The Best (and Worst) We've Read
Updated: Oct 4
Sorted by the final rankings in each podcast, here's our master list of the weirdest and wackiest medieval texts for your reading pleasure!
10.0 - Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: there's a reason this chivalric romance is a classic! When the Green Knight storms into King Arthur's court one Christmas with a game in mind, Sir Gawain takes up the challenge. Will Gawain have the courage to uphold his end of the bargain?
9.5 - The Wonders of the East: the Old English text recounting the various places of the "near east" that one may travel to. This text is surprisingly tolerant and diverse for its time, and contains a stunning bunch of illustrations with a surprising amount of booty.
9.0 - The True Judgement of Niall Frossach: a Middle Irish saga which recounts the righteous judgement (fir flatha) of King Niall Frossach of Ireland when he was given a baby and asked a perplexing question by a virgin: "Who's the baby daddy?"
9.0 - The Second Shepherd's Play: a Middle English mystery play in the Wakefield Cycle which focuses on the attempted theft of a sheep instead on the nativity of Christ, this play includes speeches against the rich, magic spells, and whodunnit humor.
8.75 - The Tain Bo Cualinge Pt. 1: The Tain Bo Cualinge is an Old Irish epic - the Irish cultural equivalent to the Greek Iliad and Odyssey, the Latin Aeneid, or the Old English Beowulf. It does seem to lack a certain decorum, but quickly makes up for it with pillow-talk and bawdy humor.
8.5 - The Saga of Eirik the Red: a fascinating Icelandic saga which takes place in Greenland and Vinland, this multi-generational tale features a monopod, a zombie plague, marriage prophecies, and pregnant woman wielding a sword while shaming her family members for fleeing battle.
8.0 - The Great Tang Records of the Western Regions, Pt. 2: Written by buddhist monk Xuanzang, these records contain the folktales of various locations in modern Afghanistan, India, Nepal, and China. This time with more dragons!
7.75 - The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions Pt. 1: Written by buddhist monk Xuanzang, these records contain the folktales of various locations in modern Afghanistan, India, Nepal, and China.
7.5 - The Death of Muirceretach Mac Erca: an Old Irish tale depicting the unfortunate three-fold death of the king of Ireland, after taking on an Otherworldly mistress whose name he can never mention.
7.5 - The Seven Sleepers Tale: a strange hagiography from the early Christian church (and some Muslim traditions), this story tells of seven young men who were encased in a cave after being persecuted for their faith. After falling into a divine sleep, they woke 300 years later, and after some contention with the locals, declare the gospel.
7.5 - Embassy to Constantinople: a snarky and not-at-all peaceful letter about Bishop Liuprand's trip to Contantinople in an attempt to broker a peace treaty between the Holy Roman Empire and the Eastern Empire. It...does not go well.
7.4 - Bisclavert and Tiodel's Saga: these two short tales are retellings of the romance of a werewolf knight whose wife betrays him when she realizes his true form. While the original lai is a classic, the hilarity and drama in the Icelandic version is sure to entertain.
7.0 - The Tain Bo Cualinge, Pt. 3: this section of the Tain includes Cu Chulainn's fight against the Morrigan after he rejects her offer of a tryst. More gods get involved as Lug comes to heal his son's wounds, and we finally get to see Cu Chulainn's horrific warp-spasm in action!
7.0 - The Tain Bo Cualinge, Pt. 4: the final part of the Tain is perhaps the most dramatic; Cu Chulainn goes against his foster brother in battle, Maeb is inconvenienced in battle by menstruation, and Fergus chops the tops of some mountains.
6.5 - The Tournament of Tottenham: a Middle English poem poking fun at both the lower class and chivalric romances of the upper class, wherein a group of young men beat one another in bowl helmets for the hand of Tyb and her dowry, a large supply of livestock.
