ENGL 361.01: Medieval Natures
This course combines some of the most current literary and theoretical approaches—informed by sadly very current ecological concerns—with some of English literature’s most enduring texts.
In Medieval Natures, you’ll have the opportunity to get better acquainted with medieval literature you might’ve encountered in brief here or there (say, in ENGL 201 or perhaps even in high school) and to get to know some texts familiar today only to the very few. The class will also equip you with a set of approaches to literary study associated with ecocriticism. Focused on literature and the environment, ecocriticism tends to be in conversation with the contemporary sciences. Ecocriticism is a relatively new approach to literary study, its early development traceable to the 1980s—which is not to say that readers and critics prior to the 80s weren’t paying attention to the natural world as it appeared in and influenced fiction and poetry, but rather is to say that a set of issues and methods for approaching such matters hadn’t yet developed in any systematic way.
It was the mid-1990s before ecocricism had formed into a sufficiently cohesive set of theories and practices that it cold be ‘defined’ by two foundational texts, Cheryl Glotfelty and Harold Fromm’s edited collection The Ecocriticism Reader and Lawrence Buell’s book The Environmental Imagination. A professional group of academic ecocritics developed, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE), which supports further study through its conferences and its official journal, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (ISLE). Other key journals of ecocriticism are Environment and History; Journal of Ecocriticism; and Rural Landscapes: Society Environment History. Although it has become an incredibly productive approach to literary study, ecocriticism isn’t a single approach so much as it is a set of related approaches (many subfields such as “green (cultural) studies,” “ecopoetics,” and “environmental literary criticism” exist), as we will investigate this semester.
Steve Mentz, a scholar of the early modern period whose work focuses primarily on water (and who gave a talk here on campus a year ago), recently defined ecocriticsm this way:
A thriving and contentious academic field, ecocriticism defines itself through a shared interest in examining the relationship between human beings and the non-human environment. These investigations range from cultural histories of human ecological entanglements to critical analyses of the meanings of such terms as “human” and “nature.” With its origins paralleling the birth of modern environmentalist politics, ecocriticism produces historical and theoretical models that engage the rising tide of ecological awareness. Diverse strains within the field explore matters such as environmental justice, gender, ethics, economic development and the global south, various articulations of critical theory, the relationship between the sciences and the humanities, and multiple strains of activist politics. Ecocritics collectively bring the tools and methods of the humanities to bear on urgent questions for today’s age of global ecological crisis. The discourse represents an attempt by humanities scholarship to come to terms with a fractured world. (The Bookfish, 12 Mar 2015)
Medieval Natures will take an ecocritical approach to Middle English literature to get a sense of the ways medieval people conceptualized their place in the natural world. Specifically, we will pay close attention to how they represented the animals, plants, rivers, oceans, and land with and on which they lived—and how they saw themselves as part of this ecology. We will investigate the relationship between medieval humans and nonhumans, asking how humans constructed the natural world as they knew it, and how that world informed and shaped human culture. We will read canonical texts, anonymous texts, a full range of the literature being produced around 1000-1500 in the British isles, including romances, drama, lyrics, travel narratives, dream visions, and fables, and will equip ourselves with interpretive tools from contemporary ecocriticism, including animal studies, ecomaterialism, and actor-network theory.
Student Learning Outcomes:
- acquire tools and strategies for analyzing how ideas are represented, interpreted and valued in imaginative texts of the late Middle Ages in England
- practice skills reading contemporary critical and theoretical writing important to the discipline
- deploy these skills to analyze literary texts in relation to pertinent cultural and historical views of late medieval England
- gain experience expressing their analyses in writing, both formal and informal—this will include writing generated through an individual sustained research project
Books: Available at the bookstore. Please do get these specific versions of the texts. Many of them are translations into Modern English, and not all translations are equal.
(You are welcome to purchase your books through an online retailer. I highly recommend Powell’s Books, where you can purchase used copies easily—though you will need the Marie de France book in the first couple of weeks of class, so don’t order that online unless you get it shipped ASAP.)
Geoffrey Chaucer. Dream Visions and Other Poems. Ed. Kathryn L. Lynch. Norton, 2006.
Robert Henryson. The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables. Trans. Seamus Heaney. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010.
Marie de France. Poetry. Trans. and ed. Dorthy Gilbert. Norton Critical Editions. Norton, 2016.
Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland. Trans. John O’Meara. London: Penguin Classics, 1982.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. Simon Armitage. Norton, 2008.
The Tain. Trans. Thomas Kinsella. Oxford, 2002.