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Premodern Romance

ENGL 715.401
also offered as: COML 714
Monday 9:00-12:00

In this course we'll attempt to perform a most difficult critical task: to fall under the spell of a literary genre, romance, while yet observing how it works its effects on us. Romance is delightful, in that it romances us away, helps us forget current troubles or (for medievals) the certainties of teleology, the four last things (heaven and hell, death and judgment) at the end of time. But it invites suspicion, precisely because it lulls us into suspending critical judgment, and can thus perform hard ideological work. It is no accident that many national histories find their origins in romance texts, or that Elizabeth of York went to Winchester to give birth to her eldest son in 1486. This was the year after the dynastic 'Wars of the Roses' ended, and when William Caxton published his Morte Darthur. Queen Elizabeth's son, baptized Arthur, would have become King of England had he not died at seventeen; he was succeeded by Henry VIII.

We'll begin with the Song of Roland, a text of Saracen triumph claimed by both France and Germany as Ur-text of each nation, and reedited each time these nations went to war. Strangely neglected in England, where Beowulf is Ur-text of choice, it is actually an English text, best preserved in the Anglo-Norman of an Oxford manuscript. Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, written by an Oxford man who claimed Celtic (Welsh) origins, helped bed down the Norman Conquest of 1066 through tales of Arthur, Lear and Cordelia, Cymbeline, and other rulers that wind their way through Penn's genealogical chronicle of c. 1461 (now digitized) to Shakespeare. Geoffrey, rather like the great medieval sociologist Ibn Khaldun, was suspicious of any society opting finally to relax into enjoyment of culture: but Marie de France, a great genius of the time of Henry II, shows exactly such confidence in her lais. These include her werewolf tale of Bisclavret; the hero of the Middle English Sir Gowther is a diabolical wish child whose rape of nuns was too much for the compiler of British Library Royal MS 17.B.43.

Chaucerian English 'won out' in England because written in the language of centralized power, the Westminster-based Chancellery, but there was an alternative poetic that even Chaucer was forced to acknowledge. This alliterative tradition survives into the Percy folio, BL MS Add. 27879, copied in the mid seventeenth century--which itself inspired the highly-influential Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). The greatest and best known romance in this tradition is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, increasingly a core text for eco-critics, but the other texts in its unique manuscript, BL Cotton Nero A.x, are well worth considering-- Pearl (on the death of an infant daughter), Patience (the adventures of Jonah), and Cleanness (terrifying visions of mass destruction, and of the fate of the sexually deviant). Different horrors abound in the more popular Siege of Jerusalem (nine manuscripts), including cannibalism and (inevitably, sad to say) anti-semitic persecution on a grand scale.

The later part of the course will see us reading Malory's Morte Darthur, his great composite account of the mass destruction of Arthurian chivalry, written as the English aristocracy was destroying itself in civil war. This also includes, however, a Grail quest and plenty of erotic and eccentric adventures; the narrator clearly falls for Lancelot, the lover of Queen Guinevere. Finally we come to The Faerie Queen of Edmund Spenser (died 1599), a monumental reimagining of medieval romance for the Elizabethan age; we'll concentrate on Book II, where Sir Guyon has many erotic adventures, meets King Arthur, and learns the mythical history of England (borrowed from Geoffrey of Monmouth). Here again romance both charms and enables: Spenser was actively engaged, in writing and on the ground, with subjugating Ireland.

This course should appeal to hard-wired medievalists, Renaissancistas, and those wishing to try and get a grip on a genre that runs right through Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen's Persuasion to contemporary fiction, Game of Thrones, and the musings of critics such as Frederic Jameson. It should also yield a respectable range of texts for a 50 book list, and there will be opportunity for comparative analysis (especially with French).         

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