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Topics in Medieval Literature

ENGL 220.301
instructor(s):
TR 12-1:30

This course will focus on the "practices" of being an intellectual in the Middle Ages, and the many forms by which the Middle Ages understood and represented intellectual work. Our readings will include texts from 12th- and 13th-century Europe and 14th- and 15th-century England: autobiographical writings, lyrics, poetic narratives and allegories, and some background readings on medieval ideas of education and modern theories of intellectual labor. The very word "intellectuals" in the title of the course is controversial: did medieval cultures carve out a social role that might correspond with what moderns commonly understand by the word "intellectual"? This is a fundamental question that we can pose of the texts that we read in this class. How did people who performed intellectual work come to see themselves as constituting a distinct or privileged class professionally (especially within the universities), socially, and ethically? How was the privilege of "intellectuals" challenged by "outsiders" who presented competing models of intellectual formation? The directions that we might pursue with these issues can be illustrated by Peter Abelard's autobiographical letter _The Story of His Misfortunes_, which describes the emergence of an autonomous professional identity in the academic milieu of 12th-century Paris; or by Alain of Lille's _Complaint of Nature_ and by some contemporary Parisian student poetry, texts that delineate (quite self-consciously) a normative masculinity and male eroticism associated with intellectual formation and activity; and by later texts that pose challenges to traditional norms of intellectual activity (masculinity, Latinity, academic professionalism), such as Chaucer's _Wife of Bath's Prologue_, Christine de Pizan's _Book of the City of Ladies_, William Thorpe's account of his education at Oxford under the tutelage of John Wyclif, and the autobiographical _Book of Margery Kempe_. Other texts that we will read include the _Memoirs_ of Guibert de Nogent, which recounts his educational formation as a child, Chaucer's _Miller's Tale_, which acutely represents the social competition between university students and town dwellers, and Chaucer's _Prioress's Tale_, which offers a complex "anti-intellectual" account of relationships between learning and belief. We will also read some recent writings by Edward Said on the role and function of intellectuals, and for historical background, a book by Jacques Le Goff, _Intellectuals in the Middle Ages_.