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Grotesque Bodies and Medieval Romance

ENGL 022.010
instructor(s):
fulfills requirements:
Sector 3: Early Literature to 1660 of the Standard Major

In Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur’s court must respond to a challenge from a gigantic knight with green skin and green hair. In The Wife of Bath’s Tale, a young knight (a rapist, no less) must choose between death or survival by marriage to an old and monstrously ugly hag. In Sir Orfeo, a young Queen scratches her face in order to forestall kidnapping and rape.

Romances, we tell ourselves, are tales of knights, ladies, adventure, and courtly love: romance is about ideals. Romance is about Arthur and Guinevere, the very best and the most beautiful. Why then is the romance world populated with giants, dwarves, monsters, ugly women, dead people, Jews, Saracens, and mothers-in-law? How do their bodies, always described as radically different, represent our protagonists’ worst fears? Why on earth are dwarves good and giants bad? And why do our protagonists so often respond to physical, spiritual, and moral threat by violating their own bodies?

This class introduces us to the genre of romance in medieval English literature and will include discussions of heroes with unlikely names like Horn, Beavis, and Guy. We will also be introduced to theories of the body and of racial and religious difference and we will discuss how we might use modern critical apparatus to discuss older literature. Requirements include regular participation, 2 short papers, and a final, take-home exam.