English | Middle English Literature
L713 | 26270 | Ingham


L713  26270  INGHAM (#1)
Middle English Literature

9:05a – 12:05p W

The Middle Ages has long been characterized by a fascination with
conservation rather than with innovation, said to be preoccupied by
revivals of very old figures and forms rather than with an embrace
of novelty or anything like an active avant garde. On the one hand,
it is certainly true that medieval authors, along with their early
modern counterparts, worried over the attractions
of ‘newfangeledness.’ Yet much evidence remains of the importance of
innovation during the period. What are we to make, for example, of
the fact that the first documented description of a mechanical rat
trap occurs in Chretien de Troyes 12th century romance Yvain? How
should we read the futurist strains of Middle English Arthurian
Romance or of the Prophecies of Merlin; or Roger Bacon’s speculation
on the topic of flying machines; or a thirteenth-century fascination
with Islamic and Asian technologies like gunpowder, fireworks,
automata, or water clocks? Furthermore, as Bruce Holsinger has
shown, the innovations of the theoretical avant garde of the latter
half of the 20th century (theorists including Lacan, Derrida,
Bourdieu, all indebted to the ground-breaking work of professional
medievalist Georges Bataille) harbor a resolutely
medieval “archeology.” Given all this, why does the category of
the “medieval new” still seem such an oxymoron?

This course will examine the paradoxical status of newness in late-
medieval literature and culture, and in the historiography about the
Middle Ages. We will begin by examining the prominence of the
category of the new in critical theory, moving to consider the ways
in which medieval culture (from the 12th to the 14th centuries)
flirted with creative innovation and with novelty. Our readings will
likely include Roger Bacon’s Secrets of Art and Nature; Geoffrey
Chaucer’s “The Squire’s Tale,” “The Canon Yeoman’s Tale” and the
House of Fame, Lyric poetry of the Troubadour and Troibaritz,
Dante’s La Vita Nuova, excerpts from the Lais of Marie de France,
Mandeville’s Travels, stories of Virgil the Necromancer, and the
letters of Christopher Columbus. Our theoretical considerations will
range from Max Weber’s account of modern disenchantment, to the
return to St. Paul as figure for the “new man” in the theories of
Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, to Jacques Lacan’s re-reading of
scholastic theologies of “creation ex nihilo,” Malcolm Gladwell’s
pop sociology of the “Tipping Point,” and finally Bruno Latour’s
fantastical work of “scientifiction,” Aramis, or the Love of
Technology.

Course work will include a few short “exercises” and one long
seminar paper on a topic of your choice to be determined in
consultation with me. Students interested in innovation and change
in any period are very welcome; those interested in adjacent
historical periods (Early Modern, including 18th century; Anglo-
Saxon; or early Middle English periods) particularly so. No prior
knowledge of medieval theology, literature, or history is required,
although some facility with  (or willingness to learn) Middle
English will be helpful. All non-English texts will be available in
translation. [Students are welcome to contact me regarding any
particular issues or texts they would like to see represented in the
course.]