Medieval Studies Courses, Spring semester 2020


Art History 305 History of Islamic Art and Architecture (Prof. Jennifer Pruitt)

This course surveys the architecture, landscape, book arts, and luxury objects produced in Islamic contexts from Spain to India, and from the 7th through the 21st centuries. Attention will be focused upon the relationships between Islamic visual idioms and localized religious, political, and socioeconomic circumstances. In particular, lectures and readings will examine the vital roles played by theology, royal patronage, ceremonial practices, gift exchange, trade, and workshop practices in the formulation of visual traditions.

Art History 500/800 Architecture of the Arabian Gulf (Prof. Jennifer Pruitt)

This course will explore issues in modern and contemporary architecture in the Arabian Gulf. Beginning with issues in cultural heritage and destruction in Saudi Arabia and culminating in the explosion of “starchitect” (star architect) projects in the United Arab Emirates, the course will explore the role of local identity in the creation of global, contemporary architecture. Among the themes we will explore: the role of universal human rights in contemporary architecture; connections between the Gulf and the Indian subcontinent; connections between the Gulf and the West; the meanings and limits of globalism; architecture as politics; the role of museums and universities as controversial forms of architectural diplomacy; and innovations in urbanism and environmental planning.

Art History 515/815 Seminar in Medieval Art:  Representing Race from Antiquity to the Early Modern (Prof. Thomas Dale) Thursdays, 4:30-7:00 p.m., Conrad A. Elvehjem Building, Room, L170

Pre-modern works of art and visual symbols have figured prominently in recent white supremacist and alt-right rallies and web sites, which promote false myths of ethically pre-modern nations to support current racist ideologies.  This seminar interrogates these claims, using art, architecture, literary texts and material and visual culture as lenses for exploring the complexity of pre-modern attitudes towards race and ethnicity.  Although race is a term that gained currency in the 18th century in support of theories of inherent of inherent biological differences that cast one group as inferior to another, this seminar we build on recent considerations of race that suggest that the roots of modern racism can be traced to cultural constructions of race in pre-modern societies.  We will trace both positive and negative aspects of the recognition of religious and ethnic difference.

A provisional list of topics includes:

1) Defining Race: Critical Race Theory, Racism and Ethnicity
2)  Monstrous and Cultural Pluralism and Empire in Greek and Roman Antiquity​
3) Jews and Christians:  Religious Resistance and Supersession in Late Antiquity​
4) Convivencia in Medieval Spain and Egypt ​
5) Saracens in Medieval and Early Modern Romance and Crusade​
6)  Black and White: Color and Race in Medieval and Early Modern Europe​
7) Monstrous Races​: From Pliny to World Maps
8) Pre-Modern Globalization and Orientalism​
9) Contemporary Racism and representations of the pre-Modern Past​


Comp Lit 201: The Storyteller from Aesop to Cervantes  (Prof. Christopher Livanos)

We will study four of the world’s greatest collections of short stories: Aesop’s Fables, The Arabian Nights, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and Cervantes’ Exemplary Stories. Stories in all of these collections can work to define communities, establish or question moral norms, and create a sense of collective or individual purpose. Traditional biographies of Aesop portray him as a mute slave miraculously gifted with speech who fascinated people with his storytelling and was later sentenced to death for telling stories that offended the powerful. Our discussion of his stories will examine themes of power, marginalization, and giving voice to the powerless. In our reading of selections from The Arabian Nights, we will continue to explore connections between storytelling, power, and survival as we study how Scheherazade saves her own life and the lives of her people by leaving a tyrannical monarch with cliff-hanger endings for 1001 nights, simultaneously providing him with much-needed moral education. Boccaccio’s Decameron shows ten young people passing time by telling tales in the countryside while seeking refuge from the Black Death then devastating Europe’s population. We will discuss how the stories they tell set the stage for the new world they will help create in the wake of the plague’s destruction. The course will conclude with Cervantes’ Exemplary Stories, continuing to examine storytelling traditions Cervantes picked up from his predecessors to use in his tales of love, piracy, witchcraft, and much more, ending with “The Dialogue of the Dogs,” the greatest dog story ever told, bringing us full circle back to the talking animal tales of Aesop.

COMP LIT 500: Madness and Sadness, and Love (Prof. Christopher Livanos)

We will examine the origins and development of the ways people describe love. Discussions will cover concepts such as “courtly love,” chivalry, “lovesickness,” and “love at first sight” as they have been represented in cultures including Ancient Rome, Medieval Arabia, The Southern France of the Troubadours, and the Italy of Dante and Petrarch. We will consider how these different cultures understood what love means, how Christian and Muslim cultures have understood the connection between human love and divine love, and the effects for good and bad that love is portrayed as having on the human psyche.

