Brit Lit I: The Middle Ages

As I select texts for the Middle Ages portion of my Brit Lit I syllabus, I’ve drawn inspiration from Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s site and from episodes 51 and 52 of The Endless Knot. I find myself continually humbled by how much I need to learn and grateful for the work that others have done. My research thus far has shown me large gaps in my own historical background for the Brit Lit survey, gaps I’ve started filling with The History of RomeWith my usual fall commute, I have a lot of podcasting time built into my schedule.

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“The Dream of the Rood,” Vercelli Book

Here are the “suggested texts and authors” from my department’s EN 205 course recommendations:

Early Middle Ages: Beowulf, “Judith,”; “Cædmon’s Hymn,” “The Dream of the Rood,” “The Wanderer,” “The Wife’s Lament”; Early Irish Lyrics

Late Middle Ages: “Ancrene Wisse,” Geoffrey Chaucer, Everyman, Marie de France, Margery Kempe, Thomas Malory, Julian of Norwich, The Second Shepherd’s Play, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

All of these suggestions are of course represented in the Norton Anthology, which is simultaneously a fantastic tool and perhaps the most visible symbol of obstacles to diversifying the syllabus. The introduction to “The Middle Ages” volume shatters any preconceived notions readers might have about monolithic English identity in the period, making it clear that England is a stage for multicultural encounters, linguistic fusion and friction, and imperial ambitions before the Angles, Saxons, or Normans arrived. That said, the Norton’s selections are still almost entirely traditional and canonical: Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Norman writers mostly, with nods to Early Irish Literature and to women writers. And despite the wide-ranging travels of Chaucer’s characters or of Margery Kempe and her pilgrimages, none of the literature connects England to the Middle East or to North Africa, nor to the Byzantine or Ottoman Empires. The Anthologized England remains very much an island.

(The Longman Anthology seems to be a bit more diverse, but only just. The Broadview Anthology, however, seems to put both the Norton and the Longman to shame! I may be switching texts next semester.)

Without further ado, here are my selections week by week:

Week 1: Syllabus; Early Irish Lyrics, 134-5 (handout).

My classes start on a Thursday, so squeezing in a few Irish poems after the syllabus discussion salvages an otherwise wholly procedural week and introduces my students to close reading. I’m also shorting the Middle Ages a day, as each other unit will take eight days of class rather than seven.

Week 2: “The Middle Ages to ca. 1485,” 1-20, 27-9; “Cædmon’s Hymn,” and “The Dream of the Rood,” 30-7; “Judith,” “The Wanderer,” “Wulf and Eadwacer,” “The Wife’s Lament,” and “The Ruin,” 110-26.

The historical introduction to the period does an excellent job of pointing out the multicultural and multilingual nature of the era. These Anglo-Saxon selections hit the canonical “warrior culture” high-notes of Beowulf (which I’ve found is frequently assigned in high schools) while introducing more women’s perspectives, including Judith as warrior woman. If I had another two to three days in this week, I’d gladly add Beowulf back in.

Week 3: Marie de France’s “Milun,” “Lanval,” and “Chevrefoil,” 158-88; Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Cantebury Tales “General Prologue,” 256-82.

I’ll take Marie de France’s representations of gender and sexuality over the Pearl Poet’s any day of the week. Marie de France also enables a discussion of the construction of whiteness and white beauty in the period. Chaucer’s “General Prologue,” of course, does an excellent job of introducing class in the late Middle Ages, and his character sketches are great demos of close reading.

Week 4: “Ancrene Wisse,” 154-7; Thomas Hoccleve’s “My Complaint,” 377-87; Julian of Norwich’s A Book of Showings, 430-442,  Margery Kempe’s The Book of Margery Kempe, 442-56.

This week is entirely new material for me, and matter that I’m quite excited about. As a unit, Hoccleve, Julian, and Kempe bring together ability, gender, and religion in exciting ways. Each of these writers present outsider critiques on the Middle Ages that weigh in on the canonical texts from week three. (Thank you to #AcademicTwitter and The International Hoccleve Society for putting Hoccleve on my radar!)

I have mixed feelings about these selections. On the one hand, they hit hard on the topics of ability, class, gender, religion, and sexuality. On the other hand, race goes largely undiscussed. Right now, I expect I’ll be pointing frequently to the lack of coherent “whiteness” or “Englishness” in these texts, emphasizing the multicultural and multilingual tapestry of the Middle Ages whenever possible. I’ll likely supplement class discussion with images from the MedievalPOC Tumblr.

I’m definitely still looking for writers of color for my syllabus. Hadrian, perhaps?

~nrhelms

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