Religious Studies | Historical Studies: Christian Literature in Pre-modern Europe
R630 | 27528 | C. Furey/ P Ingham

Cross-listed with ENG L 613: Medieval Literature

Recent philosophical and ethical analyses of cultural and religious
difference emphasize the limits such difference poses to our
knowledge about “the other,” and worry over how we might best
acknowledge and respect the differences within and among us.
Premodern texts might contribute to this project, particularly given
both medieval literature’s persistent interest in ethnic and
religious otherness, and the emphasis in medieval religion on the
relationships across the differences of divine and human, orthodox
and heretic, Christian, Jew, and Muslim.  Yet if illuminating
processes of othering has become something of a methodology in
itself, this method can tend to perpetuate the very binaries it
interrogates. In this course we will consider premodern accounts of
difference, and we will avoid this methodological trap by taking our
lead from recent work by Slavoj Zizek, Eric Santner, Kenneth
Reinhard, and Julia Kristeva that focuses on the category of the
neighbor. Uniquely situated between friend and enemy, and long
linked to the “golden rule” of Christian ethics (to love your
neighbor as you do yourself), the neighbor is not easily aligned
with either sameness or otherness. Given the complexity of medieval
definitions of difference (where, for example, Islam was as
frequently understood as a heresy of Christianity as an enemy to
it), this category might prove particularly apt and thus useful for
We will investigate three genres of medieval literature: romance,
hagiography, and mysticism. Medieval romance has recently been
linked to horrifyingly racist fantasies associated with the period
of the Crusades. And yet, a genre of magical transformations,
romance also regularly performs, as Frederic Jameson has argued, the
startling revelation of the enemy as the friend. Hagiographies
celebrate extraordinary feats of sanctity, and yet also, and
increasingly, present saints as ordinary people to be emulated, as
neighbors rather than distant heroes. And mystic texts are generated
by the gap between human and divine and yet posit the dramatic
intimacy of lover and beloved. This course, taught jointly by a
scholar of premodern Christianity and a specialist in medieval
literature, will pursue the following questions: what does the
category of neighbor signify in medieval Europe? What complications—
even contradictions—emerge in medieval discourses of ethnicity,
holiness, and proximity? How do romance, hagiography, and mysticism
encode, resolve, or otherwise manage those contradictions? How does
the mix of religion and romance complicate the question of identity
and union? What are the ethical implications of these medieval
While some of the texts examined in the course will be in Middle
English, no previous familiarity with the language is expected or