Bestsellers and masterpieces

The changing medieval canon

Bestsellers and masterpieces: the changing medieval canon addresses the strange fact that, in both European and Middle Eastern medieval studies, those texts that we now study and teach as the most canonical representations of their era were in fact not popular or even widely read in their day. On the other hand, those texts that were popular, as evidenced by the extant manuscript record, are taught and studied with far less frequency. The most dramatic demonstration of this disparity can be found in the surprising number of medieval texts now regarded as ‘masterpieces’ that have survived in but a single copy, an unicum manuscript. On the European side this list includes Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Book of Margery Kempe, the Oxford Song of Roland, Hildebrandslied and El Poema de mio Cid. On the Arabo-Mediterranean side examples include Ibn Hazm’s Ṭawq al-ḥamāma (The Neck-Ring of the Dove), Usāma ibn Munqidh’s Kitāb al-I‘tibār (Memoirs of Usama ibn Munqidh) and ‘Abd Allāh Ibn Buluggīn’s Kitab al-Tibyan (Autobiography of Ibn Buluggin), works that enjoy a canonical status in the study of Arabic literature comparable to that of the European examples cited above in the West. Bestsellers and masterpieces provides cross-cultural insight into both the literary tastes of the medieval period and the literary and political forces behind the creation of the ‘modern canon’ of medieval literature.

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