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Gender, Revolt, and Heresy

ENGL 220.301
instructor(s):
MWF 10-11

In the 14th and 15th centuries England was the site of a remarkable series of crises: the plague decimated the population, leading to labor tensions that culminated in the "Peasants' Revolt" of 1381 in which the Archbishop of Canterbury was beheaded; the Parliament of 1388 led to the deaths of close advisors of King Richard II; and John Wyclif's revolutionary beliefs concerning the role of the church in contemporary society--including the project of translating the Bible into English, something we take for granted today--spawned the "Lollard" heresy, something of a "premature reformation." This course will examine the texts that both constituted and grew out of these crises, ranging from poems by Chaucer and Langland to historical chronicles, polemical tracts by the leaders of the Revolt of 1381, Lollard treatises and sermons, and the ever-fascinating *Book of Margery Kempe*. As we shall see, at the heart of these crises is the question of "gender": should women be permitted to read? Does the vernacular in which Chaucer and others composed constitute a "feminine" activity that subverts the God-given order of things? Should the wandering Margery Kempe be locked in a nunnery rather than going on pilgrimage? Such questions, which recur throughout such works, will guide our mapping out of late-medieval politics and society. Some readings will be in translation, some in Middle English; in lieu of exams students will develop an extensive project--whether a standard research paper or something else equally substantive (e.g., a web site)--on a topic of their choice.