Adam Bell
The ballad of Adam Bell and his two companions (William of Cloudeslye and Clim o Clough) was popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: five different printed versions are known, and there were many reprints of the later editions. But the existence of a saga about these three forester heroes of Cumberland (Northern England) appears to go back almost as far as that of Robin Hood himself. A prankster in 1432 added the following to the Parliament Roll for Wiltshire (a census): Adam Belle, Clim O'Cluw, Willyam Cloudesle (he didn't stop there. Robin Hood, Little John, Much, Scathelock and Reynold are also listed). The poem was entered in the Stationers' Register in 1557-58 under the name of "Adam Bell", indicating it was a mainstream text by then, and this is confirmed by reference to the poem by Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing, act I, scene i.

This poem is not just "Robin Hood-lite". In fact, in many ways it's better than most of the Robin Hood legends, more realistic and the characters are better developed. For a storyteller who's audience may already be overly familiar with Robin Hood, this provides a similarly exciting work in a similar setting -- but one that has the advantage of being new to the listener. Some of these elements in the poem resemble patterns found in the Robin Hood myth. Adam Bell is lucidly constructed in three discrete fitts. As in some of the Robin hood ballads, the first fitt sees one of the outlaws enter the town andencounter danger; in the second fitt there follows an exciting rescue not unlike that in the 'Geste' or 'Robin Hood and the Monk'; in the last fitt the outlaw heroes are forgiven by the king, despite the damage they have caused.

But Adam Bell also has a range of original features of some importance. Whereas the Robin Hood texts explore pressures felt by outlawed men with no visible family, Adam Bell concentrates on another type of distressed male, the husband and father separated from his family. Much of the tension in this poem comes from the fact that William of Cloudeslye, very much the hero of the ballad, is impelled to return to Carlisle to see his wife and children, and though after his rescue they play little part in the action, they are still included in the resolution. The connection continues, as William's son is the focus of the sequel.

Another notable feature of this ballad is the fully resolved nature of its ending. Most Robin Hood ballads end with the outlaw band returning to the stasis that was disturbed by the original incursion into the greenwood of a stranger, or concluding with a renewed delicate balance where the hostile forces are still implicitly alive. Some have a tragic ending (the Gest and The Death of Robin Hood) and a few later ones have happy endings. It is this last unproblematically happy ending that Adam Bell provides, which seems strange in an early, violent, and quite realistic ballad. At the end of Adam Bell William is a court gentleman, his colleagues are yeomen, William's wife a queen's gentlewoman, and promises of advancement are even made to William's son. Medieval literature usually brings such court happiness to rapid misery, but here all that follows is an equally neat verbal resolution, tying up the theme of archery with that of salvation, wishing for all good archers that "of heaven they may never mysse".

The poem isn't very long, and is excerpted in many anthologies of English literature, especially ones printed in Britain. However, you can find the complete thing (680-ish lines) in

Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (Middle English Texts)
Stephen Knight (Editor), Thomas Ohlgren (Editor), Thomas E. Kelly (Editor)
Paperback
Western Michigan Univ., 1997
ISBN: 1879288923

Along with modern English translations of several of the Robin Hood stories mentioned in this and my other article on Robin Hood. [AY]
Buy Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales

The Aeneid
Can we possibly discuss Homer without mentioning his Latin equivalent, Publius Vergilius Maro, aka Virgil?

His magnum opus was, of course, the Aeneid, the story of the legendary founder of Rome. Patterned quite deliberately after Homer, it was wildly popular throughout Period and influenced, to name but a few, Dante and Benoit de Sainte-Maure's Roman de Troie.

The Aeneid is full of marvelous adventures and voyages, scenes of gory battle ("he split him with his sword from chaps to chine") and steamy love with the Carthaginian Queen Dido. And the opening lines still echo in my head: arma virumque cano...I sing of arms and the man (not GB Shaw's original).

Innumerable translations abound. There is the old two volume set, The Aeneid, published in 1936 by the Loeb Classical library with Latin on one side and Edwardian English on the other. Penguin has produced two English versions as well. [MI]

The Aeneid is my favorite Latin work and Marcus beat me to the recommendation, so I'm pouting. Some additional comments:

The Aeneid was written as a propaganda piece in praise of the Emperor Augustus. His adoptive father, Julius Caesar, claimed to be descended from Venus, Aeneas' mum. The work reminds us that not only are the Caesars related to the gods, they spring from the very founder of Rome. Supposedly the description of Neptune rising from the deep to calm a storm (Book I) is Augustus calming civil strife.

