Epics, picaresques, and proto-novels: narrative fiction up to 1700

This list is essentially a continuation of my earlier list of ancient narrative literature. It picks up the thread in the early Middle Ages and cuts it off in the year 1700.

Once again, my intention was to make it a more attractive alternative to assorted “great books” rankings. More often than not, they are a jumble of texts from various genres that is at once confusing and overly selective. At the very least, my own biases when compiling this list were slightly more original than usual. They can be summed up as follows:

  • narratives only: this means stories, written either in prose or in verse, but no straight-up lyrical poetry, drama, or philosophy;
  • underdogs welcome: while a significant portion of the works included belong to the undisputed canon of world literature, I searched my sources for quirky, lesser-known texts that don’t necessarily qualify as masterpieces, but are nevertheless interesting for one reason or another;
  • a premium on the fantastic: because I like literary works that incorporate elements of myth, legend, and fancy, I consulted many sources that deal specifically with the history of fantasy and the earliest examples of science fiction.

After some consideration, I decided to include several of what can be called early “novels of ideas” or treatises embedded within some frame stories. Since these are either utopias or highly symbolic esoteric works, they can be studied and enjoyed for their imaginativeness rather than their abstract content.

Whenever possible, I tried to link to contemporary and highly regarded translations of the texts that were not originally written in English; of course, very often more than one such translation is available, and it’s best to research and compare them before making a choice.

The list