Think about the types of people who lived and chronicled throughout the whole of the Middle Ages. Royalty, knights, clergy, artisans, merchants, scholars of all stripes. Consider some of the names of the era: Peter Abelard, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, William of Tyre, Roger Bacon, Anna Comnena, Pope Pius II, Thomas Becket, Heloise, Lorenzo Ghiberti, St. Francis of Assisi, John of Salisbury, Pope Gregory X, Frederick Barbarossa, Giovanni Boccaccio, Francesco Petrarca, Margery Kempe, and towards the end of the era, the great Leonardo da Vinci. Now imagine that all of these people and more besides could tell you of their world in their own words. Would that be worth something to you?
The Portable Medieval Reader was catered and published in 1949 by James Bruce Ross and Mary Martin McLaughlin, and it has seen some updates through the years up to 1977 as a wealth of both original Medieval writings and new histories for further suggested reading were made more readily available. Within are writings from the greatest minds of the Middle Ages on a variety of topics covering the depth and breadth of the era. Monastic orders, knighthood and chivalry, Christianity, the working class and peasant revolts, the nobility, first contact between the Crusaders and the Turks, the Hundred Years War, the Great German Pilgrimage, the arts, the rediscovery of Greco-Roman philosophies and laws, the rules of Courtly Love, the Silk Road and the court of Kublai Khan, letters, songs, poetry… it’s all here. All of these are firsthand accounts from the men and women who not only witnessed history, but helped to shape our understanding of it.
The writings within are relatively short; think of them as Ye Olde Medieval Blog Posts. They’re essentially excerpts from larger sources, and naturally, all of those sources and their translators are offered. And there are a lot of these excerpts to choose from. Clocking in just shy of 700 pages, this thick little tome has been my constant bedside companion for months now, something for contemplation in the small hours when insomnia strikes.
It turns out that Penguin Books has a number of volumes from The Viking Portable Library from other eras. I will most assuredly be investing in these little treasure troves. I can tell you The Portable Renaissance Reader and The Portable Enlightenment Reader will arrive this week, that’s how impressed I am with this collection.