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Romancing the Middle Ages

ENGL 222.401

This is an advanced seminar, best suited to students with some prior knowledge of Middle English texts who are keen to pursue independent lines of research. Our subject is romance: a literary genre, decisively developed in the Middle Ages, that remains influential today in tales of adventure, scenes of violent conflict, wizardry and magic, and ideals of love. The term romancing, furthermore, suggests ways of negotiating the world resistant to rational prediction or control; that hint at female agency mysteriously escaping clear definition (especially in the minds of befuddled males). We will study both how romance develops, chiefly in England, and how its texts come down to us in manuscripts and editions (so there is a material texts component to this course). Texts for consideration might include: the Song of Roland, telling how a Christian army, dispatched to fight “Saracens” in Spain, is betrayed and massacred; Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, an account of how successive invading groups attempt to control British territory (a source of Merlin material, and of inspiration for Shakespeare in Cymbeline and King Lear). Marie de France tells a dozen very short and delightful lais or tales, including the werewolf story Bisclavret, and Arthurian romances. Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur, printed by William Caxton in 1485 and discovered in manuscript in 1934, is the greatest English rendition of the Lancelot/ Guenivere/ Arthur love triangle; we will spend quite some time with this text. Sir Gowther, a diabolical love child, behaves badly; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, an intense psychological drama, explores the ecology of green. Gamelyn is an outlaw poem, and Havelock the Dane discovers that things go better by boat. We will make at least one visit to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library to see, inter alia, the fifteenth-century genealogical scroll (recently acquired by Penn) that tracks the descent of knights, such as King Arthur, from Adam and Eve.

Assessment: by one short essay and one longer, research essay (with research component).

fulfills requirements
Sector 3: Early Literature to 1660 of the Standard Major