ENGL 4270: Medieval Romance: Noble Saints, Holy Kings

Noble Saints and Holy Kings: Genre-Mixing in Medieval Romance

Romance deals primarily with deeds of knightly derring-do; with affairs of the heart; and with secular virtues like loyalty, honor, and gentility. That should make it different from related genres, like history and hagiography. History deals primarily with factual events of the distant or recent past and with the cause-and-effect patterns that underlie those events. Hagiography deals primarily with faith-enhancing miracles and with spiritual virtues like chastity, humility, and fidelity to God. Right?

Not necessarily. The labels we slap onto medieval imaginative literature often obscure those poems' more provocative features, so this class will use genre analysis to complicate simplistic readings of some highly sophisticated texts. Through the lens of genre expectations, we'll suss out some of the more problematic elements of medieval romances: the (dis)connection between military deeds and spiritual salvation, the (mis)fit between the personal and the political, the interplay of devotion and public acts, the conflict between spiritual and familial responsibilities, the relationship between gender and spiritual and/or secular heroics, the incompatibility (or perhaps complementarity) of sanctity and knight- or kinghood, and the fuzzy line between "fact" and "fiction."

We will start the course with classic examples of romance, hagiography, and medieval history-writing to get you a working understanding of these genres. We'll end the course considering some "problem romances" that break down hard-and-fast barriers between different types of genres.

Expect to read a lot of Middle English (we'll spend the first couple weeks getting you comfortable with the language), to encounter some genre theory, to learn about medieval manuscripts, and to read some of the more bizarre narratives available from the Middle Ages. Also expect to practice your close reading skills, to write weekly, and to produce several thoughtful essays on the poetry we read. Instruction will begin on the first day of class, so be there! A rigorous, but not draconian, attendance policy will be in place.

Required Texts (Although the TEAMS texts are all available online, I require that you purchase print versions. They can be found used for reasonable prices.)

  • Middle English Breton Lays, ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (TEAMS Middle English Texts). ISBN-13: 978-1879288621
  • Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelok the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelston. Ed. Ronald B Herzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury. TEAMS Middle English Texts. ISBN-13: 978-1580440172
  • Medieval Saints: A Reader, ed. Mary-Ann Stouck (University of Toronto Press, 2008) ISBN: 1-44260-101-7 NOTE: If you can get a used copy of the same title/editor published by Broadview Press, 1999, so do - it's the same book.
  • Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Ed and trans. D. H. Farmer (Penguin) ISBN-13: 978-0140445657 NOTE: Older editions of this text are fine, as long as you get the Farmer translation printed by Penguin. Please do NOT buy the Kindle edition - you need to have a paper copy of the book.
  • Saints' Lives in Middle English Collections. Ed. E. Gordon Whatley and Anne B. Thompson. (TEAMS Middle English Texts). ISBN-13: 978-1580440899 NOTE: Don't let Amazon sell you a copy for umpteen-trillion dollars. That's silly. It retails for less than $30 (probably $20-25).
  • Matthew Paris, The History of Saint Edward the King, trans. by Thelma Fenster and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (ACMRS). ISBN-13: 978-0866983891

Optional Text (I will assign selections from this text via its online version, but you may wish to order the paper version for ease of reading. Note that this is NOT available at the bookstore.)

  • John Hardyng, Hardyng's Chronicle, ed. Sarah Peverley and James Simpson (TEAMS Middle English Texts). Amazon listing here.

For course time/room number, please see the English department's course listings page.

Image: King Edward the Confessor gives a ring to St John the Evangelist, disguised as a pilgrim. From Cambridge, University Library MS Ee.3.59, fol. 26r, Matthew Paris's History of Edward the Confessor.

Semesters taught: