Chaucer’s reading list: Sir Thopas, Auchinleck, and Middle English romances in translation

Geneviève Receiving King Mark’s Letter, by the Master of the Vienna Mamerot. Romance of Tristan; France, Bourges? dated 1468. Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.41, f. 24v (detail).Chaucer’s reading list: Sir Thopas, Auchinleck, and Middle English romances in translation

Ken Ekert (University of Nevada, Las Vegas)

University of Nevada, Las VegasDoctor of Philosophy in English, Department of English College of Liberal Arts, Graduate College, May (2011),UNLV Theses/Dissertations/Professional Papers/Capstones. Paper 1036.


Middle English romance has never attained critical respectability, dismissed as ―”vayn carpynge” in its own age and treated as a junk-food form of medieval literature or kidnapped for political or psychoanalytical readings. Chaucer‘s Tale of Sir Thopas has been explained as an acidly sarcastic satire of the romances‘ supposedly clichéd formulas and poetically unskilled authors. Yet such assumptions require investigation of how Chaucer and his ostensible audience might have viewed romance as a genre. Chaucer‘s likely use of the Auchinleck manuscript forms a convenient basis for examination of the romances listed in Thopas. With the aid of a modern translation, the poems turn out to form a rich interplay of symbolical, theological, and historical meanings. Viewed in a more sensitive light, the Middle English romances in turn give Thopas new meaning as a poem written affectionately to parody romance but chiefly to effect a humorous contrast. Rather than condemning romances, Chaucer uses their best examples to heighten Thopas‘ comic impotence as a knight and to provide self-deprecating carnival laughter at Chaucer the narrator‘s failed story.

The Medieval Romance and Sir Thopas A wit-besotting trash of books. —Montaigne, on medieval romances.

One frustration of engaging in any branch of European medieval studies as an academic pursuit is that few claim expertise about the ancient or Roman worlds, but seemingly everyone on an internet discussion forum believes him or herself knowledgeable about the medieval period, usually based on patently false beliefs. Outside academia, the popular understanding of the period usually presumes one of two stereotypes. The first is the ̳merry-old-England‘ cliché of the renaissance fair, where undergraduates dress as Vikings with Hagar the Horrible horns and discuss trivial minutiae of medieval weaponry, while flirting with underdressed wenches who serve mead. Hollywood films similarly depict any English century before the nineteenth as one where knights exclaim ―forsooth, varlet‖ in stilted Victorian accents. While puerile and anachronistic, the trope is at least benign in comparison to the second common image of the era, which persistently retains the pejorative mislabel dark ages.

Click here to read this thesis from University of Nevada, Las Vegas

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