Medieval Literature

ENG330, Medieval Literature

The Queer Premodern:  Gender and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature

Course Description

Queer theory tends to focus on modern texts, perhaps because of the philosopher Michel Foucault’s (in)famous declaration that in the West, ‘homosexuality’, as an identity, is a nineteenth-century invention.  If we accept Foucault’s premise, then what might queerness look like in the long medieval period, before the emergence of this form of identity?  In this seminar, we will discover that sexuality in the premodern period is an unstable concept, which most often emerges as it intersects in unexpected ways with other categories, including racial, national, religious, class, and gender identities.

We will make this discovery by reading a variety of texts dating from the tenth to fifteenth centuries that crisscross genres, whether drama, prose, or poetry, including Hrotsvit of Gandersheim’s version of St. Pelagius, the thirteenth-century romance Silence, portions of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and The Book of Margery Kempe.  By studying a wide range of literary texts, we will see that ‘queering’ texts can serve as a deconstructive tool, enriching our understanding of early literature.  In turn, depictions of premodern sexualities challenge us to reexamine some of our own, along with queer theory and gender studies’, assumptions about sexuality, gender, and history.

This course will English major’s breadth of field requirement.

Book List (Tentative)

Chaucer, Geoffrey.  The Canterbury Tales.  Jill Mann, ed.  New York:  Penguin Classics,       2005.

Cleanness. Kevin Gustafson, editor and translator.  Ontario:  Broadview Press, 2010.

Foucault, Michel.  The History of Sexuality.  Volume One:  An Introduction.  Robert Hurley, trans. New York: Vintage, 1978.

Silence:  A Thirteenth-Century French Romance.  Sarah Roche-Madhi, ed. and trans.           Michigan:  Michigan University Press, 1999.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  James Winny, editor and translator. Ontario:  Broadview Press, 1995.

Staley, Lynn, ed.  The Book of Margery Kempe.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Student Learning Outcomes:

In this course, students will:

  • Practice reading literary and non-literary texts critically and appreciate how genre shapes content
  • Acquire an understanding of the history of sexuality and queer theory
  • Strengthen their knowledge of the Middle Ages as a literary and historical period
  • Gain an understanding of literature’s potential and limits as a source for cultural history
  • Improve their skills in incorporating and documenting secondary scholarship when crafting an argumentative essay


Attendance/Participation                                                        10%

Response Paper 1 (650 words)                                                 10%

Response Paper 2 (650 words)                                                 15%

Paper Proposal and Annotated Bibliography                          10%

Research Essay (2000 words)                                                  40%

Final Exam                                                                                     15%