FREN4115 - Medieval French Literature

Value: 0.5 course units
Dr Jane Gilbert
Teaching structure:
one unseen three-hour written examination (100%).

Module Description:

According to H. E. Bates’s famous dictum, ‘The past is another country – they do things differently there’. In this module, we shall look at how our medieval past presented its past, and particularly at the ways in which – like us, but differently from us – medieval people interwove history with legend. We shall read works in which the inhabitants of the past appear almost superhuman – and are sometimes literally inhuman – in their greatness and terror. ‘We’ the readers may consider ourselves heirs to this greatness, or well rid of this terror, or both. Moreover, all the texts that we shall study have been extremely significant in the construction of European identities both national and international. We shall investigate some of the uses made of these texts by medieval writers, readers and patrons, looking at their subversive potential as well as their propaganda value. In each case, legend inserts an uncanny quality into the histories that contemporaries construct around themselves.

Robert de Boron’s Merlin is a short prose romance, the centre of a trilogy tracing the story of the Holy Grail and of Arthur’s dominion, thus entwining the history of Britain with the cosmic Christian story. At its heart is the half-demon Merlin, a figure from Celtic myth with a mysterious ability to shapeshift and to know all events past, present and future. Merlin and the Grail rapidly went on to become central yet troubling figures within European historiography, and retain some of that status even today.

Although modern Europe may consider its birthplace to be Ancient Greece, medieval people thought that Europeans represented a Trojan diaspora. Every country had its own descent myth, inspired ultimately by Virgil’s Aeneid, and considered its chief city a ‘New Troy’. We shall read extracts from the mighty verse romance known as the Roman de Troie. The Troie presents the public and private upheaval of the Trojan War, including the fall of Troy and foundation of Western Europe on the one hand, and the many private tragedies on the other: Paris and Helen, Troilus and Criseyde, Achilles and Polyxena, and so on. A prequel to Virgil, the Troie details what for medieval people was the mother, pattern and explanation of all subsequent European and world wars.

Finally, the verse Roman d’Alexandre follows the fortunes of the man who conquered the whole of the known world – including many parts known only by hearsay and, frankly, unlikely. In this romance Alexander also flies, takes a trip in a submarine, and visits ‘the marvels of the Orient’. Alexander was the exemplary medieval king: brave, generous and learned. He was an inspiration to would-be conquerors. Equally importantly, his biography presented medieval readers with natural and artificial marvels, offering them powerful experiences of exoticism and alterity that could not be subdued. The Alexandre presents the history of humanity and of the empire of the world as unChristian and alien. We shall read most of the Alexandre (minus the ‘Fuerre de Gadres’ episode), thus bringing it down to manageable length.

Preparatory Reading and Set Texts:

Further preparatory reading is available on request, however students’ main task is to familiarise themselves with the set texts.