6.5 - Mac Da Tho's Pig: an Irish tale concerning the king's supernatural dog, and the fight over who should receive the good boy between the Connachta and Ulaid of Ireland. Ultimately, the challenge devolves into a shouting match over who gets the best part of the feast pig, and a fight ensues, resulting in the ransom of the king of Connacht.
6.36 - Gesta Romanorum Pt. 3: our continuation of the extraordinarily moral folktales said to have come from the Roman empire, these tales span a wider period and each include a few laborious pages of exegesis at their end.
7.5 - Tale 28 "On the Execrable Devices of Old Women:" after rejecting a heartsick young man, a local lady is tricked into adultery by an old woman who tells the lady her weeping dog is really her daughter, cursed to be a beast for failing to attend to a heartsick lover.
7.5 - Tale 29: "Of Corrupt Judgement:" after taking a bribe, a corrupt judge is flayed and his skin is used as the cushion on the seat of judgement, which his son must then sit upon.
7.0 - Tale 45: "Of the Good, who Alone will Enter the Kingdom of Heaven:" after the king dies, his four sons are left to determine who would inherit the kingdom. In true medieval fashion, they have an archery contest with their father as the target to determine the kingship.
5.5 - Tale 38: "Of the Precaution Necessary to Prevent Error:" In this story, a city is besieged by its enemies, and a dove arrives with a letter, reading: "The generation of dogs is at hand, it will prove a quarrelsome breed, procure aid and defend yourselves resolutely against it." That's it. That's the tale.
5.0 - Tale 37: "Of Lifting up the Mind to Heaven:" a short and sweet tale about an eagle who protects her nest from a snake's venom by using the magic properties of a garnet.
5.0 - Tale 42: "Of Want of Charity:"Valerius Maximus records seeing a large column in Rome with a prophecy foretelling Rome's doom. How helpful!
7.0 - Tale 44: "Of Envy:"when a crafty artificer shows Emperor Tiberius his new unbreakable glass, Tiberius kills the artificer since he is afraid of what the economic implications of such a new product would be.
6.08 - Gesta Romanorum Pt. 1 & 2: a tome of overly moral folktales with an absurd amount of exegesis at the end of each one, the Gesta Romanorum is a wonderful example of what happens when clerics get a hold of fairy tales and folklore - medieval sermons and censorship galore!
7.5 - Tale 13 "Of Inordinate Love:" after sleeping with her son, a queen gives birth to an incestuous child, and then has to live with the consequences of her sin. Instructions included.
7.25 - Tale 19 "Of Sin & Pride:" This strange story re-tells Julius Caesar's Rubicon crossing and rivalry with Pompey the Great in a very fantasized style.
6.75 - Tale 18 "Of Venial Sin:" Hunting-addicted Julian flees home after encountering a talking deer, who gives him a rather unfortunate prophecy. All seems to go well until his parents pop in for a visit.
6.5 - Tale 125 "Of Women Who not Only Betray Secerts but Lie Fearfully:" When a man makes up a secret to test whether his wife is trustworthy, it gets out of hand very quickly.
5.0 - Tale 20 "Of Tribulation & Anguish:" With layers upon layers of folklore motifs, this tale takes the usual 'orphan to king' model and stuffs as many tropes as possible inside.
3.5 - Tale 12 "A Bad Example:" though this story is probably pre-Christian in origin, it moralizes the consequences of skipping church, even if you have a bad priest.
5.0 - Tain Bo Cualinge, Pt. 2: while this section of the Tain explains Cu Chulainn's wild childhood, it contains a large section of listed deaths and place-names, making it more tiresome than we'd like to recommend.
We do our best to accurately research, source, and cite the works we use, and make them available to you, too! Each episode has a corresponding blog post which includes further breakdowns of the big ideas in each text as well as cites our sources and references. We also have the Maniculum Library, which actively collects resources and recommendations for writers, scholars, and geeks alike! We update our collection of Master Lists after each new episode, so be sure subscribe and stay updated!
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