Middle English I
Course Convenor: Dr. Marilyn Corrie
The aim of this course is to develop familiarity with the most widespread and distinctive form of writing in the Middle Ages: the narrative text. It has been said that narrative writing flourished during the medieval period on a scale matched only by the great novelists of the nineteenth century: this course aims to show the variety and the importance of this writing, and how it has exerted a profound influence on authors and artists of more recent times.
The most enduring of all the literary innovations of the Middle Ages has been the large amount of material that explores the chivalric ethos, especially works connected with the legends of King Arthur and his knights. The course builds on the First Year by looking further at the writings of Sir Thomas Malory, particularly at his story of the Grail Quest, and at the relationship of Le Morte Darthur to its French and English sources. Earlier versions of the legends told by Malory are examined in classes on La3amon’s Brut and the fourteenth-century poems The Alliterative Morte Arthure and The Stanzaic Morte Arthur; the place of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the Arthurian tradition, and its contribution to it, will also be addressed. The final class of this section of the course looks at post-medieval responses to the legacy of medieval Arthurian literature, and especially at the Victorians, including Tennyson’s reworking of Malory in Idylls of the King.
Biblical material is also retold in by medieval authors in striking ways: for example in Patience, which is thought to have been written by the poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and imbues the story of Jonah and the whale with the same humane understanding of men’s foolishness. Patience is studied in conjunction with the beautiful poem Pearl, which is also probably by the Gawain-poet. The early Middle English allegory Sawles Warde wittily portrays the forces that beset, and regulate, the well-being of the human soul; The Life of Saint Margaret takes a more lurid approach to the genre of hagiography. The second term of the course also includes classes on the Confessio Amantis, by Chaucer’s contemporary and friend John Gower, and on the writings of the Scottish poet Robert Henryson. The generic diversity of medieval narrative writing that found its most famous expression in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is illustrated through classes on the romance and the fabliau.
By the end of the course, students will have acquired a knowledge of the breadth of medieval writing, and will have become more fluent in reading literature in a phase of the English language different from their own. They will also have acquired an awareness of the value that the modern world has found in medieval literature.