English 213a
M. McInerney
WF 12:30-2
HUIII

Inventing [the] English

 

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 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 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 Geste of Robin Hood 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.

Required texts:

Oxford Anthology of English Literature, vol. 1: Medieval English Literature, eds. Trapp, Gray, Boffey. Oxford 2002.
The Mabinogion, trans. Jeffrey Gantz. Penguin 1976.
Marie de France, Lais, trans. Burgess and Busby. Penguin 1999.
Other required texts available on the class blackboard site.

*English 213a satisfies the “Introductory Emphasis” requirement for the Haverford English Major.