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Medieval Literature Research Guide

Books

Medieval English literature is a very broad category, spanning many centuries and several languages. Thus, this guide can only give some very general pointers and try to hit some of the major movements. Fortunately, library resources include good ways to search, both generally and specifically,for medieval literature.

Subject Searching

Your search for books might start in one of two places...

In both of these resources, you can use a Subject Search. This is very useful in literary research because it allows you to find all the books on an author, and only the books on that author. 

For more information on subject searching, please see the general guide to literature research. 

Subject Headings

Authors are usually subjects in the catalog. When you search for authors, remember, you are using a subject search to find books about the author, NOT an author search, which would find books by the author. So, you can do searches like this:

  • Chaucer, Geoffrey, -1400.
  • Kempe, Margery, b. ca.1373
  • Langland, William, 1330?-1400?
  • Marie, de France, 12th cent.
  • Thomas Aquinas, Saint, 1225?-1274.  

You may notice a certain irregularity among these names. In many cases, the birth and death dates are vague, uncertain, or unknown.

Furthermore, they do not all have the same kind of name. In general, authors are listed in the catalog by last name. However, the "de France" in Marie de France and the "Aquinas" in Thomas Aquinas are not surnames but merely specify where these authors were from,  Thus, they are listed in the catalog by their personal names. 

If you go back even further, many works of early English literature are anonymous. These are listed by title:

  • Beowulf
  • Gawain and the Grene Knight

Thus, the subject headings for medieval literature are slightly less predictable than the headings for later literature. 

Like other headings, however, they are also broken down into more specific categories. These may include Criticism and Interpretation, names of specific works, "sources" (that is, the works their works are based on) and more.

There are also subject headings you might use to search for early English literature in general, such as:

  • Arthurian romances
  • Chivalry in literature
  • Christian hagiography
  • Christian literature -- English (Old)
  • English literature -- Old English, ca. 450-1100.
  • English literature -- Middle English, 1100-1500.
  • English poetry -- Old English, ca. 450-1100.
  • Epic poetry, English (Old).
  • Literature, Medieval.
  • Poets, English -- Middle English, 1100-1500.

Notice that specific genres of literature, such as Christian hagiography and epic poetry, are often subject headings

Remember to browse, as some of these are further broken down into more specific subjects. For instance, in addition to English poetry -- Old English, ca. 450-1100, you may also see headings like English poetry -- Old English, ca. 450-1100 -- History and criticism.  

Although all of these are real subject headings and you should feel free to use them, there are also many more. This is just a list of examples to help you get started and give you some idea what kinds of searches are possible.

Browsing

You can use these call numbers to find books about medieval literature and medieval studies.  The ranges beginning with PN and PR are literature oriented, but you may also find interesting resources in areas of study like history and art. 

  • DA 129-260                Early and Medieval History of Great Britain
  • ND 2889-3416           Illuminating of manuscripts and books
  • PE 101-458                Old English language
  • PE 501-693                Middle English language
  • PN 661-694                Medieval literature
  • PN 685                        Arthurian literature
  • PR 171-236                History of English literature: Anglo Saxon (beginnings through 1066)
  • PR 251-396                History of English literature: Medieval, Middle English (1066-1500)
  • PR 1490-1799           Anglo-Saxon literature
  • PR 1803-2165           Anglo-Norman and Early Middle English literature

Since books on the same author or topic are grouped together on the shelf, it is often a good idea to visit a particular call range and see what we have on the shelves.

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