John T. Sebastian, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Medieval Literature
At Loyola University New Orleans
Introductory Common Curriculum Courses
The English department’s web site describes T125 as “a text-based course designed to develop critical reading and writing skills.” It continues: “This course involves literary texts, drawn from the genres of fiction, poetry, and drama and from traditional and modern periods. Teachers may also elect to include some films. Works selected for the course illustrate the theme of the ‘emerging self,’ or the movement from innocence to experience, often figured as a journey or an ‘epiphany.’ The critical reading and the discussion of the texts in this course will involve standard literary terms.”
In this section of ENGL T125, students will explore the narrative unfolding of the self in a range of genres representative of several of the major periods of literary history. In addition to considering how the self is a product of the telling of its own story, students will explore the category of the self as historically conditioned by reading texts written over the course of the last six centuries. Considerable attention will be given to the variety of often competing identity positions with which literary selves associate; students will thus consider selfhood as an expression of the body (and especially of damaged, disabled, or diseased bodies), sexuality, gender, race, spirituality, family, culture, socio-economic status, political ideology. A number of the works to be considered also explore the relationships between texts, images, and performance. Students will explore literature through reading and discussion and especially through the writing of interpretive essays.
Readings include Jamaica Kincaid, “Girl”; Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis; Judith Butler, Gender Trouble; Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure; Tony Kushner, Angels in America; Harold Frederic, The Damnation of Theron Ware; T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”; William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night; and John R. Trimble, Writing with Style: Conversations in the Art of Writing.
Advanced Common Curriculum Courses
This course explores the variety and complexity of literary and non-literary writing by women during the Middle Ages, from drama to romance, from lai to love lyric, from motherly instruction manual to mystical treatise. Students will confront the following questions: How do women achieve authority as writers? Is there such a thing as “women’s writing”? How do women writers respond to their male counterparts? How do writings by women reinforce, challenge, and subvert medieval gender norms? Who read and/or sponsored the writings of medieval women? What has motivated recent moves to expand the canon in order to include more women’s voices? In thinking about these and other questions, students will read (in modern English translation) works originally written in medieval Latin, Anglo-Norman, Classical Japanese, Old Occitan, Old and Middle French, Middle Dutch, and Middle English.
Readings include the plays of Hrotswitha von Gandersheim; Hildegard von Bingen's Ordo Virtutum; Marie de France's lais; Murasaki Shikibu, Tale of Genji; lyrics of the women troubadours; the mystic Hadewijch's letters, poems, and visions; The Book of Margery Kempe; and Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies.
This course offers a multidisciplinary introduction to the literature, history, and culture of medieval Scandinavia, from the Norse pantheon and the creation of the world to the discovery of the New World by Leifr Eiríksson. The course is divided into three broad segments. It opens with readings from the prose and verse sources of Norse mythological and cosmological lore. Next, students read Latin and vernacular accounts of the early (and typically fantastical) history of various Scandinavian tribes and their semi-legendary leaders, such as Hrólfr kraki and the Danish prince Amleth (Shakespeare’s inspiration for his greatest tragedy). The last part of the course will be devoted to the portrayal of the so-called Viking Age (8 th-11 th centuries) in the later Old Norse sagas. Half of the semester will be devoted to a careful reading of these seemingly straightforward but wonderfully complex narratives of love, adventure, and above all violence which comprise Europe’s first great corpus of prose literature and serve as the forerunners of the modern historical novel. Throughout the course, the image of Northern Europe’s pre-Christian past as presented by subsequent Christian writers will be contrasted with the archaeological record. Topics to be considered include the development of Europe’s first parliamentary government (the þing); the arrival of Christianity in the North; feuding and the law; the role of women in Viking society; the Norse interaction with the rest of Europe and also with Asia; and the “discovery” of the Americas around the year 1000.
Readings include Else Roesdahl, The Vikings; Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland; Adam of Bremen, History of the Bishops of Hamburg-Bremen; Saxo Grammaticus, The History of the Danes; the Poetic Edda; Snorri Sturluson, Edda; The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki; The Saga of the Volsungs; The Saga of the People of Eyri; Njal’s Saga; The Saga of the People of Laxardal; The Saga of the Greenlanders; Eirik the Red’s Saga; The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue; Snorri Sturluson, The Saga of the The Saga of the Ynglings and King Harald’s Saga (from Heimskringla).
