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Vernacular Epistemologies

ENGL 7220.401
also offered as: COML 7220, CLST 7220
Monday 1:45-4:44pm

In this seminar we will consider the ways of knowing, the epistemologies, that were particular to vernacular cultures in medieval Europe, c.1100-1500. From the late twelfth century, knowledge that had hitherto been transmitted in scholarly languages and formats (Latin, for example, and in some contexts Arabic and Hebrew), began to be translated and reformatted for vernacular language speakers. This major shift in the transmission of knowledge responded to - and helped to create - a broader audience for subjects ranging from natural science, law, medicine, and astronomy to ethics, political theory, world history, and religious instruction. It also gave rise to vernacular cultures of knowledge or ways of knowing and transmitting knowledge within particular regions and languages. 

Together we will explore the following questions: how did vernacular cultures redefine what constitutes knowledge and what was worth knowing? Did medieval writers acknowledge a division between general and elite (“high-brow”) knowledge (questions that we still ask today)? And to what extent did they recognize a difference between “literary” and “learned” productions? How did vernacular writers develop their languages to bear the burden of learning? For example, what new genres of knowledge did they create, what styles did they invent in order to accommodate new readerships, and what formal choices (e.g. prose, verse, dialogue, exposition) did they make for transmitting and thematizing knowledge? In what ways was a broadening of audiences for learning accompanied by sensory appeals (visual, aural, imaginative)? Finally, how did the material vehicles of learning target vernacular audiences, from manuscript mis-en-page, diagrams, and illustrations to copying, compilation, and circulation?  

These are questions that bear on many theoretical issues, including form, poetics, hermeneutics, textual reception, visuality, the senses, readership, gender, class, encyclopedism, and translation. 

We welcome students from a variety of language interests and competences. While some of the basics of our reading will be medieval English texts, each week we will also put these side by side with texts from other language traditions (including, for example, French, Italian, German, Catalan and Castilian, Hebrew and Yiddish, Arabic and Persian, and other languages that the students in the seminar wish to see considered).

We will be meeting in Special Collections in Van Pelt Library in order to have manuscripts at our weekly seminar meetings. We will also invite guest lecturers to speak to us about various language fields.

Knowledge of one or more medieval languages is helpful but not necessary: all the readings will be available in translation. Submatriculated M.A. students interested in this course should request permission from the instructor and should submit a permit request via Path@Penn.

English Major Requirements
English Concentration Attributes
College Attributes
Additional Attributes