Did They Have Fan Fiction in the Middle Ages? (GP)

In this exciting installment of Google Penance, we learn that Google served some poor soul my post on the difficulty of finding a good e-text of the Aeneid with Yahoo! when what they wanted to know was, “Did They Have Fan Fiction in the Middle Ages?”

For those of you who don’t troll the darker depths of the internet, “fan fiction” or “fanfic” is a term used to describe stories written in or about another author’s world, primarily stories that involve two characters from said world having sex, especially if said characters were very unlikely to have had sex in the original work.*

So, did they have fan fiction in the Middle Ages? The answer is “yes,” though their tastes tended less towards slashfic (the improbable pairings mentioned above) and more toward self-insertion fanfic, the variety in which the author of the derivative work makes themselves a character in the original fictional world, usually a character who is so much better at everything that the characters in the original did, mostly those characters exist just to say things like, “Wow, Author of this Fanfic, you are so pretty and smart and good at riding dragons and fixing warp cores, I don’t know why nobody will go to prom with you. They are fools, fools I say!”**

John Lydgate is the worst medieval offender that I can think of off the top of my head. For the prologue to his Siege of Thebes, he wrote himself into Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

And so while the pilgrims were
At Canterbury, well lodged one and all,
I don’t know what to call it,
Luck or Fortune — in the end
That led me to enter into that town
To visit the holy saint humbly
After my sickness, to fulfill my vows
In a robe of black–not of green!
[i.e. Not dolled up like Chaucer’s monk!]
On a slender young horse, long and lean,
With a rusy bridle not worth a dime
[Again, hey, look, at me, I’m much more devout than some monks.]
My servant before me, his purse empty,
Having just by a stroke of luck booked me at the same inn,
Where the Pilgrims were lodged, every last one!

Chaucer seems to have attracted this sort of activity more than other writers–or possibly, we modern readers are more interested in tracking down this sort of thing when it’s done to a writer we admire as much as Chaucer. Chaucer left a lot of gaps in the Canterbury Tales, and other writers stepped up to fill them, writing tales for the poor Ploughman who never got one in the original, an extra tale for both the Merchant and the Cook, and a whole story about what the Pilgrims did once they got to Canterbury. Robert Henryson, a 15th-century Scottish writer, went so far as to write a sequel to Chaucer’s earlier work, Troilus and Criseyde, in which he punishes Criseyde for all the things Chaucer had her do to poor, noble Troilus.

Serious medievalists may take issue with my characterizing the Chaucerian continuations as fanfic, and yes, I’m being a bit glib here. Nonetheless, the thing that always strikes me about medieval writing is how densely referential and intertextual it all is. Of course, my interest in hyper-referentiality is narcissistic, because being unable to finish a sentence without mentioning Mr. T or Mr. Belvedere or some other piece of pop culture detritus is one of the supposed defining characteristics of Generation-X (generation mine) and the eldest members of whatever you want to call the next generation.*** Yet anyone who’s read the Canterbury Tales knows that the thing needs footnotes aplenty just to begin to get all the inside jokes and pop cultural references. Chaucer may not be obsessed with the A-Team or Strawberry Shortcake, but he’s still unable to get through a paragraph without a sly aside that requires you to have read the Romance of the Rose or Boethius in order to understand.

I think medieval courses might have even higher enrollments if we would just get over it and admit that Chaucer shares as much of an affinity with South Park Robot Chicken and the Simpsons Family Guy as he does with Shakespeare.****

*In the early nineties, these two characters would invariably be Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Even elaborate multi-part Pride and Prejudice / Shirt Tales crossovers would interrupt the touching tête-à-tête between Elizabeth Bennet and Bogey Orangutan by having the two discover while strolling through Pemberly Woods two rumpled Star Fleet uniforms laid one atop the other, one blue, one gold. As the nineties gave way to the aughties, trends shifted, and Harry Potter characters came to supplant Spock and Kirk, but the basic pattern remained the same.
**Don’t let my facility with the form fool you into believing that I myself have dabbled in fanfic. I once had an idea for a Benson/Aliens crossover, but somebody stole it and made it into Half-Life 2 and that soured me on the project.
***My longtime favorite definition of Gen-X comes from a 2003 Salon article: “Although there has been some debate since as to what age group actually makes up Gen X, most sociologists now agree that Americans born between 1961 and 1981 qualify, with extra bonus points going to anyone who remembers the names of the human characters on “Land of the Lost” (Sleestaks don’t count) and who can rattle off all of Ted McGinley’s sitcom credits.”
****Final sentence altered to update the reference for Gen-not-Y-but-not-yet-well-named. A pity I had to lose the alliteration.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jennifer Lynn Jordan

    (remembers writing x-files fan fiction at age 13)

    (shudders)

  • Karl Steel

    Land of the Lost: Marshall, Will, and Holly (on a routine expedition…the greatest earthquake ever known…something something something…their tiny raft [my brother and I run around the room with our hands in the air going ‘aaaaaaaahhhhhhh’]). Thanks a lot. You’ve just made it a whole hell of a lot more difficult to teach today.