This course offers an introduction to, and investigation of, the historical and literary origins of perhaps the most famous outlaw in the English-speaking world, Robin Hood. Students will begin the course by searching among the scanty records of medieval chroniclers for evidence of an historical person called “Robin Hood” and conclude it by analyzing references to Robin Hood and his band of followers in contemporary American culture. Along the way, they will delve into medieval tales, early modern plays, 18th-century ballads, American children’s literature, and 20th-century film. Students will also explore a number of critical responses to the Robin Hood legend in their pursuit of this seemingly ubiquitous yet simultaneously elusive figure of legend and lore.
Readings include Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography; medieval chronicles and ballads including the Gest of Robin Hood; plays by Antony Munday; Robin ballads from the 17th and 18th centuries; and Howard Pyle, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood.
This Advanced Common Curriculum course is a multidisciplinary introduction to early medieval culture in Northern Europe. Using both textual and non-textual materials drawn from medieval Scandinavia, Ireland, and especially Britain, the course explores various literary, historical, religious, archaeological, and other cultural contexts for reading critically and appreciating the great Old English epic Beowulf, which will be read in multiple translations over a period of four weeks as the culmination of the course. Students will study Anglo-Saxon cultural values; the mingling of religious traditions in early Europe; the impact of the Viking threat to, and occupation, of England on “English” cultural and nationalist ideologies; the importance of the monstrous in the formation of personal identity; and notions of gender in pre-modern societies.
Readings include several short Old English poems; The Saga of the Volsungs; The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki; Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People and The Life of Cuthbert; The Voyage of St. Brendan; Old English sermons; numerous critical articles; and, of course, Beowulf.
This course surveys the origins and development of one of the richest and most enduring traditions in all of world literature: the legend of Arthur, rex quondam, rexque futurus, “the once and future king.” Primary focus will be on medieval historical and literary imaginings of Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, Camelot, the Holy Grail, and the Round Table, but some attention will also be given to contemporary archaeological evidence, manuscripts and their illustrations, and music, as well as to more recent literary and cinematic adaptations of the legends.
Several key themes that are likely to recur include the transmission of the so-called “matter of Britain” throughout medieval European literature; competing codes of chivalric and courtly ethics; the quest as a metaphor for the search for identity; the conflict between secular and sacred ethics and desire; the shape of the legend as a function of genre (chronicle, romance, lai, prose text); the relationship between literature and material culture; and issues of sex and gender.
Readings include Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain; Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot or the Knight of the Cart and Yvain or the Knight with the Lion; Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival; The Quest of the Holy Grail; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur.
In his Convivio, the great Florentine poet Dante distinguishes between an allegory of the poets and one of the theologians: the former, he claims, hides truth underneath a “beautiful lie.” In this course, students will examine Dante’s philosophical, linguistic, political, and above all his poetic writings (his beautiful lies) from the perspective of medieval concepts of allegory. In the Middle Ages allegory was a compositional mode (Dante’s allegory of the poets) as well as a hermeneutic, a tool for interpreting a text (the allegory of the theologians). Beginning with selections from Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana, students will explore how medieval poets and theologians used allegory both to create imaginary worlds and to interpret reality. This interdisciplinary course should appeal to students with interests in poetry, history, languages and linguistics, philosophy, theology, cosmology, optics, literary theory, hermeneutics, and art, to name but a few.
Readings include Dino Compagni’s chronicle of medieval Florence, selections from Virgil’s Aeneid, Italian love poetry, and Dante’s Convivio, De vulgari eloquentia (on language), De monarchia (a work of political philosophy), Vita nuova (a collection of love poems with accompanying commentary), and his masterpiece, the Commedia (in its entirety: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso), all in translation, although students with some Italian or Latin will be encouraged to form an occasional reading group in order to study the original languages.
This course offers a broad survey of medieval texts written in the British Isles between the beginning of the eighth century and the end of the fifteenth. Students will study the wide array of typical medieval literary genres and their conventions in roughly chronological order. Further reading and discussion will be devoted to the literary, historical, political, cultural, artistic, philosophical, and theological contexts for the various modes of written expression studied in the course. As a survey of texts produced in the British Isles, this course will consider material written not only in Old and Middle English, but also that preserved in Latin, Anglo-Norman, Old Irish, Middle Welsh, and Middle Scots (all in translation, of course).
