Monday, June 2, 2014

Nature and the Non-Human in Medieval England (Rob Barrett, Illinois@Urbana, Fall 2013)


Pearl as nexus between the divine, the human, the mineral, and the animal
(source: fol. 34r of Bodleian Library MS Bodley 602). 

The following reading list is taken from "Nature and the Non-Human in Medieval England," my ecologically-focused version of our English Department's upper-level "Medieval British Literatures" topics course. When I first tried to teach this class in Fall 2012, I sold it as an "Ecocriticism and Early English Drama" topic and ended up canceling the class due to insufficient enrollment. The culprits here were a titular keyword that failed to resonate with undergraduates ("Ecocriticism" had no trouble drawing in graduate students for the seminar running the same semester, but came across as alien and intimidating to the undergrads) and a genre focus that came across as excessively narrow (I thought that working across the medieval / Renaissance boundary would count as "broad," but the undergrad majors clearly felt otherwise). I therefore repackaged the class for Fall 2013 with a more welcoming pair of keywords ("nature" and "non-human") and a survey approach that took in a great many different genres. The makeover was successful: I ended up with over 30 students (in an upper-level course capped at 36).

I have to admit that I wasn't always as ecocritically-focused as I would have liked to have been: a lot of class time had to be spent on making the diverse genres and cultural contexts of the medieval Atlantic Archipelago intelligible to the students. And some texts just bounced right off of my brain (Owl and the Nightingale, I'm looking at you!). But I consider the course to be an overall success, and am looking forward to teaching it again, perhaps in 2015-16.

DESCRIPTION

The natural landscapes of medieval English literature are filled with human and non-human agents: knights errant, intersex deer, half-giants, pregnant mice, werewolves, talking crosses, and so on. In this semester’s incarnation of ENGL 412, we’ll explore the interactions between these diverse beings, paying particular attention to their violations of the so-called line between human and nonhuman. Medieval ideas of nature as an abstract concept will be an object of study, as will the historical ecologies our characters traverse and modify in the course of their adventures.

WEEK ONE

Maxims I, Maxims II, The Seafarer, The Wanderer

WEEK TWO

The Wife's Lament, The Husband's Message, selected Exeter Book Riddles

WEEK THREE

Selected Exeter Book RiddlesThe Dream of the Rood, Andreas


WEEK FOUR


Andreas, The Táin (chapters 1-7)


WEEK FIVE

The Táin (chapters 8-13), selected Lais of Marie de France (Prologue, Guigemar)


WEEK SIX

Selected Lais of Marie de France (Bisclavret, Yonec)


WEEK SEVEN

Selected Lais of Marie de France (Laüstic, Chevrefoil, and Eliduc)

WEEK EIGHT

Gerald of Wales's History and Topography of Ireland

WEEK NINE

The Owl and the Nightingale, selected tales from The Mabinogion ("First Branch")

WEEK TEN

Selected tales from The Mabinogion ("Second Branch," "Third Branch," and "Fourth Branch")

WEEK ELEVEN

Selected tales from The Mabinogion ("How Culhwch Won Olwen"), Patience

WEEK TWELVE

Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (fits 1-2)

WEEK THIRTEEN

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (fits 3-4), selections from Robert Henryson's Moral Fables ("Prologue," "The Cock and the Jasp," "The Two Mice")

WEEK FOURTEEN

Selections from Robert Henrsyon's Moral Fables ("The Lion and the Mouse," "The Preaching of the Swallow," and "The Fox, the Wolf, and the Carter")

WEEK FIFTEEN

Selections from Robert Henryson's Moral Fables ("The Fox, the Wolf, and the Farmer" and "The Frog and the Mouse"), the Towneley Second Shepherds' Play

WEEK SIXTEEN

The Towneley Second Shepherds' Play