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Medieval Historical Writing: From Bede to the Printing Press

ENGL 325.301
instructor(s):
fulfills requirements:
Sector 3: Early Literature to 1660 of the Standard Major

In this course we explore the ways that medieval writers documented and theorized the past. Questions include the following: what constitutes a significant event, e.g., the brutal murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, the burning of the Savoy Palace by peasant rebels in 1381, the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290,  the fall of Jerusalem during the Crusades (1187), or the miraculous exhumation of a saint's bones? What does the past - biblical, classical, national - tell us about the state of the present or the time of the future? In what way do different genres - chronicles, saints' lives, encyclopedias, charters, sermons, romances, travel guides, genealogies - offer competing or affirming views of the past? How is historiography used to serve royal propaganda or calls for religious reform? And what happens when medieval historical writing is taken up by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century English printers, dramatists, antiquarians, and reformers? 

Texts may include Ranulph Higden's popular universal history, the Polychronicon (c. 1350, later translated and updated by England's first printer, William Caxton), Wulfstan's Sermon of the Wolf to the English (c. 1000, about the Anglo-Saxon and Viking conquests); Bede's classic and continually recycled Ecclesiastical History of the English People (c. 731); accounts of Arthurian Britain such as Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (1138) and Thomas Malory's Death of Arthur (printed 1485); influential monastic chronicles such as Matthew of Paris's Chronica Majora (c. 1250) and Thomas Walsingham's Chronicle of Saint Albans (1422); alliterative poems such as St. Erkenwald (c. 1390) and the Siege of Jerusalem (c. 1370s); travel narratives such as Gerald of Wales's The History and Topography of Ireland (1185) and John of Mandeville's Travels (c. 1360); and the Penn Roll and Edward IV Roll (splendid genealogical manuscripts in Philadelphia).

Assignments may include weekly responses to the reading, an oral presentation, and a final research paper.