English Literature

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2017-18: Wednesdays, 11:00 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Eastern Time


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Unit II: The Medieval Period

Week 5
Please read:

Historical background, pp. 79-83.

After you have finished reading the historical survey, please take the background quiz for the unit.

Misc. medieval and later traditional ballads:

It is worth noting that though many of these ballads may have medieval sources, most of the forms that survive are not themselves medieval, but later. Consider what this means for our understanding of the material.

One of the things I'd like you to get out of this course is a feel for what is sometimes called “close reading” — that is, looking at the text with an eye on every word, making sure you know what each word and phrase means, and thinking about its relationship to every other part of the work. The ballad is probably a good place to start cultivating this skill, since the form is fairly simple, highly regular (even repetitive), and frequently follows a number of dramatic narrative conventions. From here we can go on to othe more complicated things.

Close reading cannot entirely work when you are dealing with a translation, since it really has to do with taking the particular words and phrases into account, and these are always changed in the translation. Still, you can do a certain amount of close reading that way — at least tentatively — as long as you are willing to check it against the original text in the long run. We'll be trying that on Chaucer, who is one of the masters of English poetry. But since we have for a few weeks spent time looking at Beowulf and other things at the large-scale level, maybe we can, through the ballads, look at how this is done on a smaller scale.

Consider for discussion:

 To this week's assignment I would like to let you add, if you are interested, some real Middle English texts. Unlike Old English, Middle English will often yield to steady pressure. After you have looked at if for a few minutes the spelling starts to seem less peculiar, it will start to make sense. These are taken from the Oxford Book of English Verse online at Columbia University, and the hard words are glossed at the bottom of the page. You may browse them at your leisure: