Undergraduate English Courses

358:303 Medieval Court Literature

01   TTH4  CAC   17503   GRAHAM    MU-115

The goals for this course will be to: 1) familiarize students with major traditions of mid- to late-medieval English literature for and about the court, 2) teach students to read Middle English with some fluency, and 3) prepare students to think, speak, and write about medieval literature from several critical perspectives, including those of gender and sexuality studies, historicism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis.

In this course, we will focus on literature that treats the medieval royal or noble court and its values. By the end of the semester, students should have some understanding about the various ways medieval writers conceptualized “the court,” that is, elite or royal communities, including: a) as a conceptual space to work through problematic aspects of contemporary society; b) as an idealized mode of living that often does not live up to its illustrious past; c) as a realm in which the real and the allegorical can mix in strange ways. We will consider questions like: how does this literature engage with the political, social, and economic realities of life in medieval England? Who is its intended audience? How does it construct gendered and rank-specific definitions of the “courtly,” and why? How can the repetition of a very traditional conception of courtliness be used to create literature that is relevant to its own time, and to our own?

Our investigation will focus on two interrelated traditions of courtly literature, the romance and the dream vision. Arthurian and classical romances provided medieval readers with idealized heroes and damsels whose adventures give us insight into medieval conceptions of courtesy, chivalry, gender relations, and politics. Our romance texts will include selections from Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and possibly more. The dream vision form takes us into a realm beyond everyday experience, often into an idyllic garden setting where the dreamer meets lovelorn knights, beautiful ladies, powerful and ruthless queens and goddesses, and even talking birds. This dream realm provides a stage for philosophical musings on courtly values. Courtly dream visions will include selections from the foundational Roman de la Rose, Chaucer’s Prologue to The Legend of Good Women and The Book of the Duchess, James I’s Kingis Quair, William Dunbar’s The Golden Targe, and others.

Grades will be based on class participation and attendance, short presentations, in-class translation and writing exercises, two papers (one short and one longer), and a final exam.

Most readings will be in Middle English. Prior knowledge of Middle English will be helpful, but is not required.