The Aeneid is unfinished -- that is, unpolished (you can occasionally find unfinished lines). Vergil requested that it be destroyed upon his death -- apparently no one listened.

In period Vergil was considered a mystic and prophet. His name is often misspelled "Virgil" after "virga", which in Latin can mean "magic wand". He wrote a collection of pastoral poems called Eclogues. While most deal with shepherds pining for love, Eclogue IV is about the birth of a child who will lead the world into a second Golden Age. In truth, Vergil was sucking up to an important family, but in the Middle Ages this poem was taken as prophecy.

This is why he was considered one of the "Worthy Pagans" and not condemned to Hell just because he lived before Christ did. Also during our period a popular method of divination was the "Sortes Vergilii" the Lots of Vergil. Ask a question, open your Aeneid at random and point at a line. Your question is answered! Better than a fortune cookie. : )

Finally, the heart of the matter is that there is no good translation available. The good brother recommends the Loeb Classical Library, but I say, only if you already read Latin. That collection is of value because the editions are bilingual, but the translations are not of the best quality. Sorry. I've just never found a translation that can capture both the story and the poetry of the original.

Of the 12 books of the Aeneid, I recommend Book II (The Fall of Troy), Book IV (Dido's doomed love) and Book VI (Aeneas visits the Underworld -- Dante lifted a lot here). Books VII-XII are the conquest of Italy. I'm less familiar with those because I didn't actually translate them. [MW]
Buy the Fitzgerald translation of The Aeneid

Aesop's Fables
Now the Middle Ages were fond of various fabliaux and bestiaries. The great granddaddy of all these animal stories is Aesop, whose charming fables have undergone countless translations from the Roman Empire onwards.

The church tried co-opt this unwanted delight in pagan learning by imposing a Christian template on these and many other Classical stories. Nonetheless, the lamb looks foolish for lying down with the lion despite biblical promises to the contrary.

It is difficult to believe that the translation by S.A. Handford is so enjoyable while his renderings of Caesar are so boring but vital to school boys unwilling to plod through the original. All in Penguin Classics, of course. [MI]
Buy Aesop's Fables (Temple translation)

Sefer Ha-aggadah, The Book of Jewish Folklore and Legend
H.N. Bialik and Y.H. Rawnitzky
Selected, translated, and annotated by Chaim Pearl.
Dvir Publishing House, 1988.

Ever wonder exactly how rabbis illustrated their lessons to their congregations? No, well, I'll tell you anyway. They used the Aggadah: Jewish legends found in the Talmud and Midrash (edited about 400 C.E. with some changes up to the 13th century). Talmudic based aggadah are the aggadoht created to explicate difficult legal points as each Rabbi attempted to prove his point was superior. Midrash based aggadoht are generally sources of rabbinic folklore. The most famous collection of the aggadic literature was done by Hayyim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Rawnitzky in 1910 and published as the Sefer Ha-aggadah This contains such well-known stories as Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

This is the only version of the Sefer Ha-aggadah that I've ever seen so I don't know how it stacks up to other ones. I got mine at a Hamakor Judaica back in Skokie so I don't know how easy it is to find in mainstream bookstores, but it should be VERY easy to find in any store which specializes in Jewish works. The stories in it range from very short, paragraph long anecdotes in a clear lecture format to page-length, very tellable tales. [TbIaI]
Buy Sefer Ha-Aggadah

The Alexandreis of Walter of Châtillon: A Twelfth-Century Epic
Walter of Châtillon, David Townsend (Translator)
Hardcover
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997
ISBN 0812233476

The cult of Alexander the Great rose again in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. He is a supporting character in some works (see my posting on "Valentine & Orson"), and the central character of a series of poetic or prosimetric (alternating prose and verse) pieces called "Alexandreis". The most famous of these is "The Alexandreis of Walter of Châtillon". It was written in Latin verse in France around 1170. Châtillon's work differs from his contemporaries in two major ways. First, it is not prosimetric, it is pure verse. Second, all of the other Alexandreis portray Alexander as Christian, in Châtillon's work, the goddess "Natura" plays a major role. Although it was written at the end of the twelfth century, this Châtillon remained popular until the end of period, and was as popular as Dante or Bocaccio. Shakespeare makes allusions to Châtillion in several of his sonnets and in "The Merchant of Venice". [AY]
Buy The Alexandreis of Walter of Chatillon

The Alexiad
Anna Comnena, Edgar Robert Ashton Sewter (Translator)
Paperback - 560 pages
Viking Press, 1985
ISBN: 0140442154

This Alexiad is not a work on Alexander the Great, but rather a history of the Byzantine emperor Alexius I, written by his daughter, Anna. Anna is portrayed as the sympathetic widow in her writing -- in the prologue she laments her widowhood, saying her soul is dizzy "and with rivers of tears, I wet my eyes... Alas for the waves". Pain burns her "to the the bones and the marrow and the cleaving of the soul."

