ENGLISH 240: Medieval Literature
A leaf from a Book of Hours, probably from Poitiers circa 1470, recording the Little Office of the Virgin, a portion of the Mass
Instructor: Arnie Sanders
Spring Semester Office Hours (141): TuTh 11:30-12:30 and by appt.
Department of English, Goucher College Page last updated: 03/07/2014 12:11:53 PM
New! 3/7/14-- As we shift poetic modes to Pearl, it might help to compare its stanza structure with the stanzas of SGGK. The Gawain romance's "bob and wheel" stanzas begin with longer unrhymed, usually three-stress alliterating narrative stanzas of varying line lengths. These long, unrhymed line groups connect to compressed, often witty commentary that occurs in the one-foot "bob" and the four line, trimeter "wheel," all five line of which rhyme "ababa." If you do close reading analysis of passages from the poem, pay attention to what the narrator drops into the bob-and-wheel. Pearl, by contrast, is made up of 12-line stanzas, eleven of which rhyme "abababababa." What's with the twelfth line? It ends in a "link word or phrase" by which it "concatenates" or is chained to the first words or phrases of the following stanza. Stanzas occur in five-stanza groups, each of which is unified by a thematic link-word that is relevant to what is being debated or described. See the first reading's Web page for Pearl for a list of the link words and you will see they outline a pattern of thematic development that parallels the Dreamer's emotions in his psychological encounter with his vision's guide figure, the enigmatic entity critics tend to call the "Pearl-Maiden." In the poem, she has no name and parries each of the Dreamer's attempts to identify her. She has, it would appear, gone to a place where some kinds of language no longer make sense to the Dreamer, or perhaps to us. The poem's numerological program has been widely discussed by critics, and at least two assert that the entire manuscript (Cotton Nero A.x) is unified by a numerological scheme (Condren 2002, and Edwards 2004). I do not go so far, but I do think that Pearl is undeniably concerned with numbers, and perhaps geometry, as a way to understand things inexplicable in ordinary language. If SGGK uses the dialogue between Gawain and the Host's Wife to shift the terms of the original beheading game "forward" or agreement, in Pearl a dialogue between a man and a woman is the poem's entire dramatic focus. In both, the woman knows things that the man cannot know, but would dearly desire to know. How she "tells him" and how he "asks" will frustrate and fulfill that desire to know. In SGGK, the answers might affect one man's fate or the reputation of Arthur's court. In Pearl, the answers definitely affect the Dreamer's fate, but also, perhaps, our own.
There are many ways to read Pearl, but in the interests of full disclosure, I have posted a conference paper to GL that describes my current understanding of the poem, specifically the four errors that mar its otherwise spectacular design as a literary text and as an artifact. In a separate posting, there is a PowerPoint slide show that illustrates the talk.
If you have time to watch a truly great movie (if not very good Russian history), start from the beginning and see the whole of Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress (1934): http://relax.khmer24h.net/play?key=BIBbPEqI3xv9m9e (And no, do NOT accept any downloads from this extremely sketchy Cambodian/Vietnamese media Website that has been hosting this copyright violation since August of last year!)
Middle English "Pearl" Sound Files: https://archive.org/details/audio_poetry_107_2006 Unfortunately, it's only the first stanza, but it's very well-read, both in the Middle English dialect of the West Midlands and the spirit of the excited but mourning speaker's voice.
The Wedding of Gawain and Lady Ragnelle and Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlyle relate to the Pearl-Poet's works because both involve conflicts between radically different orders of physical and psychic existence. The Gawain poem connects with Ragnelle's and the Carle's representations of "the monstrous," and both poems test the protagonist's "courtesy" against the "courtesy" of a strange, distant court, its rules of engagement, if you will. The decidedly lesser artistic achievement of Wedding and Carle concentrate on more physical/literal challenges from outlandish (consider the word!), ugly, dangerous beings. The Pearl-Poet's works transform the challenges into existential explorations of what it is to be human, what immortal or supernatural existence might be, and how inhabitants of two such radically different domains might communicate with each other. Science fiction has long made this theme a way to explore modern and post-modern existence: replicants and humans in Blade Runner; aliens and their intelligent food sources in Alien; etc.
Want to see a medieval manuscript that was peed on by a cat?
A little song for Keith Provan (1947-2014): Rolling Stones, "Winter" (Goat's Head Soup, 1973).
As soon as possible, check this schedule and email me to pick two classes/texts on which to do in-class presentations, one from before Spring Break and one from after Spring Break. There are seventeen openings before SB, and thirteen afterward, for twelve people presenting. If you find yourself with a bad schedule, negotiate with presenters on days that would work better for you. If you cannot manage a swap, especially in the tighter post-SB period, I can add another presentation to a day that has only one. When there is more than one presentation slot for a day, be sure to specify which text you want to present on. If, as is likely, you are unfamiliar with the readings, click on the Web page linked to the text for a quick description of what's going on. Click here for guidance for how to prepare the presentations. Note that you should not try to "cover" the reading for the day. Focus your presentation on some issue or passage of interest to you, and use the Voice Board to record performances of the passage or passages to illustrate what you find interesting. Middle English Practice Conference sign-up page. Click here a general comparison of modern and medieval wealth-based notions of "diverse perspectives." The term "worldview" used in the SLOs below can be understood as the habits of seeing and understanding we can detect in narrators and characters governed by their religious, socio-economic, and other characteristics in the era from which the work originates. It is approximately synonymous with "mentalité," a term more commonly used by medievalists.
