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Medieval Popular Culture

ENGL 021.900

Fulfills Distributional Course in Arts & Letters (for students admitted before Fall 2006)

What does it mean to say that a work of literature is 'popular'? What is the relationship between 'high' and 'low' forms of culture? Our course will take up these questions through study of the literature of popular culture, particularly popular religion, from medieval England. We will read sermons, saints' lives, visions of hell and purgatory, mystery plays, selections from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and the Book of Margery Kempe (the first autobiography in English, written by a middle-aged mother of fourteen). Medieval culture offers unique challenges to the study of popular culture, as the records which survive necessarily reflect the efforts of a literate minority. Guided by the work of historians of medieval popular culture such as Aaron Gurevich, Jacques le Goff, and Jean-Claude Schmitt, as well as theorists including Thedor Adorno and Mikhail Bakhtin, we will ask: How do institutions shape the production of art? How are forms of cultural production and consumption shaped by gender and social class? What forms of resistance does 'popular culture' offer? In the final weeks of the class, we will turn to medievalism as it appears in the popular culture of our own times. We will view three very different films that appropriate the medieval past to dramatically different effect: the recent blockbuster The Lord of The Rings, the cult-classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the decidedly avant-garde Ingmar Bergman-directed The Seventh Seal. We will consider how these works both create and rely upon the medieval world which exists in popular imagination, and compare our own role as consumers of 'mass culture' to that of the medieval audiences we have studied.