Readings include Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People; Dream of the Rood; Cynewulf, Juliana; Judith; The Battle of Maldon; Beowulf; The Táin; the Mabinogion; the lais of Marie de France; William Langland, Piers Plowman; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; religious lyrics; biblical and morality drama; the poetry of William Dunbar.
In this course students will survey the variety and complexity of the Canterbury Tales, the greatest literary achievement—and one of the supreme accomplishments of European and even world literature—of the so-called “father of English poetry,” Geoffrey Chaucer. Sometime soldier, customs official, and diplomat to Italy; favorite of English monarchs; accused rapist; and, most importantly for students of English literature, intellectual, translator and poet, Chaucer elevated the English language to a level of literary sophistication and suppleness previously reserved for Latin (and occasionally French) letters. In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer offered his original audience, just as he offers readers today, a relentlessly political poem that nevertheless rarely mentions specific rulers or events, a social commentary that praises as it condemns and even subverts, and an assessment of a Church torn between two sitting Popes at the end of the fourteenth century in which an elusive narrator laments institutional abuse while seemingly commending the cunning of friars, priests, and pardoners.
Throughout the semester students will analyze and discuss a healthy sampling of the tales viewed through a variety of lenses and within a number of contexts. The Tales will be approached primarily as an anthology of medieval literary forms, as an introduction both to the kinds of poetry current in fourteenth-century England and to Chaucer’s genius in deconstructing the conventions of these same forms as he places the tales in conversation with one another. Students will also begin to explore several pre- and postmodern contexts for interpreting Chaucer’s poetry, including but by no means limited to chivalry, courtly love, medieval science, (anti)feminism, and contemporary critical theory.
In this course students will read some of the early literary experiments as well as the mature poetic reflections of the so-called “Father of English poetry,” the 14 th-century customs official, diplomat, royal favorite, soldier, and poet Geoffrey Chaucer. The course begins with some of Chaucer’s early imitations of French dream-vision poetry before turning to his debts to, and translations of, the late Roman philosopher Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Next is Chaucer’s masterful retelling of the history of a pair of star-crossed lovers against the backdrop of the Trojan War, Troilus and Criseyde. The course concludes with Chaucer’s half-serious attempt to redeem the alleged antifeminism of his early work in the Legend of Good Women. The course also seeks to locate Chaucer’s poetry within the larger framework of late-medieval European literary developments.
Readings include the Romance of the Rose; Guillaume de Machaut, Judgment of the King of Bohemia and Fortune’s Remedy; Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy; Giovanni Boccaccio, IlFilostrato; selected cantos from Dante, The Divine Comedy; Chaucer, Book of the Duchess, Parliament of Fowls, House of Fame, Troilus and Criseyde, Legend of Good Women.
This course offers students a systematic analysis of the English language as language through the lens of contemporary linguistics. Throughout the first half of the semester, students will explore the historical development of English through four major periods: Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English, and Modern English. Concepts to be discussed include the lexicon (vocabulary), etymology (word origins), semantics (meaning), morphology (word structure or form), syntax (word combinations and sentence structure), orthography (spelling), and phonology (sound systems). This exploration of the history of English as a living, evolving language will then position students in the second half of the course to reconsider any preconceptions they may have of grammar as a set of prescriptive “rules” about the ways in which language is supposed to work.
Textbooks include David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, and Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.
At Georgetown University
This course will introduce several of the greatest literary and cultural achievements of the Western European Middle Ages by asking students to peer beneath the surfaces of the medieval knight’s perpetually shining armor and his damsel’s proverbial distress to the politics of gender at play below. The class will explore the processes by which normative “manly” and “womanly” behaviors are established and subsequently subverted in epic, romance, and lyric poetry; in treatises on the ethics of feudalism, chivalry, and courtly love; and in various forms of medieval performance from the songs of the troubadours to the great aristocratic tournaments. Secondary readings by current literary, historical, and cultural critics and by theorists of gender, ideology, and performativity will supplement and guide class discussion of primary texts (all in modern English translation). Students will be required to write numerous short responses to the primary and secondary sources; to complete a semester-long research-based project; and to participate actively in leading class discussion and shaping the progress of the course.
