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Classical Reception in the Middle Ages: The Matter of Thebes

ENGL 715.401
crosslisted as: CLST 610, COML 714
instructor(s):
Fridays 12-3:00 pm
fulfills requirements:
Sector 1: Theory and Poetics of the Standard Major
Sector 5: 19th Century Literature of the Standard Major

Bad things happened at mythical Thebes:  it was ill-starred from the start.  Most famously, it was the kingdom that Oedipus came to rule, and where his unknowing patricide and incest spawned destructive civil war (over a “paltry kingdom”) and bitter fratricide.  This is the chaotic world that Statius depicted so brilliantly and painfully in his Thebaid.  Early and later medieval readers were by turns fascinated and repelled by the Theban story they received from Statius, but fascination with the story overcame repulsion, and Statius himself emerged as one of the most revered of classical authors, second only to Virgil. In this seminar we will read the Thebaid and other mythographical sources on the Theban legend that were available to medieval audiences, and we will trace the receptions of the Theban story through the Middle Ages, from commentaries and citations to vernacular reinventions of the legend and the literary apotheosis of Statius in Dante and Chaucer.  Along the way we will look at the Thebes story in the French Roman de Thebes and the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César.  The Thebes story is embedded and enfolded in medieval understandings of the recursiveness of human history as tragedy (Chaucer’s Troilusand Knight’s Tale), even as that narrative can also be joined up with powerful teleological outlooks (Virgilian imperialism, Boethian transcendence, Christian salvation).  We will look beyond the Middle Ages briefly to the earliest English translation of the Thebaid published in 1648 (a significant year for the Englishing of a classical narrative about civil war).  All texts can be read in their original languages (Latin, French, Italian) or in English translations, so the readings will be accessible to all interested students no matter what their linguistic backgrounds.

The day and time currently set for this class in the course register system is Friday afternoons; but this is negotiable, and if students desire we can agree on another day and time for the course as long as we stay clear of other schedule conflicts.