Chaucer Sound Files at Alan Baragona's "The Crying and the Soun" page (VMI).
Analytical Themes in English 240: This list of issues that are likely to emerge as we read and discuss this material is intended to stimulate your thinking and to help you find points of connection for your in-class presentations. The list is offered to help stimulate your thinking, but it is not intended to limit other kinds of inquiries you might pursue. Applying Critical Methods from English 215 to English 240: Reading early literature challenges beginners because the strangeness of the language is compounded by the strangeness of the customs, social roles, and almost every expectation one might bring to the earlier era from our own. Take delight in that strangeness! Let it show you an aesthetic and cultural norm that will challenge you to think like someone from another time.
Rota Fortuna from the Codex Burana (ca. 1230) Medieval chess in a Walters Art Museum ivory medallion Iron Gall Ink Corrosion Forms of the medieval text and levels of student commitment. Modern and Middle English Open Vowels Material culture study opportunity: stained glass windows
English 240 is an intermediate level introduction to medieval culture and Middle English literature. What were medieval readers reading when they could not find their manuscripts of “Canterbury Tales”? This introduction to medieval English literature looks at a variety of non-CT narratives to discover how our ancestors understood love and death in the pre-modern era. Chaucer’s dream visions and his great romance, the Troilus, will be included, of course, but we also will explore literature written by Marie de France (in translation), author of one of the oldest werewolf stories in the Anglo-French tradition (“Bisclavret”). The Pearl-Poet, anonymous author of Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, will tell us what heaven looks like, how to talk when your head has been cut off, and how to respond when your host’s wife surprises you in bed and offers you her body. Sir Thomas Malory, the translator/forger/author of the Morte Darthur, will tell you what really happened with Arthur, Lancelot, and Guenivere, and whether Arthur will ever return. The anonymous creators of the Middle English Breton lais will show you how the modern “short story” was born, how to identify abandoned children of nobles and of demons, and how to win your wife back from the King of Faerie. To help us put all this in the context of real medieval life, we will read some of the first “last wills and testaments” written in English, and excerpts from a work that will enable you to answer one of rock-and-roll’s oldest questions: “Who wrote the book of love?” (Answer: Andreas Capellanus, 1184-86, De amore honesti [“The Art of Courtly Love”])
Student Learning Outcomes: (click on the link for an explanation of what these things mean)
1) Students will demonstrate Middle English reading skills to experience directly the way C12-15 people experienced their world in literature and in documents they used to negotiate their lives' most important moments (e.g., didactic or romance narratives, "last wills" of the dying, ceremonies of fealty and homage for feudal relationships, marriage ceremonies, etc.).
2) Students will learn to interpret Middle English literature with full respect for its elements of continuity with Modern culture, and for its stark differences of mentalité, social organization, and aesthetics, using the terms of art by which modern medieval studies scholars analyze and understand these texts. Click here for descriptions of some major themes which could guide your interpretation of Middle English literature.
3) Students will use textual evidence to reconstruct and to distinguish the world-views of medieval men and women of many "estates" and occupations, avoiding reductive generalizations about "the medieval audience" and seeking evidence of the full diversity of this era's linguistic and emerging national identities. They will be able to explain the socio-political and economic contexts which shape those world-views, and can analyze the differences between two or more of them found within one or more works (e.g., codes of "chivalry" in Chaucer's Boke of the Duchess vs. in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight).
4) Students will be able to analyze individual works of Middle English literature in their generic contexts (e.g., romances, lyrics, dream visions), their thematic contexts (e.g., Arthurian literature, advice and complaint literature), and their material contexts as they have survived in manuscripts and early modern printed editions.
"Academic Honor Code: Reference to the academic honor code is required of all course syllabi as a reminder to students. Suggested wording includes: Reminder: All students are bound by the standards of the Academic Honor Code, found at www.goucher.edu/documents/General/AcademicHonorCode.pdf."
So much for what the college requires me to tell students about the Honor Code. This policy is unfortunate, because frequent, forced repetition of important statements of values results in the diminishment of those values in the minds of the benumbed witnesses (i.e., the students). I believe in honor as a human achievement that one can win or lose by one's actions, especially as it applies to scholarly study. I also see some value in codifying what "honor" means. Here is my attempt to do so. I distinguish between accidental plagiarism, in which the author obviously intended to cite sources but carelessly cited them at the wrong place, and outright theft of intellectual property intentionally passed off as one's own. Cases of the first type usually are opportunities to teach and learn, but they may go to the Honor Board if they happen late in the semester, after we have discussed source use and its importance to your readers. The second type will be sent to the Honor Board without hesitation. Students also are increasingly content to cite sources long after their prose has begun to borrow ideas from those sources. That is technically plagiarism, too, but it has become so common that I must spend gallons of ink and hundreds of keystrokes un-teaching it. Never make me guess whose ideas I'm reading. Cite sources when you first depend on them. I am more interested in knowing how well you can think than in how well your sources can think. Let there be a bright line of fire between ideas that are originally yours and those of other writers to which you refer.
hits since 1/29/08 reset.