English 250

Research Seminar: Medieval Literary Thought

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
2 Fall 2015 Justice, Steven
Tuesdays 9:30-12:30 305 Wheeler

Book List

Copeland and Sluiter: Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric: Language Arts and Literary Theory, AD 300-1475; Minnis and Scott: Medieval Literary Theory and Criticism c. 1100-c. 1375: The Commentary Tradition

Other Readings and Media

Much material online and in the library.


The medieval volume of the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism begins by saying that the years from the 1980s until their present (2005) has been "a golden age" for the study of medieval "literary theory and criticism." That is about right: whole bodies of sources in the grammatical, rhetorical, and exegetical traditions, sources unknown or too little and crudely known to literary scholarship, have been discovered, edited, placed, and cited: more wealth than you can easily manage or know what to do with. And the field has not, in fact, shown clear signs of knowing what to do with it. 

This makes a golden opportunity for both research and ideation. (a) For research, because there is a massive corpus of materials and scholarly tools ripe for investigation but too little deployed, a circumstance in which real discovery is possible. The materials are not very systematic, and some of the tools are not obvious or well known. So one job of this seminar is to give you a handle on the materials and, especially on the research tools. (b) For ideation, because most of the big intellectual questions they raise have scarcely been broached--beginning with the question what it means to call this material "theory and criticism." So another job of this seminar will be to start finding and articulating these questions, and working out angles of approach. 

This will be a genuine research seminar, not a reading course. The first weeks will offer an intensive introduction to research tools new and (mostly) old, and to scholarship old and (mostly) new, and it will begin to crack open the question of describing and understanding the premises and goals of rhetoric and of commentary. In those weeks, we will read in translation some of the most suggestive primary sources and get a sense of what scholarship has and has not done. We will probably use Dante's Vita nuova and/or Convivio as a heuristic point of literary reference. But the students will have begun the semester choosing a work (presumably a medieval one, and presumably one on which they have a settled interest in working) and an initial question, in relation to which they will be using this material and an initial idea for research. As the semester proceeds, our agenda will be set increasingly by the developing research of the participants.

The two books ordered for the course do not really represent the work we will be doing, but we will use them a fair bit. They are two recent anthologies of sources in translation, both based on exemplary scholarship. (Their footnotes and bibliographies will prove invaluable.) Unfortunately, both are expensive; I'll make sure that all library copies are on reserve. Most of our work will be with materials made available online and in the library, and with the participants' developing projects.

This course satisfies the Group 2 (Medieval through Sixteenth Century) requirement.

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