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Reform and Revolt in Medieval English Literature

ENGL 524.301
instructor(s):
W 2-5:00

Later medieval England was a period of upheaval, religious reform, and political revolt, as well as a period of explosive literary creativity. What was the relationship between the two? In 1376, the parliamentary commons began to flex its collective muscle; in 1381, an unprecedented multitude of laborers and artisans joined forces and descended upon London to protest unjust taxes and burn homes and documents. The 1370s-1420s also witnessed a new religious reform movement (Lollardy), condemned as heretical, which called for, among other platforms, the disendowment of the wealth of monks and friars, and the translation of the Bible into English. This same period is marked by intense literary creativity, from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, to the great medieval drama cycles of Wakefield and York. How did the political issues trending in Chaucer’s day - tyranny, vagrancy, poverty, representation, corruption, and justice - correspond to innovations in the literary sphere, and in what ways do they speak to our own political and literary investments? At the center of our course is William Langland's fourteenth-century masterpiece, Piers Plowman, a 7,000-line alliterative dream-vision, which asks the question, “what does it mean to be a good person?" Formally experimental and ideologically cutting-edge, Piers Plowmancaptured the imagination of later English writers interested in labor, poverty, political corruption, and clerical reform. In addition to Piers Plowman, we will be reading anti-clerical satire, Jean Froissart’s accounts of French and English peasant revolts, John Gower’s Vox Clamantis (an anguished and deeply hostile account of the 1381 Revolt), heresy trial records, and more. Graduate students from all disciplines and specializing in different periods (esp. poetics) are welcome to join this seminar.