English 210. Early Middle English Identitites

Instructor: Daniel Donoghue
Wednesday, 12:00-2:00pm | Location: TBA
​​​​​​​Enrollment: Limited to 15 students

This course investigates linguistic, individual, and national identities in early Middle English literature, and as such the course itself has multiple identities. On a basic level it is an introduction to the English vernacular of 1100 to 1300, a period of great flux without a “standard” such as the one that existed in late Old English (West Saxon) and the other that emerged at the end of the fourteenth century (London). Not only are there significant differences in dialect, but even within similar dialects orthographic conventions could vary from one scribe to the next. Because nearly every text has its linguistic idiosyncrasies, the end of many of our meetings will analyze the language of the text set for discussion the next week in order to make the week’s reading a little easier. The earlier and more challenging texts have facing-page translations. 

This is also a period of great experimentation in genres, with some innovations that took hold and others that fizzled out, such as the verse chronicle of Lawman. Dame Sirith is the only surviving fabliau in English until Chaucer resurrected the genre. Is there anything later quite like The Owl and the Nightingale? Does Ormulum deserve the obscurity it has slipped into? Some genres like saints’ lives were inherited from Old English and with sources in Latin. Others like family romances arose in response to changing social conditions unique to the period. The “false starts” are often as interesting as the genres that continued.