The reality is that in 1118, after her father's death, she conspired against her brother, Emperor John II Comnenus, in an attempt to have the succession changed in favor of her husband, the Byzantine soldier and historian Nicephorus Bryennius. The plot failed, her husband was killed, and she retired to a convent, where she wrote the fifteen books of the Alexiad. The last book was completed in 1148. Like many Middle-eastern sources, the Alexiad uses stories to underscore parallels between the lives of the characters and the lives of great heroes. Additionally, although it's more than a little biased towards Alexius and his lineage, this is a great peek into the daily life of the Byzantine court. [AY]
Buy The Alexiad

Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources
John Asser, Simon Keynes (Translator)
Paperback - 368 pages
Penguin USA, 1995
ISBN: 0140444092

Although some of the details of this book have been questioned as to their accuracy, it was certainly written at the court and during the lifetime of King Alfred of England, called The Great. Alfred lived in the late 800s and was responsible for the first post-Roman golden age in England. This Life of Alfred was written in 893 by John Asser (more on him later). The work in consists of a chronicle of English history from 849 to 887, and a personal and original narrative of Alfred's career. One of the subtleties that is retained in this translation (and lost in some others) is Asser, because of his Welsh birth, used Celtic proper names, and the English are constantly styled "Saxons". There are several good incidents in here -- although one suspects the neater stories are fictional, or at least embellished a little. The original Asser manuscript was lost in a fire in A.D. 1731. This translation is based on a facsimile printed by Francis Wise (1722).

John Asser (or Asserius Menevensis), was a Welsh monk, born in Pembrokeshire and educated at St David's in Menevia, by his kinsman, Archbishop Asserius. Asser's reputation as a scholar led King Alfred to invite him to court around A.D. 885. The story goes that Asser took six months to consider the question of leaving the monastery, followed by a year and a half of illness which prevented him from leaving Winchester. On his recovery, as Alfred still urged his request, Asser agreed to spend half of each year with the King. His first visit lasted eight months, and Alfred gave him many presents on parting, including the monasteries of Amesbury and Banwell. Later, Asser received a grant of Exeter, and was made Bishop of Sherborne, before 900. [AY]
Buy Asser's Life of King Alfred

Amadis de Gaula
The Amadis de Gaul is a prose romance of chivalry, possibly Portuguese in origin. Like the Saturday morning serials or pulp novels, these were a series of volumes featuring the heroic adventures of Amadis. The first known version of this work, dating from 1508, was written in Spanish by Garci Ordonez (or Rodriguez) de Montalvo, who claimed to have "corrected and emended" corrupt originals. Internal evidence suggests that the Amadis had been in circulation since the early 14th century or even the late 13th. In Montalvo's version, Amadis was the most handsome, upright, and valiant of knights. The story of his incredible feats of arms, in which he is never defeated, was interwoven with that of his love for Oriana, daughter of Lisuarte, king of England. Many characters in the Amadis were based on figures from Celtic romance, and the work was very like Arthurian legend in spirit.

It differs from the Arthurian cycle in several important respects. Whereas earlier romance had reflected a feudal society, the Amadis invested the monarchy with an authority that heralds the advent of absolutism. And Amadis himself was more idealized than such earlier heroes as Lancelot and Tristan. In the 16th century a number of sequels and feeble imitations appeared, the fashion being given its deathblow by parody early in the 17th century in Miguel de Cervantes' novel Don Quixote (though Cervantes held the original in high esteem). The first English adaptation of the Amadis appeared in 1567; one of the best English translations is an abridged version by the poet Robert Southey, first published in 1803. Since there is no in-print version that I know of, I'd recommend:

