This course will explore the literature of the British Isles ca. 500-1500 in order to map not only the evolution of the language we all still speak, but also the evolution of the concept of “Englishness”. We will consider a series of linguistic and cultural invasions, transformations and colonizations. Medieval Welsh texts preserve memories of a pre-Christian Celtic past, populated by strange creatures and governed by curious customs, but they also establish themes that will return to haunt English language texts from the Middle Ages to the present. The Anglo-Saxon invaders who pushed the Celtic speakers to the fringes brought with them a Germanic language, and an elegiac poetics manifested in poems like The Seafarer, The Wanderer, and the micro-epic Battle of Maldon. In retelling the “fall of Britain” in the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth creates an enduring version of the Arthurian legend, and an imaginary (some have called it fraudulent) history that gave Shakespeare a source for both Cymbeline and King Lear. The Norman conquest brings with it the French language and the concept of courtly love, expressed in the lais of the Anglo-Norman poet Marie de France. Finally, the impact of the Crusades and of figures like Richard the Lion Hearted encouraged not only a sense of what it meant to be English first and foremost rather than Norman or Saxon (an identification dramatized in the late medieval Robin Hood stories) but also a turning of the imagination to the East, a sort of medieval Orientalism focused on the semi-legendary cities of Jerusalem and Constantinople. Middle English texts of the fourteenth century like Sir Orfeo, the General Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the alliterative Siege of Jerusalem bring all of these varied influences together in the creation of a language and literature that is peculiarly English.
Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, Latin and Anglo-Norman (French) texts will be read in translation; Middle English texts will be read in Middle English, but no previous knowledge of the language is required.
From the Mabinogion, Pwyll Prince of Dyffed and Branwen Daughter of Llyr
The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Dream of the Rood, The Battle of Maldon
Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain
Marie de France, Lais
The Journey of King Richard the Lionheart
Ywain and Gawain
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The Siege of Jerusalem (excerpts)
Chaucer, General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales
Most texts will be available in the Bookstore; critical readings and supplementary material will be posted on Blackboard.
2 short (4-6 page) essays
an oral presentation or performance;
a final 10-12 page essay incorporating research and close reading
regular attendance and engaged participation.