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Medieval Women and Writing

ENGL 020.001
instructor(s):
TR 9-10:30

This course will consider both the writings of medieval women authors and the relations of all medieval women to writing and literary representation. Some texts will be read in Middle English (from an anthology, with lots of editorial help) but most will be read in modern translation. Texts for consideration include Trotula (an Italian midwife, translated in an Oxford manuscript) who writes on telling the differences between women and men, on the complications of childbirth, on infertility, and on recipes (modern cookbooks derive from medieval medicine. We will read of Bridget of Sweden (who advises her nuns to wear furry boots) and Catherine of Siena (who refuses to become an in-house mystic at the papacy, like Bridget). Christine de Pisan writes of how women founded civilization, and of the continuing importance of higher education for women; Julian of Norwich, a woman with a man's name, proclaims that "Jesus is our mother." Margaret Paston runs the household and holds off invaders during the Wars of the Roses (while her menfolk are away litigating in London); another Margaret has a vision of the pains of Purgatory. Other women we may hear from include Mechtild of Hackeborn, Gertrude the Great, Joan the Meatless and Christina the Astonishing.

Two vocations for medieval women will be considered in particular detail: the enclosed recluse and the reader of romances. The female anchoress was walled away for life, following a ceremony much like a funeral: dead to the world, she occupied an abjectly restricted but powerfully liminal space between heaven and earth. The project of "enclosing" women continues, in different ways, through the reading of romances. The writing of romances was typically justified as providing entertainment for women: rather than walking abroad, women should stay home and read of courtly "aventure." Such plans for women were often, in various and comical ways, subverted by women (as in Boccaccio's "Decameron"). We will read Dante's account of falling in love in the "Vita nuova" and consider the roles ascribed to (and strategies employed by) women in two great Arthurian romances-- "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" and Malory's "Morte Darthur." And we will read the first autobiography in the English language, "The Book of Margery Kempe," which tells how a a businesswoman and mother of thirteen children negotiated her own independence and travelled the world.

By recovering the particularities of medieval female experience, we will also come to understand the peculiarities of medieval masculinity. Men will hence be further relieved from carrying the illusory burden of universal subjecthood (i.e. the notion that heterosexual masculinity stands in for, and has always stood in for, human experience).