The first recorded use of the phrase “to get medieval,” meaning to use violence or extreme measures or to become aggressive, was in the 1994 film Pulp Fiction, but the term has been associated with barbarity, cruelty, and violence since at least the mid-19th century. Derived from the Latin phrase medium aevum (the Middle Ages), the term was coined in the 15th century to describe the period between the 5th and the 15th centuries, that is, between the Classical period and the “Modern” or so-called “Renaissance” of classical art and philosophy. The characterization of the Middle Ages as an age of unmitigated violence and philistinism is belied by the social, political, literary and artistic record. In this course we will interrogate assumptions about the Middle Ages and about the “medieval” as a descriptive category by reading from the rich and diverse corpus of poetry produced in England, Ireland, Iceland, and regions that were to become France and Germany between 600 and 1400 A.D. Readings will include a range of genres (poetry, prose, homilies, saints’ lives, satires, letters, etc.), both familiar and unfamiliar as well as historical and critical discussions of the period and the texts. These will include Viking sagas, Irish heroic battles over the carving of a pig, poems about transvestite Norse gods, gory hagiographic accounts, suggestive and puzzling Old English riddles, bizarre retellings of biblical stories, a range of Arthurian and Middle English romances, and others.
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