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Topics in Literature

ENGL 016.302
instructor(s):
TR 1:30-3

Six hundred years ago, in September 1399, King Richard II was forced from the throne of England by Henry Bolingbroke; soon after he was murdered in Pontefract Castle. Geoffrey Chaucer, poet and servant to King Richard, survived the death of his master and was awarded a pension by Bolingbroke (now King Henry IV). But Chaucer survived only until October 1400. Chaucer scholar Terry Jones (of �Monty Python�) claims he was murdered: whatever the case, it will be fascinating to see how-- as our own century comes to an end-- an earlier century experienced PMT (pre-millennial tension).

In this course we will learn to read, and to read aloud, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English. Chaucer always expected his work to be read aloud, in groups, so we will attempt to rediscover the original pleasures of performance. We will see how pilgrims, group of men and women from all social classes, come together to regulate their own affairs. We will spend some time looking at Flemish painting, particularly the surreal imagery of Hieronymous Bosch and the peasant and carnivalesque worlds of Peter Bruegel. Each student will eventually write an independent research paper that brings insights from other disciplines (anthropology, alchemy, gender theory, queer theory, history of science, astronomy, medicine, religion, history of art, etc.) to the analysis of poetry. Early course assignments (language tests, critical commentary papers, book reports) will help build familiarity and confidence with Chaucer�s Middle English. The writing of the final long paper will be approached through brain-storming sessions, the writing of outlines, and the sharing of ideas in class; such a paper cannot be written 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. Although the language may seem intimidating at first, assignments are correspondingly light: about 14 pages or 800 lines of poetry, on average, per class. The aim is to read a little intensively rather than to read a lot in a hurry.

Required text: The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson
Recommended: David Wallace, Chaucerian Polity