This course is devoted to the environmentalités of the later Middle Ages. Our focus will not be restricted to the natural world. Nor will it be limited to human consciousness. The environment should rather be understood as that which veers (to recall the etymology of the word) between nature and culture, matter and mind, outside and inside, describing whatever co-exists in the surroundings. Where do such relations obtain in later medieval literature and culture? Case studies will be drawn from theoretical and practical writings (e.g., household manuals and encyclopedias) and from prose and poetry in Middle English (e.g., Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Gower’s Confessio Amantis, and Mandeville’s Travels). Topics may include animal taxonomies, household habitats, the invention of nature, planetary sciences, and global climates. The idea of “human ecology” is central to this inquiry. Arguably humanity issues from a dense material matrix that is barely human. So may the humanities — and what we have come to know as literature.
Our sense of how life at various scales articulates with the environment has been reinvigorated by recent theory (e.g., “distributed agency,” “agential realism,” “neural plasticity,” “ecomaterialism,” “object-oriented ontology”). One aim is to trace premodern genealogies of ecological notions that are not normally considered relevant outside modern frameworks (e.g., conservation, biopolitics, ecocatastrophe). Another is to consider what might be missed thanks to common modern assumptions about the premodern past (what Latour calls the “modern constitution” that agrees to separate nature and culture, things and representations). We will soon see that a range of texts, technologies, artifacts, and practices registers the complicity of humans and nonhumans in medieval worlds. Our various explorations of these early environs will lead us in many directions at once, but they should afford several different vantages on animal, vegetable, and mineral vitalities. The inquiries we make will partly depend on the initiatives of individual students expressed in seminar and the course blog. Students who have little or no acquaintance with the language of the early period are most welcome.
For the reading schedule please see links to the side.
1. Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed. (Houghton Mifflin). ISBN: 0395290317, or another acceptable edition of his works in Middle English. The bookstore will have stocked the Penguin edition of the Canterbury Tales and the Norton Dream Visions and Other Poems for this course.
2. Gower, Confessio Amantis, vol. 1-3, ed. Peck (MIP, 2006). ISBN: 978-1-58044-102-5. Note: buy volumes when and as needed, since we are not likely to use them all.
3. Anon., The Book of John Mandeville, ed. Kohanski and Benson (MIP, 2007).
4. John Aberth, An Environmental History of the Middle Ages (Routledge, 2012).
5. Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
Several more required readings are listed on the schedule, and fortunately many are available for free electronically. A list of items on reserve in the library will be provided. These may include selections from William of Conches, Adelard of Bath, Bartholomaeus Anglicus, Isidore of Seville, and additional theoretical writings to be drawn from Stacy Alaimo, Karen Barad, Tim Ingold, Elizabeth Grosz, Donna Haraway, and Timothy Morton.