Global Medieval Literatures by our new director, prof. sarah mcnamer
English 104: Global Medieval Literatures
Prof. Sarah McNamer
Our focus in this course on global medieval literatures will be on the cultural construction of emotion -- in particular, romantic love -- in the courtly literatures of medieval Europe, Persia, and Japan. Each set of texts will give rise to its own set of issues, but abiding preoccupations will include the relationship between “artificial” conventions and “real” emotion (is this a valid distinction?); the cultural construction of the desiring and desirable body; the role of women as writers, court patrons, or courtly audience; conflicting ideals of masculinity; erotic love as religious experience; love in relation to arranged marriages, incest, and polygamy; the function of “noble” emotions as a marker of aristocratic distinction; love and the poetics of public and private spaces; the place of same-sex desire in relation to heterosexual love; and the use of irony as a destabilizing challenge to the reigning amatory system. Since religious practices and belief systems strongly inflect emotional constructs in each of the three cultures we will be exploring, our work will involve attention to Christianity, Islam, Sufism, Shinto and Buddhism.
All readings will be in modern English translation. European texts will include Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love, Chrétien de Troyes’ Lancelot, the Lais of Marie de France, and Gottfried von Strassbourg’s Tristan and Isolde. Persian texts will include the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Nizami Ganjavi’s Layla and Majnun and Khusrau and Shirin, and poems by Rumi and Hafez. Japanese texts will include the abridged version of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, the poems of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, and excerpts from The Pillowbook of Sei Shonagon and similar poetic diaries by women of the Heian court. We will seek to embed these literary works in a wider cultural matrix by reading extracts from additional primary sources such as chronicles and conduct books as well as brief selections from secondary sources. Methods from the anthropology and history of emotion will also guide the kinds of questions we ask about an emotion that seems so “natural”; do our literary texts from different cultures suggest, as one scholar puts it (Lutz), that “emotions are not precultural, but preeminently cultural”?