Amadis de Gaule and Its Influence on Elizabethan Literature
John J. O'Connor
Rutgers University Press, 1970

which has excerpts from Amadis in translation and

Two Spanish Verse Chap-Books: Romance de Amadis (c. 1515-19), Juyzio Hallado y Trobado (c. 1510)
F. J. Norton and Edward M. Wilson (Editors)
Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Which is a facsimile edition (so it's in Spanish) with bibliographical and textual notes [AY]
Buy Amadis of Gaul
Buy Amadis de Gaule and its influence on Elizabethan literature

Ami and Amile: A Medieval Tale of Friendship, Translated from the Old French
Samuel Danon (Translator), Samuel N. Rosenberg (Editor)
Hardcover
Univ of Michigan Press, 1996
ISBN: 0472096478

This is a prose translation of a Chanson de Geste, a "song of deeds" in verse. The narrative of Ami and Amile recounts the legendary friendship of two valiant knights who are as indistinguishable as twin brothers (but aren't twins -- wait for the next post). Like our buddy Orlando, Ami and Amile serve Charlemagne together, face together the hatred of an archetypal villain, confront the daunting challenges of women and love, and accept extraordinary sacrifices for each other's sake. In addition to the usual adventures (fearsome beasts, magical springs, leprosy, etc.), Ami and Amile deals with the universal themes of friendship and love and the status of women, of sin and punishment, and the moral problem of doing wrong for the right reason. It's surprisingly modern for something that's 700 years old. Like many of the other Chanson, there is a strong Christian subtext to the adventures. Miracles mark the passing of the two knights, and their shared tomb becomes a pilgrims' shrine.

The translation is very readable (I prefer reading prose to poetry), and actually very simple. In addition to the text of the piece, the book includes an introduction on the background, genre, and general sense of the tale. The volume also includes an afterword which examines the medieval work's concept of friendship within a perspective extending back to classical antiquity. [AY]
Buy Ami and Amile

Folktales of the Amur
Dmitri Nagishkin, Emily Lehrman (Translator)
Harry Abrams, Inc., 1980
ISBN 0810909138

For the past 5000 several tribes have lived in the far east region of Siberia, in the forests along the Amur River. They spent their time hunting "soft gold" -- furs of sable, snowy ermine, Manchurian deer, and red fox -- and fishing the rich waters of their river. This is the first (and as far as I know, only) collection of their stories and it is extensive. Thirty-one different stories give a good sampling of the breadth and depth of Amur culture, which is part Chinese, part Russian, and entirely its own. Some stories ("The Strongest in the World") are recognizable from other cultres, but most are completely original. Wonderful stories full of interesting and lively characters and terrific details. [AY]
Buy Folk Tales of the Amur

Ancient Irish Tales
Tom Peete Cross and Clark Harris Slover (Editors)
Barnes & Noble Books, 1936
Library of Congress catalog number 68-20698

This anthology contains:
The Tales of the Tuatha de Danaan (The Mythological Cycle)
The Ulster Cycle
The Cycle of Finn, Ossian, and their Companions
Tales of the Traditional Kings
The Voyage of Bran Son of Febal
Place-name stories

There's lots of material here, over five hundred pages, some of which I hadn't seen before I found this book. I like the book's scope and breadth very much. A few cautions: The stories are all retellings. Each selection in each cycle is introduced separately. In some of the introductions the editors mention the manuscript source or the provenance of the story, but in others they do not. There's a useful bibliography in the back that lists the source of the translation for each of the selections, which Cross and Slover then edited/corrected. That being said, Cross and Slover were early-century Ireland scholars who compiled this collection for use by their students at the University of Chicago, and it seems to be trustworthy. [AoF]
Buy Ancient Irish Tales

Anglo-Saxon Poems
James M. Garnett (Translator)
Ginn & Company
Boston, MA 1911

It contains the following:

The Elene (or Helena), a poem by Cynewulf, an eight-century Anglo-Saxon poet, about the journey of the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, to Palestine to find the True Cross.

Judith, heroic verse based on the apocryphal book of Judith (and mentioned in another post as part of an anthology)

The Athelstan, or the Fight at Brunanburh, more heroic verse about a battle between the armies of King Athelstan and Constantine, in which Athelstan prevailed.

The Dream of the Rood, not a narrative but a contemplates the glory of the True Cross, which appears to the narrator in a dream.

Can you tell I frequent a research library? I keep hoping to find a verse translation in a more current publication, but this is the one I have been using (I have it out of the library right now). [AoF]

There are various other editions covering this area.

