[This is an article from Cariadoc's Miscellany. The Miscellany is Copyright (c) by David Friedman and Elizabeth Cook, 1988, 1990, 1992. For copying details, see the Miscellany Introduction.]

[ For another list of story-telling sources, please see more medieval stories.]

Period Sources for Story Telling

One of my favorite activities at events is to wander from table to table at a feast or from campfire to campfire at a camping event, telling poems and stories. I know of no better way of pulling people out of the twentieth century, if only for a few minutes-especially if the story is presented as a medieval story told by a medieval storyteller.

Thus, for instance, a Muslim storyteller can follow a recitation of "The Raven Banner" (written by Malkin Grey and based on an incident in Njal Saga), which contains a reference to Odin, with the explanation that Odin is, as he understands it, a Djinn or Demon whom the Northmen worship as a god, thus confounding the unity of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful. In much the same way, a Christian storyteller telling an Islamic story might make some comment concerning the false doctrines of the Paynim. In both cases, the point is not to start a religious argument but to make the teller's world-view into a medieval frame for the medieval tale. This is, incidentally, an entirely period device; both the Indian collections described below and the Nights are structured many layers deep, with stories inside stories inside stories.

The purpose of this article is to suggest to readers who might want to try storytelling for themselves some of the places where period stories are to be found. Some of the sources I cite are collections of stories, others are histories, memoirs, or long tales, containing incidents that can be told as separate stories. Many of the sources are available in a variety of translations. Some can be found in almost any bookstore, others may require a search through a good university library.

For the convenience of story tellers who prefer to tell stories that their personae could have known, I include information on dates and places. It is worth noting, however, that stories travelled far and lasted long. Stories from the Indian collections appear in the Thousand Nights and a Night, the Gesta Romanorum, and the Decameron; the Gesta Romanorum was, in turn, a source for both Chaucer and Shakespeare. Similarly, Apuleius plagiarized parts of his plot from an earlier Greek work-and contributed one story to the Decameron, published some twelve centuries after his death.


[ I have added the URLs for some online versions of most of these. I haven't really looked at which ones are of good quality; if you have a good or bad experience with any of the online sources, please let me know. You will need a djvu client to read some of these -- Gregory Blount ]

The Golden Ass by Apuleius. A lengthy and episodic story written in the second century A.D.

Katha Sarit Sagara (aka The Ocean of Story). A very old and very large Indian collection, containing many of the stories found in the Panchatantra.

Panchatantra (aka Fables of Bidpai, Kalila wa-Dimna, The Tales of Kalila and Dimna). A very old Indian collection, possibly dating to 200 B.C. It was translated into Persian in the 6th century, into Arabic (as the Kalila wa-Dimna) in the 8th century, from Arabic into Greek in the 11th century and, a little later, into Hebrew, and from Hebrew into Latin in the 13th century. The first English translation was in the 16th century.

The Thousand and One Nights. The story of Scheherezade, which provides the frame story for the Nights, is mentioned by al-Nadim in the 10th century, but the surviving texts are considerably later, possibly 15th century. The Burton translation (16 volumes!) is a delight; Payne is also supposed to be very good. Anything under eight hundred pages and calling itself the Arabian Nights is likely to be an abbreviated and bowdlerized version, intended for children.

The Table-Talk of a Mesopotamian Judge, by al-Muhassin ibn Ali al-Tanukhi, D. S. Margoliouth, tr. Al-Tanukhi was a tenth century judge who found that the anecdotes people were telling were no longer as good as the ones he remembered from his youth, and decided to do something about it. The book is full of retellable stories, many of them about people the author knew.

An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades: Memoirs of Usamah ibn-Munkidh, Philip Hitti tr. Usamah was a Syrian Emir; his memoirs, dictated in his old age, describe events during the period between the first and second crusades. They are entertaining and episodic, hence can easily be mined for stories.

The Shah-nameh of Ferdowsi, the Khamseh of Nizami, the Sikander-nama. These are all famous works of Persian literature, and should have bits that can be excerpted as stories. I do not know them well enough to recommend particular translations.

Mohammad's People, by Eric Schroeder. This is a history of the early centuries of al-Islam, made up of passages from period sources fitted together into a reasonably continuous whole. It contains one of my favorite stories (the death of Rabia, called Boy Longlocks).

The Bible. It was extensively used as a source of stories in the Middle Ages.

The Koran.

The Travels of Marco Polo.

Gesta Francorum. An anonymous first-hand account of the first Crusade, extensively plagiarized by 12th century writers.

Gesta Romanorum. A collection of stories, with morals attached, intended to be used in sermons; the Latin version dates from about 1300 and the English from about 1400. Its connection with real Roman history is tenuous at best.

The Mabinogion. A collection of Welsh stories written down in the 13th century, apparently based on much earlier verbal traditions.

Boccaccio, The Decameron. 14th century.

Chaucer, Canterbury Tales. 14th century.

Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur. 15th century.

Marie de France, The Breton Lais. Popular 12th century poems, based on Celtic material.

Njal Saga, Egil Saga, Jomsviking Saga, Gisli Saga, Heimskringla, etc. The sagas are histories and historical novels, mostly written in Iceland in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. All of those listed, and no doubt many others with which I am less familiar, contain incidents that can be excerpted as stories. My own favorites include the killing of Gunnar, from Njal Saga, Egil's confrontation with Eric Bloodaxe at York, from Egil Saga, the avenging of Vestan by his young sons, from Gisli Saga, and the encounter between Harold Godwinson and his brother Tostig just before the battle of Stamford Bridge, from Harald Saga (part of Heimskringla).

The Life of Charlemagne by the Monk of St. Gall (aka Notker the Stammerer), included in Two Lives of Charlemagne (Penguin). This is a highly anecdotal "life" written in the ninth century, and covering many subjects other than Charlemagne.

The Chansons de Geste. French "songs of deeds." The Song of Roland, the earliest and best, dates from the late 11th century; the translation by Dorothy Sayers is readily available from Penguin and very good. Other well known Chansons de Geste include Ogier the Dane and Huon of Bordeaux. A version of the latter by Andre Norton was published as Huon of the Horn.

Orlando Innamorato (1495) by Boiardo and Orlando Furioso (1516) by Ariosto. These are actually a single story, started by one poet and completed by another. They are a Renaissance Italian reworking of the Carolingian cycle-the stories of Charlemagne and his Paladins. The story (and the characters) jump from Paris to London to Tartary, with or without intermediate stops. The tale is well supplied with magic rings, enchanted fountains, flying steeds, maidens in distress, valorous knights, both male and female, and wicked enchanters, also both male and female.

Ovid's Metamorphoses. An important source of Greek and Roman myths for Renaissance writers.

[An earlier form of this appeared in Tournaments Illuminated, No. 81, Winter 1986]

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir