Medieval Literature
Federigo’s Falcon
Author: Giovanni Boccaccio (1314-1375)
Genre: Short Story; Frame Story
Source: Decameron – A collection of 100 stories
using the literary device of framing; Chaucer
imitated Boccaccio’s frame structure in The
Canterbury Tales.
Importance: Reveals medieval attitudes about
love, marriage, chivalry, and separation between
• Begins with a description of the Bubonic Plague
(specifically the epidemic that hit Florence, Italy
in 1348).
• Leads into an introduction: 7 young women and
3 young men flee plague-ridden Florence to a
villa in the countryside for two weeks.
• To pass the time, each character tells one story
for each night at the villa. Fourteen days pass
but two days each week are set aside: one for
chores and one holy day.
• 100 stories are told by the end of the ten days.
(Decameron = “10 days”)
Background (cont’d):
• Each character is “King” or “Queen” for one of the
ten days in turn, to choose the theme of the stories
for the day.
• Each day includes a short introduction and
conclusion describing the day’s activities.
• In the whole of the collection, Boccaccio imitates a
variety of previous material and forms. His stories
mock the greed of the clergy, reveal tensions
between classes, and portray the perils and
adventures of travel.
• Topics: power of fortune; the power of human will;
love tales that end tragically; love tales that end
happily; tricks that people play on one another;
stories of virtue.
Monna Giovanna’s son becomes seriously ill
and asks his mother for one thing only to
make him happy—Federigo’s Falcon.
Monna goes to Federigo’s farm to ask for it.
Because Federigo has nothing to serve so
great a woman (with whom he has been in
love), he roasts his beloved falcon & serves
it to her. He learns the true purpose of her
visit too late, & soon after, the child dies.
After a period of mourning, Monna is urged
to remarry & finally gives her heart to
The Paston Letters
Paston Letters
Author(s): The Paston Family
Genre: Letters—First person; personal; include
dates (often reference to a season or a holy
day), salutations, signature.
Source: 1,000 documents and letters of the
Paston Family, an English landowning family.
Importance: Reveal various details regarding
business affairs, property matters, legal
disputes, the plague’s effect on people, the
importance of arranged marriages.
 The Paston family rose from the peasantry to the
aristocracy within just two generations.
 Their letters are the first record of private
correspondence to survive in Britain.
 They offer a unique glimpse into the concerns and
fears of a very upwardly mobile family at a time of
huge social upheaval.
 They show first-hand testimony of the social
benefits the plague brought to the peasantry, the
chaotic effects of the Wars of the Roses on the
general populace and the individual impact that
the Black Death could have on a family.
Letter I – Margaret Paston explains to her husband, John,
that she has fled the family estate at Gresham after learning
that it may be attacked by Lord Moleyns.
Letters 2 & 3 – Margaret describes events at another Paston
estate, Hellesdon, where the Duke of Suffolk has attacked.
Some of the servants and supporters are captured. The
Duke of Norwich orders all who support John I to be arrested.
Margaret writes of the expenses and troubles each day
brings and urges John to settle his business in London and
return as soon as possible.
Letter 4 – Written from Richard Calle (the Paston’s bailiff) to
Margery Paston (John and Margaret’s daughter). Richard
and Margery were secretly engaged, despite opposition from
family. Richard expresses his love to Margery and his
concern for the trouble she faced because of him. This letter
is the only piece of correspondence between them to survive.
Summary (cont’d):
Letter 5 – Margaret Paston writes to her oldest son, John II,
regarding her disapproval (and disownership!) of her
daughter Margery due to the relationship with Richard Calle.
Letter 6 – A year later, Margaret again writes to son John II,
this time regarding the need for John II to take financial
Letter 7 – John II writes to his mother, Margaret, to ease her
mind regarding John III, who has been injured by an arrow
but is otherwise in good health. He also informs her of the
death of a family friend.
Letter 8 – John II writes to John III seeking more information
about the plague and who has been affected by it. He
advises the family to send the ill to the country.
Author(s): English Commoners; Unknown
Genre: Ballads (Folk Ballads) are narrative poems
originally intended to be sung; usually focus on a
single incident; begin abruptly; use dialogue (&
dialect), repetition, and quatrains (four-line
stanzas). Rhyme scheme is often abcb or aabb.
Source: Oral tradition; Minstrelsy of the Scottish
Border by Sir Walter Scott
Importance: Offer a glimpse of the lives of “ordinary
people.” They are the “true songs of the people.”
Subjects include: tragic love, domestic conflict,
crime, war, and shipwreck.
• No one knows when the first folk ballads appeared in
Britain; probably during the 12th century.
• Unwritten; passed along orally for many centuries.
• Most of the earliest ballads we know of probably date from
the 15th century. At that time, no one paid much attention to
them as literature.
• 1765, Bishop Thomas Percy published Reliques of Ancient
English Poetry. This helped ballads come to be recognized
as a part of Britain's literary heritage.
• Sir Walter Scott, author of Ivanhoe, was influenced by
Percy's Reliques. Scott often traveled to the ScottishEnglish border region to collect material on the subject. His
Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, published in 1803, is a
pioneer work of scholarship on the background and
variations of Scottish ballads.
