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Topics in Medieval Lit.

ENGL 220.301
instructor(s):
MW 3-4:30

This course will concentrate on English and Scottish texts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (to be read in Middle English and Middle Scots). In examining medieval texts of chivalry, we will closely examine ways in which certain models of masculinity come to be constructed. A medieval knight was typically gentle, courteous, well-mannered, and sensitive: he frequently wept and often swooned. At the same time he was violent, vindictive, and unforgiving. Such a split personality is famously represented by Chaucer's Knight (in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales), who is said to be as meek and mild as "a mayde" (virgin); he has also killed at least eighteen men in single combat. This split is further symbolized in the difference between the outside of a shield (presenting spikes or heraldic devices to the enemy) and the inside (which might contain a portrait of the knight's beloved, or of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for the knight to gaze upon). The peculiarities of such masculine gender construction had important consequences, of course, for the women who attempted to live with such men.

The values of chivalry often seemed to be at odds with the values of the medieval Church; but the Church could not easily renounce the doomed fantasy of reconquering the Holy Land. And the rigid behaviors of the knightly caste, who thought of themselves as the class best suited to exercise political power, often frustrated the ambitions of an emergent mercantile culture; but merchants often liked to imagine themselves as knights setting forth ('merchant venturers,' 'captains of industry') who proved gentle and courteous (rather than calculating and money-grubbing). Chivalry, in short, exerted a terrific grip on the imaginations of all social classes in the Middle Ages and well beyond. As late as World War I, millions of young men were exhorted to go forth and fight for 'England and St. George' (and to protect the motherland); and the US Marines are still looking for 'a few good men.'

Texts to be read in this course will probably include the following: Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde; Henryson, Testament of Cresseid; Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida; anon., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Malory, Morte Darthur. Assignments for each class will not be too long (no more than c. 1,000 lines of verse), since most students will be reading Middle English for the first time. Assessments will begin with language quizzes or translation and comment exercises; later assignments will give more scope for independent expression in essay form.