Fall 2017 Undergraduate English Courses

358:309 Averting the Future Past: Manipulating Time in Medieval Literature

01  TTH4  CAC  13213  MCCONNELL  SC-115

Averting the Future Past: Manipulating Time in Medieval Literature

In spite of the gulf of time that separates our modern day from a medieval past, both eras are marked by a shared anxiety that our age is perched on the threshold of the apocalyptic, in the throes of a cultural, political, or religious crisis. This anxiety leads to a cultural preoccupation with time: we look to the past to ask how we came to be where we are now or what we could do differently; we wonder what role in history we shape for ourselves in our present; and we question whether a different future is possible, or whether our fates are already sealed. Today, this preoccupation underlies the many books and films that explore time travel; in the Middle Ages, before science fiction and time travel, writers still explored the manipulation of time in various ways. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s chronicle Historia Regum Brittaniae expands the timeline of British history by two hundred years, adding in the golden era of Arthur and providing Britain with a glorious past that it remembers with nostalgia. One poet of Middle English alliterative verse even offers us the astonishing example of a proto-time traveller in the Awntyrs off Arthure—the ghost of Queen Guinevere’s mother, whose death has allowed her to step outside of time to witness the future downfall of the Arthurian court, and who appears in the first flowering of the court to warn them against that downfall.

By reading across French and English works like the Historia Regum Brittaniae, Le Conte du Graal, The Awntyrs off Arthure, Le Morte Darthur, and other texts, students will see how medieval thinkers grapple with and even challenge their own interpretations of time and futurity, playing with notions of cause and effect, chance and destiny. How does the past work in the service of the future? How do we interpret our place and responsibility within the present, caught in between a known past and an anxiety-producing future? What control do we have over our own fates? This course will ask students to think critically about the intersections of narrative, history, and theories of temporality, as well as the relationships between fiction, theology, politics, and culture. Readings, when possible, will be in Middle English. A series of short written assignments will culminate in a final research paper, providing students with the chance to pursue various critical approaches to and interests in these texts, as well as to build upon and revise their thinking.