(Original post by QHF)
Now, now. I heard a gripping paper on Hoccleve last night and... I'm, er, sure that Lydgate has his virtues. Um.
Aeschylus makes a good point about the sheer length of time we're dealing with. At the first lecture I went to as an undergrad, the lecturer pointed out that while Chaucer has often been used as the 'father' of English literature, he's chronologically just slightly after the midpoint of the history of literature written in English (or in England).
Le Morte Darthur
This is sort of what I was aiming at in my first post, possibly. It was only when I was made to read medieval literature that I noticed how much of English studies is dominated by two things: the shorter lyric poem (especially the Romantic poem) and the novel (especially the nineteenth-century novel). Of course these are both really important things which deserve study, but I think they tend to control our approach to other material too, so we wind up reading, say, Shakespeare with an essentially novelistic interest in character and narrative, or going into Donne or Milton expecting the same mechanics and purposes we've observed in the Romantics.
Now, that can be a perfectly legitimate way to proceed, but I think you need to think through why you're choosing that way and not any other option. And medieval writing is very good at pointing out the other options and expanding the way you enjoy reading. I remember reading the Song of Roland when I was a first year, enjoying it immensely, and then stopping and realising that the overall narrative held little interest for me, the characters were ciphers and the poem's thought-world was in modern terms bigoted. So why was it such fun, and why did I think it was good? The other, less arcane and less marginal bits of English studies aren't as good at forcing you to confront this sort of question, though I think if you work hard enough you can still get through to the same issues.
Also -- and this is a very personal view -- because it's pretty premodern, a lot of medieval writing offers all the fun of postmodern thinking with a lot less of the crap. I think this is clearest when you tackle material transmission: finding ways to deal with and argue about the fact that your text survives in, say, three differently-produced manuscripts, in different versions, from different dates, is just much more enjoyable
than raiding volumes of badly-translated French theory for quotable sentences about text's instability which everyone pretends to understand because admitting that you're too thick for Theory in the middle of a seminar is kind of embarrassing. (I'm not bitter at all, not I.)