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Medieval Lit and Culture

CWL 253

Same as ENGL 202 and MDVL 201. See ENGL 202.

In this class we’ll traverse the medieval globe, with layovers in Ireland, England, and Germany; China and Japan; and Persia and West Africa, sampling as we go great literary works (all in English translation) from each civilization during the period corresponding to the European “Middle Ages.” Starting out in Ireland we’ll read the outrageous epic The Táin, about a cattle-raid led by the warrior-queen Medb of Connacht against the Ulstermen and their boy-hero Cuchulainn (whose weirdest super-power is his grotesque “warp-spasm”). We’ll then cross the Irish Sea to read the Lais of Marie de France (who lived in England, actually), in which desperate housewives and courtly lovers inhabit a medieval fantasy world at once naïve and sophisticated. On our tour of East Asia we’ll take up Chinese Tang Dynasty poems, exquisitely concise observations of nature, culture, and human emotion; the Tale of Genji, a leisurely narrative about the affairs (and marriages) of the “shining prince” of the Japanese imperial court; and The Confessions of Lady Nijo, a scandalous memoir of the affairs (and travels) of an imperial concubine who became a Buddhist nun and whose favorite book was—the Tale of Genji ! Passing through medieval Iran on our way back to Europe, we’ll read Vis and Ramin, a Persian romance about a queen’s affair with her husband’s brother. Then we’ll make for Germany to compare Vis and Ramin with Tristan and Isolde, a European variation on the same basic story, but in a very different setting and with a very different ending. And finally we’ll venture south into medieval and modern Africa to attend a recitation of The Epic of Sunjata (preserved in twentieth-century oral versions but with roots reaching back to the thirteenth century), whose hero overcomes a physical disability as well as the enmity of the queen stepmother and her own son. Our fifteen-week mission: to explore strange old worlds—to seek out medieval life and medieval civilizations!

Join us for an exciting journey into the world of the Global Middle Ages! Knights in shining armor fighting monsters. Saints performing miracles. Kings (and queens!) leading armies into battle. Monks offering prayers through their daily offices. Peasants tilling the fields. These are some of the most popular and enduring images of the Middle Ages, and in this course we will explore the literature, art, and history that gave rise to our ideas of the romance and chivalry of the medieval period. Our goal will be to read a broad range of medieval literature (all in modern English translation) from around the world: England, the Continent, the Arab world, and Asia. We will explore a variety of genres, including epics, sagas, romances, fabliaux, riddles, drama, lyrics, and saints’ lives, and we will work to situate each work in its social and historical contexts with visits to the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, the Spurlock Museum, and the Krannert Art Museum.