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Women and Writing: Medieval to the Renaissance

ENGL 220.401
instructor(s):
TR 9-10:30

In this course we'll consider the relationships of women to writing from c. 1220 (Ancrene Wisse, a text written for enclosed religious women) to 1689 (the death of Aphra Behn: we'll read her Oroonoko). We'll concern ourselves with texts written, dictated, inspired or commissioned by women, plus texts written against or forced upon women: texts, in short, that helped shape the possibilities of medieval women's lives. The course's 'center of gravity' will be texts in Middle English, including translated segments from continental women such as Marguerite Porete (burned 1310), Bridget of Sweden, and Catherine of Siena. We'll read some Trotula texts, in which women tell women how a female or male child might be conceived (a matter of strategic positioning) and how virginity, or its simulacrum, might be restored. We'll read some Christine de Pisan, an author virtually unedited and unknown twenty years ago who is now acknowledged as one of the first vernacular professional authors. Other women to be considered include Heloise, 'That was abbesse nat fer fro Parys' (Chaucer, Wife of Bath's Tale, 3.677-8), Marie de France, and Joan of Arc (burned by the English in 1431). We will read a good deal of Julian of Norwich (an anchoress who employed her body as a spiritual laboratory) and the whole of the Penguin Margery Kempe (mother of fourteen, businesswoman, traveller, pilgrim, prodigious weeper). We might read some Chaucerian tales that are of particular importance in constructing models of female identity (The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale; the Physician's Tale; the Second Nun's Tale). We may catch sight of Christina the Astonishing or Joan the Meatless.

This course will question traditional periodizations by shooting the medieval/ Renaissance divide and by considering arguments of advance and decline for women. Does the rise of the university, for example, bring a diminution of educational opportunities for women? Is the Middle Ages to be seen, as some feminist historians have seen it, as a 'golden age' for women? Does the coming of the 'Renaissance' reduce female options to that of marriage or marriage? How do both the observant and oppositional activities of women shift as we move from Catholic through Lollard to Protestant cultures? We'll consider the writings of Protestant Elizabeth I and the embroideries of Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots; other authors to be considered might include Margery Baxter, Anne Askew, Isabella Whitney (fl. 1567-1573), Mary Herbert (1562-1621), Mary Wroth (1587?-1651?), Elizabeth Cary (1585?-1639), Martha Moulsworth (1577-16??), Rachel Speght (c. 1597-16??).

Examination in this advanced undergraduate seminar will be by two essays: one of 5 pages (written after about six weeks) and one researched in the latter part of the semester and handed in during the final week of class (12 pages). We'll try to develop a friendly, collaborative working mode in this seminar; students will have the opportunity of writing a one-page, brainstorming abstract of their final paper and of sharing their ideas with the class.

This course fulfills the English Department requirement for a "Medieval" or "extra language" course for English majors.