Reading includes Geoffroi de Charny, The Book of Chivalry; The Song of Roland ; The Nibelungenlied; Andreas Capellanus, On Love; songs of the troubadours, trouvères, trobairitz, and Minnesingers; Chrétien de Troyes, Erec and Enide and Yvain or the Knight with the Lion; Gottfried von Strassburg, Tristan; Heldris of Cornwall, Romance of Silence; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words; Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus;” Judith Butler, Gender Trouble.
The Georgetown University Writing Program describes Humanities and Writing 011 as “[a]n intensive-writing seminar (enrollment of no more than 20) centered on the analytic study of complex cultural texts.”
In this section of HUMW 011, these complex cultural texts take the form primarily of narratives, fictional and non-fictional—although the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive—about espionage, which the spy Kim Philby defined as gathering “secret information from foreign countries by illegal means.”
It is difficult to escape the profoundly transformative effect of the creation of modern intelligence agencies in the twentieth century on the subsequent history of global politics. Buzz-phrases like “FISA court,” “warrantless wiretaps,” and “Valerie Plame” suggest that the work of spies and other “intelligence gatherers” remains as important today as it was during the Cold War or the World Wars and that for all of its clandestinity spying remains a matter not only of governmental but also popular concern. What is perhaps less immediately obvious is the effect of what we might today call “national security” concerns on the world of letters, for the fear of enemies at the gates of the great empires of the late nineteenth-century and beyond uniquely prompted the invention of a new literary genre: spy fiction. This course will introduce novels and short stories by Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, and John le Carré—not a few of whom worked as intelligence gatherers throughout their careers—which feature spies, both amateur and professional, witting and unwitting, as their protagonists. Students will also consider the autobiography of an historical spy, Kim Philby. They will approach stories about, as well as parodies of, spies and spying armed with critical tools provided by postcolonial studies, game theory, and gender studies, as they seek to explore questions of ethics and identity, imperialism and nationalism, and genre and aesthetics.
Readings include John R. Trimble, Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing; Rudyard Kipling, Kim; Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent; John Buchan, The Thirty-nine Steps; W. Somerset Maugham, Ashenden, or The British Agent; Eric Ambler, A Coffin for Dimitrios; Kim Philby, My Secret War: The Autobiography of a Spy; Ian Fleming, Casino Royale; Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana; John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
At Cornell University
Traditional representations of the moral dilemma often pit a virtuous but unappealing angel on one shoulder against a seductive and fun-loving devil on the other. In this course students will explore this familiar scenario by investigating a dramatic genre known as the morality play, which came into its own during the late Middle Ages and which still maintains its grasp on the human imagination, albeit in revised form, today. Through a variety of writing exercises (electronic discussions, essays, a research project), students will examine morality plays from the Middle Ages (Mankind and Everyman), the Renaissance (Doctor Faustus), and today (Angels in America) in order to trace the development of several common themes including the redemption of the universalized soul, the problem of representing God and Satan, and morality’s place in human existence.
These excursions into the culture of the English morality play will not be strictly literary. Students will also consider broader contextual issues such as the staging of drama (performance spaces, “sets,” gesture), contemporary responses to individual plays as well as the genre as a whole, and material culture (primarily medieval, including art, manuscripts, and early printed books).
This course will take the film Braveheart as the starting point for talking and writing about the wars between Scotland and England during the Middle Ages. Through reading and writing about the deeds of William Wallace and their afterlife, students will explore topics in political, cultural, and literary history including: notions of freedom, medieval and modern; nationalism; the creation of legends; and love, sex, and marriage.
Readings include the great Scots epics The Bruce and Wallace, war poetry, popular ballads, laws, chronicles written on both sides of the border, an early modern dramatic interpretation of medieval events (Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, and modern historiography as students investigate the often blurred boundary between literary and historical narrative and the development of legendary figures (William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Edward “Longshanks,” and Edward II). The course concludes with a reconsideration of the film and an attempt to answer the questions “Is Braveheart an historically accurate film?” and “Does the answer really matter?”