Getting Medieval on Theory

I face an interesting challenge this fall: teaching my first theory and methods for English majors course. I’ve had to start thinking on it now since textbook orders are due late February. I was surprised how few theory anthologies there are which are not $100 plus, or mostly summaries of ideas without actual excerpts (preferably longer ones) of the actual original theories. I had the idea that for the first ¾ of the class I would choose a single base text that students could practice on. Ideally, this would be something of manageable length, has been around long enough to have been subjected to a variety of examinations, and not too much of a chore read, meaning something most students are likely to have at least heard of if not had to read bits of before. Not a deal breaker but also preferable would be something I’ve studied in some detail myself, so that gives me medieval works like Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Shakespeare was also an option for a while (I was thinking either Macbeth or Midsummer Night’s Dream), but I figured that a) there might be too much on some of the plays, and b) I don’t know the scholarship off hand quite as well, meaning more set up work for me.

The full semester at my institution is 16 weeks, which means I can cover about 12-13 areas of theory; there needs to be an intro week, and a few weeks at the end to focus on the main end-of-course paper/project. It’s going to take me a while to really get things fully designed, but for a starting point, here’s an initial list, in no particular order: feminist studies, gender studies, Marxist, new critical, new historicism, eco-criticism, race studies, queer theory, post-colonialism, structuralism, deconstruction, disability studies, psychoanalysis, reader response, and cultural studies. I did find a theory reader that has a decent balance of description and actual readings from theorists, as well as some sample applications. It’s slightly out of date for some theories but I can deal with that with some supplementary lecture and articles.

The other side of the course is the methods side, and I found that textbook pretty quickly after getting a hold of several library titles that looked promising, and one of them was exactly right, although it too is a few years out of date, but not unmanageably so. This handbook covers general research resources both online and print, bibliography, history of the book and editing literary texts, history of the discipline, interdisciplinarity, translation, media, and planning/executing a larger research project. My literary trial text needs to be something that has options for all of these areas, and with medieval literature, many of them are pretty accessible, even for mid-level undergraduate students.

So besides the obvious need to overlap and work out scheduling time for each thing to be covered, I still need that literary test piece. If Beowulf and SGGK are my main choices, the big question now is which one will work best, again bearing in mind the level of my students.


Feminist reading: Gendel’s mother and the Hrothgar’s queen

Gender: masculinity and warriors

Marxism: social hierarchies and some of the transactions between families during war/feuds

New Critical: details of the poetic forms

New Historical: cultures of the original time and place of composition

Eco-criticism: landscape descriptions, role of environment, interactions with outdoors

Race: the controversy and contents of the new collection of essays that was all over social media late 2019; also Gredelkin as racially other

Queer: less of the sexuality angle, more on the otherness identities of some characters

Post-colonial: Grendlekin as native against the Danes, maybe Geats and Danes in each other’s lands

Structuralism: language and genre conventions, possible links to other Scandinavian epics or sagas; maybe bring up Tolkien here

Deconstruction: paradox and self-revelation possibly in Beowulf the character

Psychoanalysis: dreams, prophecies (alluded to in the songs), and maybe Beowulf and Grendel’s mother

Disability: this one will be trickier but I’m thinking maybe old Beowulf’s final battle

Cultural studies: possibly bringing in ideologies and nationalities

Reader response: ways to describe how people might react to and make meaning from the text

Beowulf also offers ample possibilities for all the basic methods components including bibliography, editions, translation, media, etc.


On the other hand, we have Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Feminist reading: Arthur’s queen, Morgan leFay, and Lady Bertilak

Gender: masculinity and warriors

Marxism: social hierarchies and the transactional nature of the bargains

New Critical: details of the poetic forms

New Historical: cultures of the original time and place of composition

Eco-criticism: landscape descriptions, role of environment, interactions with outdoors; the Green Man

Race: the othering of certain characters in certain situations, the casting of Gawain in the new movie, possibly race in Arthuriana

Queer: discussions of Gawain’s identity

Post-colonial: founding of Britain frame, Gawain and the Green Knight in each other’s territories

Structuralism: language and genre conventions, the Arthurian traditions

Deconstruction: paradox and self-revelation Gawain, but also the identities of the Green Knight, and possibly a few others

Psychoanalysis: symbolism, Gawain’s psychology, and Gawain in Bertilak’s castle

Disability: Gawain as guest in the castle vs the hunting; this one again might take a little work to get right

Cultural studies: possibly bringing in ideologies and nationalities of Arthur’s court vs the Bertilak’s

Reader response: ways to describe how people might react to and make meaning from the text


Much like Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight also has plenty of strong options for the methods areas to be covered.