A more recent effort in modern English is:
The Earliest English Poems
Michael Alexander (Editor)
Penguin, 1972.

If you're really feeling frisky, try the original Anglo Saxon:
Seven Old English Poems
John C. Pope (Editor)
Norton, 1981. [MI]
Buy The Earliest English Poems
Buy Seven Old English Poems

Anglo-Saxon Prose
Michael Swanton (Editor)
J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London/Rowan & Littlefield, NJ, 1975
ISBN 0-87471-545-8

This small hardcover is a mixed source for stories. Some of the material in it is completely unsuitable for culling stories from -- largely the sections entitled "Legal" and "Documentary" prose, as well as the sermons. Some of the sermons, notably the two by the Blickling Homilist contain parables that might be workable, but for the most part the gems from this are the pieces "Two Northern Voyages" (an updating of a fifth-century history, written under the reign of King Alfred c. A.D. 890), the story of "Apollonius of Tyre", and the collection of old English proverbs. There's also a translation of Bald's Leechbook, a handbook on making medicines, which has some great details that could be used as color for a story set in Anglo-Saxon England.

The translations are fairly lively and the annotations are extensive. Some of the material is simply to matter-of-fact or inappropriate to make good story material, however the material mentioned above, in addition to the fact that this is such a focused source in time and place makes this a nice addition to your library. There seems to be a paperback edition currently in print as part of the "Everyman Classical Library". [AY]
Buy Anglo-Saxon Prose

The Anthology of Medieval German Literature
Wimmer & Jackson (Editors)
The third edition (1998) is available on-line at http://www.nd.edu/~gantho/anth1-163/frames.html

While I believe this excellent primary source is currently out of print, the authors have made their work available on The Web at the address above. This is a comprehensive collection of German literature, covering the period from roughly A.D. 750 until the end of the 16th century. It includes many famous works -- such as Gottfried von Straßburg's "Tristan" and The Nibelungenlied -- as well as a variety of many more obscure works. Be warned: a lot of this material, especially the later writings, aren't useful to a storyteller: there's a lot of spiritual and liturgical writings once you get into the "Later Medieval Literature" (c.1230 - 1500), but there are hundreds of pages of useful material before that.

CAVEAT: This is a PRIMARY source -- it's in German. There are extensive notes and commentary in English, but these are, for the most part, NOT translations of the works. [AY]

Arab Folk Tales
Iner Bushnaq
Pantheon, 1986.
I enjoy this book. Supernatural events, women outwitting the restrictions of traditional society, heroes and criminals, articulate animals...it's all there. It is not clear how many of these are "period", but the bibliography at the end seems to indicate that these are collections of genuine folk tales. I also noticed that some of the stories echo Aesop, who was certainly translated with great enthusiasm into Arabic during our "period". [MI]

Ars Versificatoria (The Art of the Versemaker)
Matthew of Vendome, Roger Parr(Translator)
Marquette University Press, 1981

Matthew of Vendome was a pedant and grammarian. We know little about him, and what little we do know is tainted by the fact that its source -- a writer named Arnulf -- was one of Mathew's great rivals. Ars... was composed no later than 1175 and is a treatise in Latin on the writing of poetry. No original versions of the work exist, and the specific translation mentioned above is based on three different versions -- all well pre-1600.

Matthew is long-winded and loves to hear himself talk. Nonetheless, this edition -- which is extemely well-annotated -- is an excellent peek into the knowledge and world-view of a 12th century intellectual. Since Matthew uses selections from Ovid and other ancient writers, we can tell which of them were being read in the Middle Ages. Since Matthew points out bad techniques as well as good, we can tell which writers were preferred (at least by Matthew).

While this is not a good source for stories, it is an excellent source for anyone who wants to compose in a period style. [AY]
Buy Ars Versificatoria

Aucassin and Nicolette and other tales
Pauline Matarasso
Penguin Classics, 1971

Today's serving is a selection of sophisticated stories from 13th century France. These pieces are very self aware. Disdaining the magic and exoticism of an earlier age, they are "realistic" and conscious of the earlier tradition. The story of Aucassin in particular is almost a satire on the excesses of the courtly style. Watch for the Land of the Topsy Turvy and the theme of the sane man in a loony bin. [MI]
Buy Aucassin and Nicolette (Lang translation)
 
Back to Table of Contents

Contents © 1999-2006 Alex Newman for the Carolingian Storytellers Guild