Medieval Literature

Medieval Literature Faculty

The study of medieval literature encompasses an extraordinarily diverse range of materials from different historical contexts, genres, and linguistic traditions. The medieval faculty of the department offer their expertise in English writing from its Old English beginnings to the late medieval and early modern periods, as well as in insular, continental, and global literature.    

Graduate students benefit from the faculty's overlapping strengths in several specialities, including law and literature, religious literature, the history of literary forms, gender and sexuality studies, and medieval and early modern drama.

Johanna Kramer specializes in the literatures and cultures of early medieval England and of northwest and continental Europe, with a focus on Old English and Latin religious literature, genre studies, and source study. She is associated faculty of Religious Studies.

Emma Lipton specializes in late medieval literature, especially medieval drama, Chaucer, and Gower.  Her interests include historicisms, affect studies, and cultural studies. She is a faculty affiliate of the Women’s and Gender Studies department.

Lee Manion studies late medieval and early modern literature, especially romance, epic, Arthurian literature, Chaucer, and Shakespeare.

Please contact any of the medieval faculty members if you are interested in learning more about our program!

Medieval Studies at MU
The department’s long-standing program in medieval studies for undergraduate and graduate students is considerably strengthened by the faculty and medieval offerings in other departments.

As well as completing a depth of study in medieval literature for the English Major, undergraduate students can take courses in multiple departments to obtain an interdisciplinary minor through MU’s Medieval and Renaissance Studies program.

Graduate students can pursue a formal graduate minor in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. This interdisciplinary minor involves faculty in Art History and ArchaeologyClassical Studies, English, HistoryReligious StudiesRomance Languages and Literatures, Theatre and Women's and Gender Studies. Doctoral candidates have combined work in Old English and Middle English literature with anthropology, art history, classical studies, oral tradition and folklore, psychoanalytic theory, gender studies, rhetoric and composition, French, German, religious studies, and other areas of strength within the department and across campus. To learn more about Medieval and Renaissance Studies at MU, click here.

Our graduate students have been active at conferences, presenting papers at the Biennial Congress of The New Chaucer Society, the annual International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, and the Mid-America Medieval Association, among others.

By Guilelmus Peraldus, Summa de virtutibus et vitiis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Resources
 We have membership in The Newberry Library in Chicago, a resource that allows students to attend workshops, lectures, and performances relating   to medieval and Renaissance topics.

 We also benefit from a rich range of medieval manuscripts in our own Special Collections in Ellis library, which includes a page from William   Caxton's  first edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, a fifteenth-century breviary, a fifteenth-century Book of Hours and a Fragmenta Manuscripta     collection.

The medieval program actively engages in a variety of ongoing activities. In our interdisciplinary medieval reading group we meet to discuss articles of interest from a variety of fields as well as work in progress by faculty and students. The Old English Reading Group meets weekly to practice translation and reading skills.

We also host an E-mail List dedicated to medieval and early modern concerns and interests called MARS-L. This list is intended for discussion and exchange of information regarding events and developments at MU concerning the medieval and early modern periods. We welcome new subscribers! For instructions on how to subscribe to MARS-L, click hereTo subscribe to MARS-L, send an e-mail requesting to be added to the list manager, Johanna Kramer (English), at kramerji@missouri.edu. Or add yourself to the list by sending a subscription command to LISTSERV@PO.MISSOURI.EDU. Put the following command in the body of your e-mail message, not in the Subject line: SUBSCRIBE MARS-L firstname lastname (be sure to replace ‘firstname’ and ‘lastname’ with your first and last names)..

"John Gower world Vox Clamantis". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

For more resources relevant to medieval studies and beyond, please consult the Medieval and Renaissance Studies (MARS) website.

Recent Undergraduate Courses:

Introduction to Old English

Taught by Johanna Kramer

This course is an intensive introduction to Old English, the earliest form of English recorded in writing and the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England from about the 5th to the later 11th century. While the focus of this class is the acquisition and practice of the Old English language, the course also introduces students to the fascinating literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England (including its art, archaeology, manuscript culture, and religious practices). As we gain knowledge of the language, we will first read prose texts and then move on to more complex verse texts, among them such famous and brilliant poems like “The Wanderer” and “The Dream of the Rood.” This course is intended to give students a solid grounding in Old English grammar, enabling them to read a wide range of Old English texts in the original with the help of a dictionary and to proceed to more advanced studies in early English language and literature. Another purpose of this course is to become acquainted with the rich culture of Anglo-Saxon England, which combines oral and written, early Germanic and Christian-Latin traditions. No prior knowledge of Old English or other languages is required to take this course, although previous language experience will prove helpful.

