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Topics in Medieval Literature

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

The late fourteenth century was an enormously exciting and creative period in the history of English literature. The English vernacular had elbowed out Latin and French as England's literary language, and for the first time in centuries, people were reading and writing in the language that they spoke. Consequently, many medieval writers were at once boldly experimental and extremely nervous about the status and function of their work.

This course examines the moral, political, and aesthetic issues that plagued late medieval writers - issues that curiously resemble our own ambivalence towards electronic texts and the Internet. What authority do vernacular writers possess, and which models should they emulate (the Bible, the law)? Which subjects may they legitimately discuss (politics, religion, sex) and which are inappropriate or too dangerous? What audience should they address (clergy vs. laity), and what audience should they take pains to avoid (peasants, women, heretics)? How should they go about inventing new vocabularies and genres in English (think about the confusing conventions of e-mail). And finally, how may vernacular writers "publish" their work in a manuscript culture, a culture in which there was no copyright laws and a lot of wayward scribes?

To investigate these questions, we will read a wide variety of literary works including medieval drama (political and raunchy), the Book of Margery Kempe (the first English "autobiography"), Chaucer's Parlement of Fowls (birds discuss marriage), Lollard (heretical) literature, the rebel poetry of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt, and the great best-seller of the fourteenth century - Piers Plowman.

Requirements: Participation, weekly responses, oral presentation, one short analytical paper and a longer final paper. Some experience with Middle English is recommended (English 19, 20, 25, or 220).