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Riddles, Ruins, and Rhyme: Intro to Early English Literature

Session A: July 6 - July 16, 2021
9:30 a.m. - 12 p.m.
English and Writing
Philosophy and Society
Matthew Aiello

Riddles, Ruins, and Rhyme will survey the earliest literatures in English – from c.800-c.1400 AD – in order to introduce students to the wonders of medieval literature. Students will listen to lectures on historical contexts, participate in rigorous classroom discussion, conduct their own research, and have the opportunity to present on a topic of their own choosing. Each of our sessions will focus on a new medieval genre – the riddle, lyric, romance, heroic poetry, etc. – in order to maximize exposure to the range of literary productions offered from the Middle Ages. Our class will meet synchronously over Zoom.

Possible Assignments:

  1. Short reading responses (daily): Before each class meeting students will select a prompt on one of the texts we are reading for that day and prepare a short reading response (no more than a paragraph) that they will bring with them to class. Students will then use that response to facilitate class discussion and ask questions they have about a text.
  2. Group presentation (final day of class): In groups of 2-3, students will offer a 10-minute presentation on a single topic that they have been tracing throughout the course, using the texts we have read as evidence, though some additional background research will be required. Some possible topics for investigation: Land & the Natural World; Friendship; Medicine; Race; Marriage; Queer Identities; the Supernatural, and many others.

Learning Outcomes:

  1. To familiarize students with the earliest literatures in English.
  1. To expose students to the development of the English language, from Old to Middle to Modern English.
  1. To learn how to close read difficult texts and passages.
  1. To learn how to craft and defend an argument about a text or historical period.
  1. To introduce students to current debates in the field of medieval English literature.

Tentative Syllabus/Possible Readings:

Day 1: Module Introduction

  • Student Introductions; Syllabus Overview.
  • Medieval Literature lecture:
    • Historical overview
    • Major themes/concepts
    • Selecting presentation groups

Day 2: Riddles and Charms

  • Riddles from The Exeter Book (c. 1000 AD)
  • Medical Charms and Recipes from Bald's Leechbook (c. 800 AD)
    • BBC: 1,000-year old Eye Salve Kills MRSA

Day 3: Women's Songs

  • "Wulf and Eadwacer" (short poem, c. 1000 AD)
  • "The Wife's Lament" (short poem, c. 1000 AD)
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, The Wife of Bath's Prologue (c. 1385 AD)

Day 4: Heroic Poetry

  • The Battle of Maldon (991 AD)
  • Excerpts from Beowulf (c. 1010 AD)

Day 5: Lais

  • Lais of Marie de France (c. 1180 AD):
    • Bisclavret
    • Lanval
    • Guigemar

Day 6: Romance

  • Sir Orfeo (c. 1290 AD)

Day 7: Travel Narratives

  • Wonders of the East (c. 1000 AD)
  • Excerpts from The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (c. 1350 AD)

Day 8: Lyric

  • "Rime of King William" (1087 AD)
  • "Ic an witles" (c. 1190 AD)
  • "The Grave" (c. 1220 AD)
  • "Foweles in the Frith" (c. 1270 AD)

Day 9: Group Presentations