History of the English Language

Taught by Johanna Kramer

This course traces the history of the English language from its prehistoric but reconstructable roots in Indo-European through its earliest written records into the present and its spread across the globe. As we investigate the many fundamental changes that English has undergone in terms of morphology, phonology, syntax, semantics, graphics, and vocabulary, we also explore the social, cultural, and historical forces that affect language transformation. As by nature the course has a strong linguistic component, students become familiar with some basic methodology and terminology of historical linguistics, and the class spend a good deal of time talking about grammar. The course emphasizes the pre-modern history of English.

Beowulf

Taught by Johanna Kramer

The Beowulf seminar offers students the opportunity to read this famous epic poem in its entirety in the original Old English. While students gradually make their way through the poem’s 3182 lines, we will address a range of topics relevant to the text, its production and reception, and its historical contexts, such as the unique manuscript, pagan versus Christian elements, the larger Germanic context, the nature of heroism, monsters and humans, the poet’s perception of history, female figures, material culture in the poem and archaeological finds (e.g., the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, the Staffordshire Hoard), meter and prosody, oral tradition and performance (medieval and modern), and the poem’s relationship to other genres of Anglo-Saxon poetry and prose. Class requirements will consist of one or two oral reports, daily translation and discussion, and a seminar paper. Students should have taken English/Linguistics 4200/7200 “Introduction to Old English” or the equivalent. 

World of the Vikings

Taught by Johanna Kramer

This course introduces students to the literature, history, and culture of medieval Scandinavia, which has not only passed down to us cryptic, entertaining, and culturally informative poetry, but also produced the earliest extensive corpus of non-religious prose writings in Europe. The readings in this course move from Norse mythology about the beginning of the world and the deeds of the gods to texts about legendary and sometimes supernatural semi-historical figures to the Old Norse-Icelandic sagas set during the Viking Age. These famous texts tell of love and violent feuding among Norse families as well as their histories and adventures, including the voyages to North America around the year 1000. Topics of study and discussion may include the pre-Christian heritage of the Norse peoples and its portrayal by later Christian writers, society and the law, women in Old Norse literature and society, the Viking expansion across Europe and the Atlantic, and parallel narratives in other European vernaculars. While exploring these and other issues, we also draw on historical and archaeological records in order to complement our understanding of the rich literary corpus and of this perennially fascinating time period.

Writing, Authority, and Religion:  Women in the Early Middle Ages

Taught by Johanna Kramer

This course is dedicated to the study of women in both the literature and the history of early medieval England, covering texts produced ca. 700 to ca. 1150 C.E. In particular we investigate how religious and secular authorities shaped the lives and literary representations Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman women. Current scholarship supplements knowledge of this period and provides tools for critical investigation of the literature. Readings (in translation) are writings for and about women, such as heroic poetry featuring stunningly powerful biblical and historical female figures, saints' lives, biblical narratives, historiography, and praise literature commissioned by a queen. Among possible topics of discussion are the influence of social and religious interests on the representation of women, the depiction of female saints in particularly Anglo-Saxon terms, gendered sainthood, the impact of female patronage on the production of texts and thus on medieval English literary culture, and the religious education of women. The course also provides a basic historical understanding of the period by learning about the social, political, and legal status of both noble and ordinary women and the opportunities available to women to act in positions of authority or to exert political power.

