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Topics in Chaucer

ENGL 325.301
TR 9-10:30

In this course we will learn to read, and to read aloud, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English. Chaucer's fiction, which sees a disparate group of men and women from all social classes come together to regualte thier own affairs, suggests forms of poltical and cultural freedom inimaginable in Shakespeare's England. We will also consider how the threat of despotic or tyrannical rule -fisrt fully realized in England under Henry VIII- is registered by Chaucer's pilgrims. We will spend a good deal of time looking at Flemish painting, particularly the surreal imagery of Hieronymous Bosch and the peasant and carnivalesque world of Peter Bruegel. And we will attemp to find ways of relating the poetry of Chaucer to the images of these painters. This course will thus be interdisciplinary in scope, moving between literature, history, and the visual arts.

Each student will eventually write an independent research paper that brings insights from other disciplines (anthropology, alchemy, gender theory, history of science, astronomy, medicine, religion, etc.) to the analysis of poetry and painting. There will be a number of earlier assignments (language tests, critical commentary papers) that precede this final paper: but this long paper will carry most of the grade for the course. The writing of this long paper will be approched through brainstorming sessions, the writing of outlines, and the sharing of ideas in class; such a paper cannot be writen overnight.

No text in the English language contains such generic and thematic variety as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales; every student will find something compelling to write about. Topics to be discussed in class include: chivalry and militarism, male bonding, female friendship, salvation and damnation, the absurdity of evil (or, why medieval devils are not frightening), antisemitism, views of Islam, female eloquence (and masculine anger), the origins of capitalism, and sex up a pear tree.

Required texts: The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson
Walter Gibson, Hieronymous Bosch
Walter Gibson, Bruegel
Recommended: David Wallace, Chaucerian Policy