Course Description

What are the available configurations of the human in medieval literature and culture?

In response to rapid technological change, planetary ecological crisis, and the apparent bankruptcy of liberal humanism, thinkers today worry over the fate of the human. New forms of posthumanism and transhumanism are emerging to cope with what has been diagnosed as costly states of “human exceptionalism.” But what are the options? And are there no historical precedents for a more capacious, connected (ecological rather than egological) humanity? Our seminar identifies a range of medieval texts, technologies, artifacts, and practices that register how humans and nonhumans are articulated and reticulated in the wider world. Taking examples from medieval philosophy, medicine, craft manufacture, and literary narrative, the seminar will address the manner in which the human creature became “fleshed out” in ways that are less terminal and anthropocentric that commonly imagined. Never just in the world, the human became part of the world.

The claim may initially seem surprising given medieval theology and geocentric cosmology – for indeed, when was human mastery over creation ever so self-assured?  But such is the prejudice to overcome.  Our explorations of medieval cosmology, ontology, and ethics will lead us in many directions (micro- and macro-cosmic). One of our main interests is in the bio-social construction of the human animal. Examples will be drawn from theoretical and practical writings and from celebrated authors whose works are deeply informed by the sciences and technologies of the day (e.g., Chaucer and Gower). Another focus is the status of the material object (e.g., toys, tables, texts) quite apart from the human.

Some of the questions the seminar will raise for discussion include: To what extent does humanity always remain an emergent being? How fluid is the body?  What is the relation between subject and object, mind and matter, human and nonhuman animals? Is identity a relational assemblage of things, practices, networks, and so on? Do some things remain apart, withdrawn, transcendent? One aim is to discover, at diverse levels of organization, medieval recognitions of the human-under-construction. Here we will focus on the co-existence and complicity of the human among a range of organisms and objects. Another aim is to consider, so far as possible, the independent existence of nonhuman others.

The inquiries we make will partly depend on the initiatives of individual students. Students who have little or no acquaintance with the language of the early period are most welcome.

Required Texts

1. Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed. (Houghton Mifflin). ISBN: 0395290317, or another acceptable edition of his works in Middle English.

2. Gower, Confessio Amantis, vol. 1-3, ed. Peck (MIP, 2006). ISBN: 978-1-58044-102-5.  Note: buy the volumes when and as needed, since we may not use them all.
3. Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

4. Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

apSeveral 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 will 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.

Click here for a copy of the ENGL 516 Syllabus and the Reserve List.