Arthurian Legends, Past and Present

taught by Emma Lipton and Lee Manion

Why is the story of King Arthur one that is frequently alluded to or retold today? What relation do a pseudo-historical king, his Round Table of knights, and aristocratic damsels have to modern society? This course traces the myth of King Arthur from its origin in the Middle Ages to its later retellings in Victorian and modern literature as well as in contemporary comic books, television, and film. We will study the representation of Arthurian characters, such as Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, and Gawain; how this legend of chivalry and romantic love has been employed to debate politics and ethics in its own time; and how Arthurian stories have been used creatively to produce a "medievalism" in today's popular culture that responds to our own fantasies and fears. Readings will range from Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain to Thomas Malory's encyclopedic Le Morte Darthur, from Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King to Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave, from the parodic film Monty Python and the Holy Grail to the epic film King Arthur

Chaucer

taught by Emma Lipton and Lee Manion

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales provide an introduction to a broad range of medieval literature, revealing the surprising variety of genres and forms in the period, from the bawdy fabliaux, to the courtly romances, to the theological lessons of saints' lives. With each of the tales told from the perspective of a person from a distinctly different social position within society, Chaucer's tales allow us to study competing notions of community in the Middle Ages and the ways that social class shaped individuals' values. We will study the tales in relation to both social and religious politics, and investigate such topics as governance and authority, the construction of individuality, chivalry, fin amor ("courtly love"), gender and sexuality, and forms of spirituality. The course will focus both on close analysis and on the ways that major historical and cultural issues shaped literary texts.

Medieval Romance

taught by Emma Lipton and Lee Manion

From the twelfth to the seventeenth century, the romance genre was the prominent form of storytelling in Western vernacular writing. Still influencing us today through genres such as the Western, the soap opera, and science fiction narratives such as Star Wars, the romance is particularly adept at imagining identity, love, justice, and faith in a variety of unusual yet captivating ways. The story of King Arthur is one of the most popular romance subjects, and this course will explore the Arthurian legends, their main characters, and the way these legends have been used to address various cultural needs, such as chivalry, patriotism, and social ideals, throughout time. In addition to reading early Arthurian texts by Chrétien de Troyes as well as Thomas Malory’s well-known Le Morte Darthur, we will also look more generally at other romances, both medieval and early modern, for their portrayals of gender roles, racial difference, and selfhood. 

Medieval Women Writers and Readers

Taught by Emma Lipton

This course explores women's relationship to medieval literary culture. We will read works by medieval women (including Marie de France, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe) as well as books accessible to or written for women, such as saints' lives, devotional literature, moral instruction and civic drama. Special attention will be given to the social context in which literary activity took place, focusing on the arenas of the court, the cloister and the city. We will explore medieval attitudes to sexuality and the regulation of desire, and consider the relationship between the female body and the construction of female subjectivity and identity. We will also consider how female literacy and female patronage affected literary texts, what conventions governed the representation of women, what kinds of texts were written by and for women, and how women's access to particular genres affected the meaning of those traditions.

Recent Graduate Seminars:

The Exeter Book

Taught by Johanna Kramer

In this course, we will study the contents of the Exeter Book, one of the four main manuscripts containing the majority of Old English poetry. The Exeter Book contains such famous shorter poems as “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” “The Wife’s Lament,” “Widsith,” and “Deor,” but also longer religious verse, for example, the Christ poems and Juliana, as well as popular and sapiential literature, like Maxims I and many riddles. The class will prioritize continued practice of translation at a more advanced level, but will also include some examination of literary, critical, and historical contexts of the poems to be translated. Possible topics to explore include: the manuscript, the logic of the compilation, considerations of genre, religious and secular themes in the Exeter Book, popular religious elements, and popular forms of literature.

Anonymous Anglo-Saxon Saints’ Lives

Taught by Johanna Kramer

This seminar will be dedicated to the intense study of Old English prose saints' lives of unknown authorship. Hagiography was the most popular, most productive, and, in many respects, most important literary genre of the Middle Ages, and is, therefore, essential for the study of any period of medieval literature, history, and culture. There are approximately one hundred extant Old English saints’ lives, but the study of the field has been dominated by the accomplished homilist and prose stylist Ælfric of Eynsham, who wrote sixty of them. This seminar turns its attention to the anonymous lives, an interesting and rich body of texts that has suffered from relative neglect in scholarship. We will study a selection of the anonymous lives, ranging from better known, multiply edited ones, like the Life of St. Margaret, to relatively obscure ones, like the Life of St. Pantaleon, to shed light on the historical, religious, social, and political concerns of Anglo-Saxons as expressed through these texts and through the authors’ reworking of their sources. In order to gain insight into Anglo-Saxon religious culture at large, we will also place these texts in relationship to poetic saints' lives (especially where verse counterparts exist), the celebrated saints' lives by Ælfric, and other contextual sources. In this way, this course is also dedicated to the study of early English prose.

