The Social Text, 1350-1590


What is a literary text without its reader? In this course, we begin with this ever contemporary question, but we give it a challenging, historical turn. We pursue the pleasures of early literature, however much plagued by alterity, but we are concerned especially with taking stock of the formation and character of public culture in the medieval and early modern period and examining the performance of the socially embedded literary text within it. 

Medieval and early modern literary texts freely display their social relations, not least because they commonly engaged with a public rather than a private audience. Our course, then, explores the relations between literature and its public readership in the late medieval/early modern period. The literary text may even be seen to articulate the designs and demands of political culture, employing the terms of emerging political discourses; it may itself become a political event. At the same time, English, the local vernacular, becomes increasingly standardised, as the language of government and as the dominant literary language. For a variety of such reasons, a public culture, problematic but capable of articulating social and political desires and hostilities, emerges in the fourteenth and early fifteenth century; equally clearly, major political conflicts later in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries supported this development. 

We ask, then, what happens to romance, for instance, in a period of acute political instability, in consequence of the dynastic conflict between the houses of Lancaster and York? What happens to court culture with the arrival of the Tudors? Do shifting intellectual and religious orientations, especially humanism and the Reformation, drive the formation of new textual practices? We ask what public culture involves, given these complicated histories, and investigate in particular the uses to which literature can be seen to have been put in various contexts. More particularly, we read a range of medieval and early modern texts, analysing the ways in which they may be said to speak to power, or for it. 

Chaucer’s works are largely absent from this course, which instead offers the opportunity for students specialising in the study of medieval and/or early modern literature to explore a different range of major works in the period. These include, amongst others, Langland’s Piers Plowman,  Malory’s Le Morte D'Arthur, Thomas More’s History of Richard III, the York mystery plays, The Book of Margery Kempe, Skelton’s Magnificence and Bowge of Court, Wyatt’s lyrics and Sidney’s Defense of Poesie.

Availability 2022

Not taught in 2022




ENGLISH 779: 30 points