Background (cont’d):
• “Barbara Allan,” “Sir Patrick Spens,” and “Get Up and Bar the
Door,” originated in this wild, rugged border country between
England and Scotland. Their language is the Scots dialect of
• As they were passed along from person to person, place to
place, and generation to generation, the ballads often
acquired new words and new verses.
• No such thing as a “standard version” of a folk ballad,
because every balladeer feels free to make alterations.
Literally hundreds of versions of "Barbara Allan" have
appeared in print. Folk ballads, with their familiar melodies,
are truly songs of the people.
• Later writers, including Sir Walter Scott, produced literary
ballads in imitation of the traditional ones. Few literary
ballads have had the power of the old folk ballads to capture
and hold the imagination
Summary of “Barbara Allan”:
This ballad focuses on the relationship between a woman
named Barbara Allan and Sir John Graeme. Sir John is in love
with Barbara Allan and when he faces his death bed, he sends
a young man to go get her. She is slow to visit him, and when
she finally does, all she focuses upon is an insult he once made
about her. He dies with his love for her unfulfilled. She leaves
to the sound of his death toll. Famous line: “Since my love died
for me today, I’ll die for him tomorrow.”
NOTE: This ballad has influenced many musicians of modern
culture, including Art Garfunkel, Joan Baez, The Everly
Brothers, Johnny Cash, Pete Seger, Bob Dylan, and Emmylou
Harris, to name a few.
Joan Baez:
Emmylou Harris:
Summary of “Sir Patrick Spens”:
This tragic ballad describes the loss at sea of a Scottish ship, its
commander, and the crew. The king needs a good sailor and is
told by an elderly knight, “Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor /
That sails upon the sea.” When Sir Patrick receives word, he is
upset because it is not a good season for setting sail (most
likely winter or early spring—full of storms). He submits to the
king’s will, however, and he and his crew all die at sea.
Summary of “Get Up and Bar the Door”:
This humorous ballad tells the story of a strong-willed husband
and wife who are both so stubbornly locked in argument that
they ignore common sense as well as danger. On a windy
night, the husband tells his wife to “Gae out and bar the door.”
She replies by saying she’s too busy with chores and that “It’s
no be barrd for me.” They made a deal that the first person to
speak had to go shut the door. At midnight, two burglars arrive.
They eat the couple’s food and then threaten to shave the
husband’s beard off while the other kisses the wife. When they
find no water to use to
shave the man’s
beard he finally speaks
up in protest. The
wife then happily
responds by pointing
out that he’s said the
first word and has to
get up and go bar the
The Book of
Margery Kempe
Author: Margery Kempe (1373?-1439?)
Genre: Autobiography—personal account of the
writer’s life; reveals writer’s attitudes, motivations,
values, and society; usually written in first person
(though Kempe’s is not most likely because of
her view of herself and her humility).
Source: The Book of Margery Kempe
Importance: Earliest known autobiography in
English. Portrays the author’s life as a religious
visionary and recluse; offers another “option” for
medieval women.
• Kempe was the daughter of a respected merchant and
public official; grew up in a wealthy family but was never
given a chance to be educated.
• Married merchant John Kempe in 1393, with whom she had
fourteen children.
• In her twenties, began to have visions in which she talked to
Jesus, Mary, and the Saints. In one vision, Jesus told her to
go deeper in her religious practices.
• Dedicated her life by the call of Jesus in an unusual state by
weeping, screaming and praying for Christians during
religious services. She became so involved that she
detached her daily life from her husband and children and
set out on a long journey ending up in Jerusalem.
• When her pilgrimage comes to an end she dictates her
spiritual autobiography to scribes.
• The Book discusses her marriage, religious conversion, and
many pilgrimages.
Throughout the work, Kemp
refers to herself as “this creature,”
a standard way of saying "this
person, a being created by God.“
Kempe’s work was dictated to
scribes and made into an
illuminated manuscript—a
manuscript in which the text is
supplemented by additional
borders, illustration, and other
Well-known Quote:
“When people think he is far away
from them, he is very near
through his grace.”
Kempe recounts the troubled period before
and after the birth of her first child. After her
child was born, Kempe, thinking that she was
about to die, wanted to confess something
that had long troubled her. As she begins to
confess, her confessor passed judgment on
her, so she would say no more. Soon after,
Kempe “went out of her mind,” having visions
of devils and performing wicked and selfdestructive acts. After many months, she said
Christ appeared to her, assuring her that he
had never forsaken her. Afterward, Kempe
grew calm and resumed her normal daily life.
DiGrado, Elena (2005) and Juliana Kane (1998).. “Margery Kempe.” Women’s
History. King’s College History Dept.
Ibeji, Dr. Mike. “Paston Family Letters.” (October 15, 2010). British History in
Depth. BBC.
Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe. Language of Literature: British
Literature, The. Evansont, Illinois: McDougal Little, 2002.
“Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature.” From: The Norton Anthology of
English Literature, 6th Ed. Vol. 1. , New York: W. W. Norton & Company,
“Medieval Folk Ballads.” BritlitBallads. <>

NOTES - Medieval Literature - Part 1