What did English literature look like before the Canterbury Tales? In this course we study the language and forms of literature in English, from the middle of the twelfth century to the beginning of the fifteenth—-a period of dynamic continuities, new beginnings, and intense variety.
For a century or two following the Norman Conquest, English was a rare choice for new literary compositions: clerics used Latin, aristocrats preferred French, and few others had the means for substantive participation in literary culture. The result was that literature in English was precisely exceptional, in the sense that individual works came into being as exceptions to the cultural forces that tended to channel literary activity into French or Latin.
We examine several of these exceptions, then look forward to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when the situation of English had changed. Literary culture remained trilingual; English authors continued to point out that they lacked both the authority of Latin and the prestige of French; however, there was again a demand for various kinds of literature in English, patronage for it, and sites for its production (as there had been before the Norman Conquest). A tradition was taking shape.
The course’s first half traces these and other developments, doing so by way of a survey of Middle English poetry and prose. Our focus is on the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Genres include romance, dream vision, dialogue and debate, biblical narrative, hagiography, history, and drama. Texts include the first Arthurian romance in English, the earliest English literature addressed to women, and two poems that feature arguing birds. This survey concludes with Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes. Composed about a decade after Chaucer’s death, this poem stands near the beginnings of a “Chaucer tradition” in English verse.
In the second half, we make in-depth studies of three major literary works, dating from the decades on either side of Chaucer’s career. Each represents a contemporary alternative to the Chaucerian version of English literature: William Langland’s Piers Plowman (1360s – c. 1390), The Book of John Mandeville (1357?; c. 1385), and The Book of Margery Kempe (1436-38). The first of these works is a restless, searching sequence of allegorical dream visions. The second two are, in sharply contrasting ways, travel narratives that probe the truth of religious experience. All three texts raise tough questions about authorship, authority, and literary language.