Harvard Classics, Volume 35: Early English Prose

There were three partial works in this volume which covered some of the most important English prose pre-dating Shakespeare. All of these works are very long, and on their own would take up several volumes. So while all of them are important to understanding English culture, they are not so great as to push out other works.

The first partial work was a few excerpts from Jean Froissart’s Chronicles. This work is, in total, about a million words long, and is a contemporary history of the Hundred Years War. The particular events covered are two major battles in France, a border skirmish between the English and Scottish as well as a peasant revolt. These events all take place during the reign of Edward III and Richard II.

As a whole, these show how warfare worked in the late medieval period, and how knights and chivalry worked their way into the brutal business of war. The most interesting thing was the capture and ransom of enemy combatants. Noblemen, decked in armor usually weren’t going to be killed in a fight quickly, and so someone who knew they weren’t going to win would simply surrender. He’d be brought back to camp, agree to pay a ransom, and be let go in order to procure it. Everyone played by these rules, and it made war something of a sporting affair for the upper class.

This type of warfare also made decisive victory difficult. In the Battle of Poitiers, the English captured the French king. This wasn’t great news for France, but the country stayed intact and there was still a negotiated peace rather than an unconditional surrender of French forces. England ended up trading territory with France to consolidate its position, rather than placing Edward onto the French throne, even though the issue of French succession was the cause of the war.

The next partial work is one book out of 21 total from Thomas Malory’s Le Mort D’Arthur covering the quest for the Holy Grail. Malory’s work is the definitive source on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. King Arthur is only a minor character in this portion, with Sir Galahad, Sir Lancelot, and other knights taking their turns in the spotlight.

It is a bit hard to tell what genre this belongs to, whether it is fantasy, historical fiction or some combination. A complicating factor is the tendency for Medieval authors to presume the world has always been like their own time, so it can be hard to place a time period when the setting is clearly medieval, but references make it seem like the world is only a few generations removed from the crucifixion of Christ.

The depth to which Christian themes are embedded in the story is a bit astounding to the modern reader. The fantastic elements exist squarely within an Christian framework and understanding.

An interesting note is that this portion of Le Mort D’Arthur is particularly influential to today for reasons that couldn’t be predicted when it was selected for inclusion in the Harvard Classics. This particular section contains source material for both Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The adventures of the knights seem to have served as the basis for at least a few scenes as well as some of the plot framing in Monty Python. Likewise, much of the lore surrounding the Holy Grail that is introduced in this book is utilized in Indiana Jones. That made the whole section a bit more fun to read, since I was able to connect it to other things.

Finally comes a portion of William Harrison’s A Description of Elizabethan England. These are basically just short essays describing different things about life in that particular time and place — cities and towns, religious life, types of dogs, what people ate, what people wore, etc. For someone inclined towards studying history, you couldn’t ask for a better primary source. The purpose of the writings was to be read by people unfamiliar with his country and come to understand it better. These are well done, thorough, mostly devoid of tangents and includes some humor regarding the times. All and all, it was a very good read.

As entertaining as this volume was, it is time to move on to works from the early 1500s from: Machiavelli, Sir Thomas More and Martin Luther.

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