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LITS 0130 / GSFS 0130 / ENAM 0130 Women & Literature in the Middle Ages

This course brings together diverse genres and texts in order to examine how women were represented in Western European Medieval literature, and particularly to introduce students to a rich array of writing by women. The place of women in European society throughout the Middle Ages was often in direct relation to biblical texts, which frequently emphasised primacy of men over women, and balanced understanding of femininity between the absolute archetypes of Eve and the Virgin Mary. Nonetheless some women exercised remarkable degrees of power in religious, political and domestic realms, both working within and against legal limitations. Women often made practical choices between marriage and ‘taking the veil’ as a nun or anchoress, but in some cases an alternative way seems to have been found, such as the extraordinary travelling life of Margery Kempe. Women’s writing is frequently composed in the vernacular, whether French, Middle English, German etc, and often that which survives is written by wealthier or noble individuals. As required this course may also incorporate historical and archaeological sources in order to better trace the lives of ordinary women, who frequently lived and died without leaving a textual record.

In this course you will explore a mixture of genres, which might include hagiography, life-writing, mystical spiritualism, lyrics, letters, homilies and dream vision, ranging across poetry, prose and, if desired, drama. Texts will be read in translation from Anglo-Norman, French, Middle English and Latin, with some opportunity to get to grips with the original language in consultation with your tutor.

Sample Syllabus:

  • A selection of anonymous Marian devotional lyrics
  • Marie de France, Lais
  • Ancrene Wisse
  • The Katherine Group and the Wooing Group
  • The Life of Christina of Markyate
  • The Paston Letters
  • Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe
  • Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies
  • Julian of Norwich, Shewings or Revelations of Divine Love
  • Guillaume Lorris/Jean de Meun, Roman de la Rose (likely paired with Christine de Pizan, Epistre au Dieu d’Amours)
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale; The Clerk’s Tale; The Merchant’s Tale; The Miller’s Tale


Introductory Reading:

  • Liz Herbert McAvoy and Mar Hughes-Edwards, ed., Anchorites, Wombs and Tombs: Intersections of Gender and Enclosure in the Middle Ages. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2005
  • Millett; B. and Wogan-Browne; J., ed., Medieval English Prose for Women. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990
  • Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986
  • Alexandra Barratt, ed., Women’s Writing in Middle English: An Annotated Anthology. 2nd edn. New York and London: Routledge, 2010
Over 25 years on
I attended CMRS over 25 years ago; now I live outside Washington, DC, where I practice law before the federal appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme Cour...
Greg Castanias, Autumn Semester 1985, Wabash College