ENGL 503-01: Literatures of Medieval Women

Section Description:

European women’s experiences and behaviors varied across the space of Europe in the period known as the Middle Ages, as they still do now. Many of these women’s issues are our own: economic disparity, domestic abuse and exploitation, parenting and custody concerns, limitations and penalties related to reproductive options and choices, problems of being heard and having a voice. Nevertheless, a rich archive of works by women writers and texts featuring memorable female characters survives to interrogate and assess. We can look at Old English and Norse materials for Germanic views, or the better known French romances that created the genre we still recognize. Early Irish and Welsh texts let myths open up social anxieties about reproduction. The religious dramas of a 10th century German canoness look at a variety of sexual situations imposed by political and religious institutional expectations; a mother writes advice to her son despite her abusive and unloving marriage; a character called Silence asks us to wonder what changes when a girl is raised as a boy; the deaths of captured women evoke Halberstam’s shadow feminisms. Was the sexual binary of male/female hardened as a default in the medieval period, or was queering always already there? Did the heteronormative exist in the medieval period, or is it a modern description? How did institutions, whether political, religious and/or social, form and deform how women were understood and how they acted, or could not? How do we understand the contradiction that misogyny is the other side of the tradition called refined or courtly love? How did intelligent women of the past depict and think about their options, their bodies, their lives? We will read literatures of Europe, Britain and Ireland between 800 and 1500 with an eye to exploring these questions, as well as those we discover along the way.