, spirituality, and culture of the Southern Song Dynasty. The GMS is, as suggested by its title, a globally focused resource, with plans for medieval texts translated from Arabic, Chinese, Old Spanish, Latin, Middle High German, Old English, and Old French.

“[A] major aspect of our work to present a broad view of medieval culture is to actively recruit content from many different languages, especially those which have historically been inaccessible to contemporary readers,” Lyons-Penner explained. “It is very unusual for texts from so many different linguistic traditions to be read side by side, and we believe it makes for a much richer experience.”

Illustration of a man drinking from a bowl in the Psalter of Lambert le Bègue (1255-65) (via British Library). The image illustrates "The Drunkard" narrative verse on the Global Medieval Sourcebook
Illustration of a man drinking from a bowl in the Psalter of Lambert le Bègue (1255-65) (via British Library). The image illustrates “The Drunkard” narrative verse on the Global Medieval Sourcebook

Academics are being invited to contribute short introductions, sometimes accompanied by an audio recording and high-resolution image of the original manuscript. The new English translations are readable alongside the source language. “To create a diverse collection, we have enthusiastically solicited material from genres that are rarely if ever found together in modern editions of medieval texts: songs, sermons, sexually explicit short stories, and summaries of world history are only a few of the genres we are currently working on,” Lyons-Penner said.

Many of the selections were popular when they were written, but were later overlooked by scholarship as lowbrow, and thus left untranslated. “The Drunkard,” a Middle High German 13th-century narrative verse, has 416 lines about a most epic inebriate: “However large the vessel might have been / It was not big enough for his drink, / unless one continually refilled it.” Another Middle High German 13th-century narrative verse — “The Gosling” — is a rather bawdy tale of a young monk who sets out from the monastery into a world of which he is ignorant. When he first sees a woman, he asks his abbot what she is, and the abbot attempts to dissuade him by saying women are “geese”:  “The monk said: ‘ My goodness! / Geese are lovely. / Why don’t we have geese? / They would fit in nicely / on the pasture at the monastery.'” Needless to say, the monk is soon seduced, and the abbot deeply embarrassed. Both of these texts demonstrate knowing humor, and a bit of playful depravity, not always associated with medieval manuscripts.

As Lyons-Penner stated, “We take a broad view of what contemporary audiences will find compelling and valuable, which in practice means moving away from the narrow canon of works — mostly narrative verse — that have historically been designated ‘significant works of literature.'”

The Global Medieval Sourcebook is available online from Stanford University.

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