  • Steve Muhlberger

    Isn’t all Arthurian romance fan fic?

    Though I can’t think of any Mary Sue Arthurian tales.

  • Got Medieval

    This post originally had a paragraph about Arthurian works as fanfic, but I decided that the Arthurian material isn’t quite a brand in the same way as Chaucer and Dragon Ball Z. It may even be an anti-brand, since so many Arthurian works begin with an attack on other versions of the story.

    Lancelot is totally a Mary Sue, though.

  • Elizabeth

    Come on, if Galahad isn’t a Mary Sue, I don’t understand the concept. He’s better than *everyone*.

  • JustKristin

    I actually wrote and turned in as homework a piece of Dukes of Hazzard fanfic when I was in middle school. Yikes!

  • Lee Kottner

    Baby Boomer fanfic-writer (Phantom Menace) ex-medievalist here. What a great post. But I have to disagree with you about the Arthurian stories not being a brand the same way Chaucer was. Just the fact that people did attack other versions shows there’s a “core” there, and after Malory, there was even a sort of cannon. And all those French and German tales? If that’s not Mary Sue-ing, I don’t know what is: “Look! Our guys can be just as noble as those English savages!”

  • todger

    There’s no *requirement* for fanfic to feature fucking. That said, what about biblical apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, or let’s push it all the way and include the NT and OT too …

    What I want is Archers slash! (Brian Aldridge, Adam and Ian; Ruth Archer and Usha Gupta; Phil Archer and Bert Fry; Jean-Paul and Captain while Jack Woolley calls Peggy …)

  • Chris

    I suppose they’re late antique rather than mediaeval, but how about Dictys Cretensis and Dares Phrygius as Homeric fanfic?

  • Helena

    My brother once wrote, for a school project, a story that was a V/My Little Pony crossover.

    I’m into the Mary Sue self-insertion variety myself, but it’s all in my head. 😉

  • MCroft

    Pretty Good, Karl Steel, but do you remember how they changed it for the 3rd season?

  • The MaD HaCkER

    Gilgamesh and Iccadue anyone?

  • My medieval masters has renaissance bits…

    I’d certainly agree with Lee but go further. I still think French Arthur stuff is direct anti-English propoganda. Gawain (the most directly English of the knights) becomes a womanizer and drunk (Celtic solar hero? His strength waxes and wanes with the sun like in the battle with Marhalt.). Arthur is a cuckold sitting at home whilst others (French – Yvain, Lancelot, Eric) go out and have adventures. Lancelot is an adulterer who commits a crime Philip and Gautier d’Aunay were broken by the King of France for but yet he is the great hero. Definite anti-English propoganda.

    The fan-fic accusation is a fair one (stripped of its automatic perjorative connotations). I’m with Lewis and Vinaver one this one. The idea of writing “new” stories was not something that had the same meaning to these writers. The tales they re-told were classics, authorities almost. The skill came in presenting these tales in a new setting that emphasised how great the tale was. The praise for your story showed you had done a good job presenting it. I’m paraphrasing from memory here from The Rise of Romance but most of medieval writing was fan led. People re-presented stories they admired and wanted to bring to further audiences. This does not in anyway detract from the skill and artistry of Malory, the Gawain poet, Chretien, the writers of any number of Horn’s, the guys behind Sir Orfeo or other romances, Chaucer, Dante, Gower and everyone else.

    I think I’ve lost where I’m going here a little as I’m writing this on the fly at work but writing tales in other’s worlds or even writing their stories again had a very different meaning to the one it did now.

    Of course I can’t comment off hand on people putting themselves into stories and neither do I rank most of the people who write these things and publish on the net with Chaucer (although maybe Lydgate…). However, they desire to expand universes they love and probably see their work as enhancing something they love which are motivations medieval writers would probably understand.

    • Palesa Floret

      Well remember Arthur, gwain etc were not English.

  • Brendan M

    Ted McGinley was Marcy Darcy’s husband on Married with Children, I think. No relation to Bartell D’Arcy though, unfortunately.

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