The Care of the Soul in Anglo-Saxon England

Taught by Johanna Kramer

This seminar explores how Anglo-Saxon religious culture envisioned pastoral care as well as other ways of caring for the soul’s well-being. What were the most important priorities for teaching, preaching and training during the conversion period? What changes can be observed in pastoral care in the course of Anglo-Saxon England? How did Alfred’s educational program dovetail with existing ideals and practices? What impact did the tenth-century Benedictine Reform have on the state of learning of caregivers, pastoral priorities, and preaching themes? In what ways is pastoral care a political undertaking? How do religious interests intersect, rival, undermine, or support secular interests? And how might the Anglo-Saxon literary and homiletic corpus reflect any of these issues? We will ask these and other questions by reading a wide range of Anglo-Saxon prose and verse texts.

Crusading in Medieval and Early Modern Culture

Taught by Lee Manion

When Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World, he told Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragon and Castile “to spend all the profits of…my enterprise on the conquest of Jerusalem,” calling for a religious war directed not to the West but to the East: a crusade. This disconcertingly “medieval” notion of holy warfare would continue to shape the seemingly enlightened Renaissance to an enormous extent. In this course we will explore the conceptual challenge of the crusade across its various registers—theological, social, economic, penitential, and personal—by focusing on literary representations of crusading in English texts both during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Throughout the semester we will consider the implications of the continued ideal and vocabulary of holy violence on other religious groups, particularly Jews and Muslims, across the medieval-Renaissance divide. Supplementary and secondary readings will give us insight into related topics such as travel, pilgrimage, and the religious vow, while others will reveal how images of the Jew, Saracen, and Turk played a significant role in the religious and political discourse of Catholic and Reformation England. 

Medieval Affect

Taught by Emma Lipton

Late medieval meditations on the Passion instructed readers to imagine themselves present at Christ’s suffering and have compassion for Him, theorizing the act of reading as an affective experience.  This kind of “affective piety,” which was both somatic and emotional, was central to late medieval literature. Although early studies of medieval affect focused on devotional texts, this class will reflect the wider interests of recent scholarship by encompassing a range of topics and texts.  We will consider the meanings of love (such “courtly love,” marital love, and mystical love of God).  We will explore the relationship between gender and emotion, contrasting an association of women with affective piety to constructions of chivalric masculinity based in love and grief. We will read penitential treatises centered on contrition and structured by the seven deadly sins, and theological studies of the role of affect in cognition, imagination and memory. Our focus will be on the history of affect as collective and social rather than as the expression of the individual romantic subject. Primary readings will cover a range of genres (including mystical texts, meditational guides, lyric poems, dream visions, romances, drama, confessional manuals and theology). Secondary materials will include work by medieval scholars (such as Sarah NcNamer, Barbara Rosenwein, and Michelle Karnes), and by theorists (such as Sara Ahmed, Sianne Ngai, Brian Massumi, and Rei Terada).  Readings may include: Chanson de Roland, Chretien’s Cliges, John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, excerpts from William Langland’s Piers Plowman, Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, The Book of Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich’s Shewings, Nicholas Love’s Meditations on the Life of Christ and selections from late medieval drama.

Medieval Bodies

Taught by Emma Lipton

This course will introduce students to a wide range of discourses on the body in medieval texts and culture. We will explore medieval attitudes to gender, sexuality and the regulation of desire; we will learn about the close connection between medieval textuality and sexuality, and consider the relationship between the body and the construction of subjectivity and identity. For medieval culture, the body could take on many important meanings, as the site of violence, the embodiment of political identity and a symbolic place for the meeting of human and divine. While the focus of the course will be on late medieval materials, students will also read classical and earlier medieval texts crucial to the development of later traditions. The primary readings will cover a range of literary genres (drama, fabliaux, romance, mystical autobiography), supplemented with relevant contemporary cultural materials (excerpts from medieval physiology, theology, clerical antimatrimonialism, sermons, confessors' handbooks, saint's lives and courtesy literature). Secondary materials will include social and theological history, selections from the burgeoning field of medieval literary criticism on the body, and some of the theoretical writing on the body most crucial to recent critical developments. Primary materials may include Ovid's The Art of Love, Augustine's Confessions, Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun's The Romance of the Rose, The Alliterative Morte D'Arthur, The Book of Margery Kempe, selections from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, "The Mary Plays" (N-Town) and "The Crucifixion Play" (York).