The first part of the course will be devoted to the Roman poet Ovid. We will then read works by Arabic poets of Medieval Spain, Occitan (Southern French) Troubadours, Guido Cavalcanti, and Dante—all of whom were tremendously influential on later poets as well as on modern ways of thinking about love. As we study the work and legend of the seventh-century Arabic poet Qays ibn al-Mulawwah (known as Majnun Layla, or “Crazy for Layla”)–we will explore the lasting impact of the idea that love is a form of madness or possession, and we will discuss patterns of cultural transmission from Arab Spain through Southern France and into the mainstream of Early Modern European literature.

We will then study how Petrarch used this broad range of influences, some direct and some indirect, in the composition of his Canzoniere, a pioneering work of autobiographical literature and psychological introspection as well as a masterpiece of lyric poetry.


ENGL 177:  Tolkien, Beowulf and the Rise of Modern Fantasy (Prof. Martin Foys)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings series were the books that launched the modern fantasy genre. But Tolkien was also a brilliant Oxford scholar of medieval literature, and used medieval literature as the foundation for all of his fantasy creations.

This class will first explore Beowulf, the Old English epic poem of heroes, feuds and monsters, using Tolkien’s own modern translation and others. We will also study the legacy of Beowulf today, through comic book, film and video game adaptations, as well as some other examples of medieval literature that inspired Tolkien.

We will then study the rise of modern fantasy through Tolkien’s own theories of fantasy, looking at material such as proto-fantasy (Grimm’s Fairy Tales), Victorian fantasy (Alice in Wonderland), the fantasy of Tolkien and his time, (The Hobbit, Narnia Chronicles, Conan the Barbarian), before ending with thinking about the state of popular fantasy today in books, film and television (Peter Jackson’s films, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and G.R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series). During the course, we will tie our explorations to culturally relevant issues of past and present including: nationalism, the power of religion, effects of media and technology, social constructions of race, racism and gender, the nostalgic production of the past, and the transformative nature of language.

English/History/Religious Studies 360: The Anglo-Saxons (Prof. Jordan Zweck)

Who were the people who lived in what is now England over 1000 years ago? This class explores the history, literature, religion, art, and culture of the early medieval English. We explore a wide range of texts originally written in Latin and Old English that include fights with monsters, heartbreaking elegies, dirty riddles, bombastic sermons, and medical treatises. This semester, we’ll also be thinking about how to rename this course, given recent debates in the field regarding the name once given to the people of early medieval England: “The Anglo-Saxons.”

Over the semester, we will learn about how Early Medieval England came into existence, how it became Christianized, how it fought, assimilated, and fought again with Vikings, and how it all ended (or didn’t!) with the Norman Conquest. As a framework for the class, we will study the literature of the period (in modern translation), but we will also explore the period’s history, art, religion, architecture and everyday culture. We will also consider how Old English and Anglo-Latin literature has been adapted by modern writers, and why this early medieval culture continues to appeal to people today.

No previous experience with medieval literature and culture required!

English 803: Piers Plowman and the Arts of “Doing” in Late Medieval England (Prof. Lisa H. Cooper) Monday 2-4:30 (time slot to be confirmed)

We may think of “how-to” books as a recent invention, but this in fact far from the case. From the tenth through the fifteenth centuries, medieval readers turned with increasing frequency to a variety of texts that taught them how to manage daily affairs of all kinds and how to prepare for the afterlife; how, in short, to understand, regulate, and improve their lives. While the audience for such works was at first limited to monks and university schoolmasters, increasing lay literacy and, finally, the advent of printing greatly expanded the reach and the scope of didactic (that is, instructional) literature. This seminar seeks to explore this vast syllabus of “how-to” works by way of one of the most encyclopedic fictions of the late Middle Ages, William Langland’s alliterative and allegorical fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman. Difficult but moving, frustrating but exciting in equal measure, Piers Plowman touches upon virtually every aspect of late medieval life through the dream vision of “Will,” the poet’s narrator, who finds himself on a quest to learn how and what it means to do well, do better, and do best. Piers is a poem about “doing” in many different senses of the word, and so in addition to attending to the poem qua poem (we will focus on what is known as the “B-text,” while also taking into consideration the versions known as A, C, and Z), we will also use it to think about the many ways to “do” things—and the many things that could be done—in late medieval England, frequently pairing our readings with related practical/instructional material in both verse and prose in order to do so. Members of the seminar will be invited to bring their own theoretical perspectives to bear on the reading, but we are likely also to consider together a number of theoretical methodologies on issues ranging from affect to action. No previous experience with medieval literature is required (indeed, in its encyclopedism, Piers is a very good introduction to late medieval English culture generally). We will be reading the poem in a facing-page Middle English/modern English edition (medievalists will be expected to focus on the original). Work for the course will likely consist of two short presentations and a final article-length essay; students will also participate in the building of a critical bibliography for the seminar as a whole.

