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EN3A2 Women and Writing, 1150-1450

Convenor: Dr Sarah Wood

Seminars: tbc

This 15-CAT module will be taught via 9 x 1.5 hour seminars in term 1 in the 2019-20 academic year.

Module description and aims

‘Who painted the lion?’ The best-known female character in medieval English literature, the Wife of Bath, was written by a man, yet as that text makes clear, Chaucer made women, their relationships, their trials, and their position in relation to textual culture his favourite themes. The medieval period before Chaucer had witnessed a remarkable early flowering of religious literature written in Britain in the vernacular for women. The period 1150-1450 also saw the diverse literary outputs of the first named woman author writing in the British Isles (Marie de France), the first woman author writing in English (Julian of Norwich), the first professional woman writer in Europe (Christine de Pizan), and the earliest autobiography in English, written by the wife, mother, and visionary Margery Kempe.

This module explores the centrality of female voices, real and fictional, to the history of medieval writing by studying Chaucer’s women alongside examples of pre- and post-Chaucerian texts written specifically for female audiences. The course will also introduce students to the work of four major female authors writing from the 12th to the 15th centuries in a range of modes (romance, religious vision, love poetry, polemic).

Introduction: Medieval antifeminisms and the female voice

Week 1. Extracts from antifeminist writings; The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale (in the Riverside Chaucer).

The extracts are as follows: Extracts from Ovid (43 BC-AD 18), Heloise and Abelard (12th century), and Jean de Meun's continuation of The Romance of the Rose (c. 1275), in Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts, ed. by Alcuin Blamires (Oxford, 1992), pp. 17-25, pp. 87-91, pp. 148-63. Extract from from Theophrastus, Marriage, and from Saint Jerome, Against Jovinian (c. 393) in Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales, ed. by Robert M. Correale and Mary Hamel (Cambridge, 2005), pp. 356-60, 360-66.

These extracts are provided as scans from the Library; please see the reading list for the module in Talis Aspire for links. You can also find copies on the Course Extracts page for this module here.

Chaucer’s women

Week 2. The Legend of Good Women (in the Riverside Chaucer).

Week 3. The Man of Law’s Tale, The Clerk’s Tale, The Physician’s Tale (in the Riverside Chaucer)

Women writers I: courtly love and women's history

Week 4. Marie de France, Lais (Penguin translation): please read the Prologue together with Guigemar, Le Fresne, Bisclavret, Lanval, Yonec, Laüstic, Chevrefoil.

Week 5. Christine de Pizan, Selected Writings (Norton edn: One Hundred Ballads (selection), The God of Love’s Letter, The Book of the City of Ladies (extracts), The Book of the Three Virtues (extracts), pp. 5-29, 116-73). NB you may find it useful to look at back at the extracts from the Romance of the Rose from week 1 alongside Christine's work, especially The God of Love's Letter.

Religious literature for women

Week 7. Anchoritic literature: Ancrene Wisse (ed. by Watson and Savage). Please read Introduction, Part II Outer Senses, Part III Inner Feelings, Part IV Temptations (up until p. 128), Part VII Love, Part VIII Outer Rule.

Week 8. Lives of female saints: The Stanzaic Life of St Margaret of Antioch, The Stanzaic Life of St Katherine of Alexandria, and Osbern Bokenham's The Life of St Anne. All in Middle English Legends of Women Saints, ed. by Reames, available online here.

Women writers II: Two female visionaries

Week 9. Julian of Norwich, Showings (Norton edn). Please read chapters 1-9, 16-22, 27-33, 45-52, 58-63.

Week 10. The Book of Margery Kempe (ed. by Staley, TEAMS edition: available online here). Please read the Prologue and chapters 1-7, 11, 21-22, 26-31, 35-36, 52-55, 79-81, 88-89.

Books to buy
  • L.D. Benson et al. (ed.) The Riverside Chaucer (you should have this book already from EN121)
  • Marie de France, Lais, trans. by G. Burgess and K. Busby, 2nd edn (Penguin, 2003)
  • Christine de Pizan, The Selected Writings, ed. and trans by R. Blumenfeld-Kosinski and K. Brownlee (Norton, 1997)
  • A. Savage & N. Watson (eds and tr.) Anchoritic Spirituality: 'Ancrene Wisse' and Associated Writers (Classics of Western Spirituality Series) Paulist Press, 1991
  • Julian of Norwich, Showings, ed. Denise Baker (Norton, 2005)
Learning outcomes
  • Acquire a knowledge of the variety of women’s experience and writing during the European Middle Ages;
  • Develop an informed historical understanding of the medieval antifeminist tradition and responses to it;
  • Gain an appreciation of the ways in which medieval women navigated their relationships to religious and textual authority;
  • Acquire an ability to reflect critically on the gendering of voice and authorial identities in medieval texts

From 2019-20, the assessment for this module will vary depending on your year of study:

  • Students in intermediate years will write 1 x 4000 word essay, from a selection of titles provided by the convenor. Deadline tbc (in week 12 of term 1).
  • Students in their final year will write 1 x 5000 word essay, on a topic of their own devising (in consultation with the module convenor). Deadline tbc (in week 12 of term 1).

Students are expected to have studied EN121 Medieval to Renaissance Literature or to have equivalent prior reading knowledge of Middle English literature.