ENGL 4476: Studies in Medieval Culture

Fall term 2017  ||    Tuesday and Thursday 4:30 – 5:45   ||   half unit of credit


This course explores the literature of the European Middle Ages between approximately 1100 and 1500. Using gender as a category of analysis, we will examine constructions of sexual difference, class, and cultural alterity in texts written by women and about women. Beginning with troubadour lyrics written by women and some of the short romances and fables of Marie de France in the twelfth century, we will examine the social and political conditions that gave rise to what modern critics have sometimes called “courtly love.”

We will then move on to the influential thirteenth-century text, The Romance of the Rose, whose idealized and misogynistic representations sparked an intense debate about women in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in which the writer Christine de Pisan was a leading figure. We will look at her fiction, mainly The Book of the City of Ladies, which serves as an extended commentary on the debate from a woman’s point of view. Geoffrey Chaucer’s responses to The Romance of the Rose in his shorter texts, such asThe Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” and The Parliament of Fowls, will lead into our study of the sexual politics of romance in his major work, Troilus and Criseyde.

We will also examine women’s roles in Christian mysticism through the writings of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich as well as the representation of women and racialized others in encounters between Christians and Jews or Saracens in Chaucer’s “Man of Law’s Tale,” “Prioress’s Tale,” and in the anonymous work, The Sultan of Babylon.

Throughout the term, our study of these texts will be supported with excerpts from biblical commentaries, legal codes, penitential handbooks, clerical satires, natural philosophy, and with visual and musical arts. All of the readings will be in modern English translations except for Chaucer’s works and The Sultan of Babylon, which we will read in Middle English (with the help of some glossaries and translations – no previous knowledge of Middle English is expected).

In general, this course should develop your knowledge of the complexity of late medieval European culture that goes far beyond current clichés about the medieval. In recognizing what is both different and familiar in this period in western history, you will attain a greater understanding of our contemporary culture and the ideologies that sustain it.

Please check back here for more details about texts, evaluation, and course policies in the months ahead.