Books (please have in hand before the course begins; they will also be at College Reserve; available Kindle editions are fine for the two secondary texts) § William Langland, Piers Plowman, ed. Elizabeth Robertson and Stephen H.A. Shepherd (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006). § Emily Steiner, Reading Piers Plowman (Cambridge University Press, 2013) § Michael Calabrese, An Introduction to Piers Plowman (University Press of Florida, 2017)

English/Medieval 521: Advanced Old English Lit (Prof. Jordan Zweck)

An intensive study of Beowulf read in the original language (Old English). Line-by-line translation of the text will be supplemented by discussion of related issues (whether linguistic, thematic, or contextual) as well as by readings from relevant critical literature. Open to graduate students as well as undergraduates.  PREREQUISITE: one semester’s study of the Old English language (English/Medieval 520 or equivalent).


German 392 – German for Graduate Reading Knowledge II (Prof. Salvatore Calomino)

Tuesdays/Thursdays, 9:30-10:45 a.m., Van Hise Hall, 140

 This course provides further practice in reading and translating German expository prose in a variety of fields.  At the start of the semester a review of both grammatical and syntactical topics vital to progress in reading will be combined with a discussion of selected chapters in R.A. Korb, Jannach’s German for Reading Knowledge.  During the balance of the semester specific reading will be made available through both photocopy and internet sources.  The goal for all participants will be enhanced practice and confidence in reading German at various levels of both scholarly and journalistic prose, in addition to developing a focus in reading for their specific research areas. Prerequisites:  Some previous acquaintance with German grammar or reading. Open to graduate students and advanced undergraduates. Required text:

  • Jannach, Hubert and Richard A. Korb, German for Reading Knowledge.  Heinle.  Most recent ed.
  • Cassell’s German-English / English-German Dictionary.  Cassell & Co./ MacMillan. (or other equivalent dictionary, unabridged)

 German 651 Introduction to Middle High German. (Prof. Salvatore Calomino) Tuesdays/Thursdays, 11:00-12:15

This course will introduce students to Middle High German grammar and vocabulary with the goals of fluency and accuracy in reading medieval texts.  Lectures and discussions will cover topics in phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon.  During the course of the semester students will read Das Nibelungenlied and a representative selection from various genres of Middle High German literature.  Class time will be devoted to translation and to discussion of grammatical/lexical topics.  Participants will write mid-semester and final examinations.

Required texts:

  • Paul, Mittelhochdeutsche Grammatik
  • Lexer, Mittelhochdeutsches Taschenwörterbuch (hardcover ed. if possible)
  • Weddige, Mittelhochdeutsch.  Eine Einführung.
  • Bartsch/De Boor, ed. Das Nibelungenlied.


Italian 253: Lit Tans: Dante’s Divine Comedy (Prof. Jelena Todorović)


ScandSt 433; meets with Folklore, Medieval, LitTrans 345:  Scandinavian Tale and Ballad (Prof. Scott Mellor)  Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1:00-2:15

The genres of ballad and tale, which originate in the distant past, have often been scorned by the literary establishment, but the fact that they survived through centuries of oral transmission until they were finally recorded in the fairly recent past testifies to their lasting existential appeal. The stories these texts tell are dashingly entertaining and often deeply disturbing: they may offer a profoundly fatalistic view of existence, but they may also voice an angry and, at the same time, humorous protest against oppression. When this narrative type was discovered by scholars and the societal elite about 1800, it inspired many first-rank Nordic authors, e.g., Hans Christian Andersen, Henrik Ibsen, Selma Lagerlöf; and in the 20th century it has cast its spell over Isak Dinesen, Villy Sørensen, and Pär Lagerkvist and its influence has moved from literary to other media today. The course examines both the original literature and its modern “imitations” as well as gives an introduction to the critical methodologies that have recently been developed to deal with this seemingly simple, but in reality, highly sophisticated, narrative.

ScanSt 435 The Icelandic Sagas (Prof. Kirsten Wolf). Tuesdays/Thursdays, 9:30-10:45.

The course is designed to give students an understanding of saga literature as a genre and of the cultural history of Iceland in the Viking Era and the Middle Ages, based on the interplay between pagan codes of honor and Christian ethics. The course opens with a survey of the history of Iceland from its discovery until the end of the Icelandic Commonwealth (1262). A number of Sagas of Icelanders will be read and analyzed. Main points of discussion include the heroic ideal, codes of honor, concepts of fate, jurisprudence, and the role of women.

The final grade is determined as follows: two written examinations (midterm and final). For graduate students taking the course, two written examinations (midterm and final) and one class presentation are required.  Books to be purchased are: The Sagas of Icelanders. With a preface by Jane Smiley. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2000; Njal’s saga. Trans. Robert Cook. London: Penguin Books.