In this course, we will consider how literature produced in the later Middle Ages in England was shaped by Christian belief and conceptions of the afterlife. We will be particularly interested in the interplay between popular culture and the institutional Church: did the Church create belief, or merely respond to it? In this vein, we will find that popular culture could, and did, drive doctrinal developments (as in the widely-circulated visions of the afterlife which prefigure the full development of the doctrine of purgatory). But the Church also profoundly shaped the lives of average Christians, from birth until death, as we will discover in sermons, confessional manuals, and ars moriendi (art of dying) handbooks. In two fourteenth-century poetic masterpieces, Piers Plowman and The Canterbury Tales (selections), we will investigate how literary writers playfully redeploy the rhetoric of preaching and confession to carve out a space for secular authorship. We will find that the most important and revolutionary theologian of later-medieval England was not a priest but instead a female mystic living in seclusion, named Julian of Norwich; she espoused a radical vision of love and universal salvation at odds with mainstream teachings that emphasized instead sin and punishment. The much different account of another female visionary, Margery Kempe -- whose continent-spanning travels got her in trouble with authorities -- takes the form of a saint's legend and sheds light into popular practices such as indulgences and pilgrimages. Finally, we will consider who was excluded from the writing produced in and around the medieval Christian church. Jews, despite being expelled from England in 1290, continue to figure powerfully in drama and miracle stories until the end of the Middle Ages. At the same time, the Wycliffite heresy of the late fourteenth century, bitterly critical of the authority of the official Church, was associated with an outpouring of influential writing in English. Throughout the course, we will ask questions about the relationship between high and low culture, the politics of writing before print and widespread literacy, and the role of women in medieval church and society.
Most readings, including brief theoretical readings (Adorno, Bakhtin, Foucault), will be in translation, but some will be in Middle English (previous experience helpful but definitely not required.
William Langland, Piers Plowman (Norton)
Siegfried Wenzel, Preaching in the Age of Chaucer (Catholic University Press)
The Book of Margery Kempe (Norton)
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (Norton)
Julian of Norwich, A Revelation of Divine Love (Norton)
Blackboard will have excerpts from:
Eileen Gardiner, ed. Visions of Heaven and Hell Before Dante (Italica)
David Bevington, ed., Medieval Drama (Houghton Mifflin)
Mary Ann Stouck, ed. Medieval Saints: A Reader (Toronto)
Edward Foster, ed. Three Purgatory Poems (TEAMS)
Requirements: Evaluation will be based on a long final paper (10-12 pages), a shorter paper (4-5 Pages), a presentation, and class participation.
*Course enrollment is limited to 15 students.