English 250

Research Seminars: Sensation and Participation from Chaucer to Spenser

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Spring 2022 Nolan, Maura
M 2-5 Wheeler 301


The idea of pairing “sensation” with “participation” as a means of identifying an aesthetic phenomenon characteristic of the later Middle Ages and early Renaissance emerges in part from Thomas Aquinas’ account of beauty:  he argues that beauty is fundamentally a means of “participation,” because it is a universal experience of visual pleasure that recalls the viewer to the beauty of the divine.  The viewer thus participates in the divine and shares that participation with other viewers.  In this class, we will examine what happens to this linked pair of aesthetic qualities as it appears in the late medieval vernacular English poetry of figures like Gower, Chaucer, Hoccleve, and Lydgate; we will also consider how these ideas change under Tudor absolutism and in the wake of the English Reformation, in the works of Wyatt, Surrey, Spenser, and others.  Medieval writers frequently depict forms of communal participation in their poetry; they were surrounded by participatory forms of art in their daily lives, such as the cycle dramas; royal entries; mumming; mayoral processions; wall paintings; “pageants,” or tableaux; even decorative sugar sculptures accompanied by verses (“solteltes”).  These kinds of displays continue and indeed grow more elaborate under Tudor rule; even the mystery plays continue to be performed until the late 16th century.  Sensation and participation thus continue to exert significant influence in the 16th century, even as the changes wrought by Tudor absolutism and the Reformation significantly alter the poetic landscape.  Students are encouraged to develop research topics that combine literary readings with material culture, in the form of theatrical performance, visual art, manuscript illustration and book construction, print history (production; circulation; censorship), and more.  Work for the course:  final seminar paper and occasional informal written reflections, plus one presentation.

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