Medieval Drama:  Performing Society

Taught by Emma Lipton

This course will examine the ways medieval society staged itself through the medium of its drama. Medieval drama presents us with a fascinating theatrical practice: ritualistic and sacred, yet also thoroughly social and profane, sometimes spectacular, sometimes participatory in intimate and non-exclusive relation with its audience. We will look at miracle and conversion plays which dramatize crises of belief and belonging, mystery plays that link a cosmic version of Christian narrative to the specific experiences of late medieval people, early liturgical dramas, saints plays, morality plays and contemporary descriptions of royal processions, courtly entertainment and civic celebrations. We will consider such topics as theater's relationship to contemporary controversy about images and iconoclasm, disputes about the nature of the sacraments, and the relationship between lay and clerical authority. In addition to the drama, course materials will include a range of social and historical material, modern theory useful to studying the drama (cultural studies, gender theory, performance theory and ritual theory) and selections from the newly burgeoning field of medieval drama criticism.

Medieval Hagiography

Taught by Johanna Kramer

This course traces the history of hagiography—arguably the most important literary/historical genre of the Middle Ages and definitely its most popular—from its beginnings in late antiquity to its prolific flourishing in the later medieval period. We begin with the Christian martyr acts, semi-historical documents that describe the trials and deaths of Christians persecuted in the Roman Empire, and then follow the development of the genre with the spread of Christianity and its adaptation into the vernacular areas of Western Europe. The main focus of this course is on Anglo-Saxon England but will also cover later medieval texts. While the course is mostly concerned with written texts, it also includes some non-verbal hagiographic forms (manuscript illuminations, architecture, cult objects, etc.). Practical course aims are to introduce students to some theoretical approaches to saints’ lives and to the major research resources and tools available for the study of hagiography. More importantly, students study the chronological and thematic development of saints’ lives and the cult of saints with an eye towards learning how to gain historical, social, religious, political, and general cultural knowledge from reading these texts. But we also explore topics relevant to a wide variety of interests and fields, such as gendered sanctity, sexuality and sainthood, the role of the body (both emphasized and denied) in the ideology of sainthood, the relationship between the body and the mind, various forms of spirituality and their historical dimensions, the relationship between genre and (religious) didactic goals, tradition and innovation of form, and hagiography as historiography. The course first covers such foundational texts as The Passion of SS. Perpetua and Felicitas, Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony, Jerome’s Life of Paul, the First Hermit, The Life of St. Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus. We then examine a variety of hagiographical subgenres and the adaptation of hagiographic conventions in early medieval texts from the British Isles, such as Adomnán of Iona’s Life of Columba, Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, the lives of Cuthbert and Wilfrid, and selections from Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints. A particular focus is the lives of female saints: virgins (e.g., St. Æthelthryth), holy harlots (e.g., Mary of Egypt), transvestite saints, (e.g., Eugenia), and married saints (e.g., Cecelia). The term concludes with later medieval saints’ lives: The Life of Christina of Markyate,selections from The Golden Legend, The Book of Margery Kempe, and others.

The Post-Colonial Middle Ages

Taught by Emma Lipton

Recent current events have suggested a need to understand the cultures of the East and the history of imperialism. The Middle Ages, with its well-known crusades, provides an especially apt venue for exploring these issues, as it was an important age for shaping ideologies of imperialism that continue in Western culture, and since this period is often itself treated as a kind of "Other" against which the present can be defined. In this course, we will read crusading narratives, travelogues and other literature depicting the East. In these texts the East is sometimes exoticized and Othered, at other times depicted as a culture to be conquered and assimilated. We will consider how in a variety of Middle English texts, the East helped to develop and construct a sense of "Englishness" or nationhood, and how the constructions of Muslims as pagans and idolators helped to define medieval Christianity. Readings for the class will include the work of post-colonial theorists (such as Benedict Anderson, Edward Said and Homi K. Bhabha), important recent criticism in the burgeoning field of postcolonial medieval studies, and primary texts such as The Song of Roland, Chronicles of the Crusades, The Siege of Jerusalem, The Travels of John of Mandeville, Chaucer's "Squire's Tale" and "The Man of Law's Tale" from The CanterburyTales, and The Alliterative Wars of Alexander.