So far, the two texts are roughly equal. It comes down to text options. Both texts are available in a range of translations and edition types. I decided I didn’t want an edition that comes with a lot of extra supplementary analysis either, because the goal of using the text would be for the students to start working on their own analyses using the various theoretical and methodological applications. Part of the decision came from personal taste in terms of translation options, and I also wanted something that kept some of the original style or language but that was done in a readable way for a 21st century student, and was readily available in a paperback or ebook under $20. I landed on Armitage’s SGGK.

What I’ve got listed here are really only the initial starting possibilities. As I start to focus on designing this course over the summer, I’ll be getting a lot more into the details of each theory as it has been and could be applied to the medieval text. I’m also going to need to consider how to align pairing theoretical work with methodologies. IF anyone has any ideas or advice, I’d love to hear it…

Myth and Folklore towards a Theory of Superheroes

There’s an old saying that to learn something thoroughly, you have to teach it. For me the past few weeks, that’s been mythology and folklore that’s affected literature (and culture), and the theories that have been applied to them. I’ve been familiar with many of the basic stories since childhood, but I hadn’t gone very in depth in terms of context or interpretive strategies. With a little research, context isn’t hard to find, but interpretation when it comes to this kind of literature has a varied history, not to mention, literary theory is not something I have a lot of practice with using and neither is contemporary literature.

In retrospect, I first learned about literary theory in my senior year of graduate school. At the time, I wasn’t really clear what ‘cultural studies was or why it mattered. I later had two semesters of theory surveys in graduate school. I enjoyed those courses. The ‘problem’ was that my general scholarly specialty, medieval literature, is traditionally most often studied via close reading, source use, or historical context. It probably might also have something to do with the fact that I had an advisor who doesn’t believe modern theory has much applicability to older texts.

Not only then have I not used a variety of theory in my own scholarship, but I also have not taught it. That’s where things got interesting the past few weeks. I taught a 5-week short summer term course on ‘Myth and Folklore for Literary Studies’. I didn’t plan this initially, but as it turns out, theory was unavoidable. I knew the name Joseph Campbell from my senior year of high school, when I think we watched an episode of two of the series of interviews that he did with Bill Moyers, “The Power of Myth”. I don’t remember learning or understanding much from that, especially not in terms of using those kinds of ideas to interpret stories.

What I ended up doing was starting with definitions of ‘mythology’ and ‘folklore’, then adding a new theorist each week. My students and I ended up with Campbell twice (once for archetypes, and once for modern utility and applicability), Karl Jung, Vladimir Propp, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Otto Rank. Not that I’d tell them this directly, but I probably learned as much about theory over the past month as they did. We also ended up going into pop culture more than I had planned, but it was something the students could relate to and they also (hopefully) now know that there can be academic value in using scholarly tactics with things like anime or comic books. For example, we looked at a translation/prose rendering of the first section of Journey to the West, which covers the backstory of Sun Wukong the Monkey King, which has been very influential even in American popular culture. We used that story as the basis to try and formulate a theory of the American superhero story. We ended up with something that looked an awful lot like Rank’s breakdown of the hero story. I admit I was a little disappointed things didn’t get more creative with putting together a new theoretical framework derived from the examples of heroes that the class had been reading and talking about, but it was a start. In any event, it was entertaining to see the class try and reason how well their ideas fit a range of contemporary hero characters, like Batman and Wonder Woman.

I was also a bit inspired by some of the work done for their final projects. The assignment was to take a classic adaptation of myth or folklore like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Beowulf, or The Hobbit, and compare/contrast the treatment of the identified source material with a modern adaptation like Krampus by Brom, The Immortals by Jordanna Max Brodsky, The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski, or The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. After seeing what a small group of English majors about halfway through college managed to work out, I now rather want to see what might be done if I applied Otto Rank’s ideas of the family romance and his 10 step hero journey to the likes of V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy. Or, once the sequel to Vicious, Vengeful, comes out in September (9/29- not that it’s not on my calendar or anything), using any and all of the theories previously noted to determine once and for all the good guy-bad guy dynamic, since I have long questioned the common blurb that comes with Vicious that it’s a twist on the superhero/supervillain story.

After some brief checking, it looks like most scholarship on modern (ie- 20th century-ish) American superheroes deals with their cultural origins and meanings, and very little on structural or morphological characteristics that theorists of centuries past have constructed. While I readily admit this kind of approach is old-fashioned and not terribly fashionable at the moment, it does have its uses, especially for introducing students to interpretive possibilities. Frameworks that include things like concrete patterns (ex-7 basic archetypes) and lists (ex-31 functions) are far easier to start working with than ideologically-based theories. Not that ideologies are bad as interpretive bases, they just seem a bit harder to start with for most. Techniques that allow for patters to appear seem a good half-way point between theories that start with a pattern to apply and those which advance a more philosophical approach.

For example, if I wanted to use Vicious and Super Powereds (by Drew Hayes) as my primary basis for contemporary treatments of heroes, a basic comparison and contrast such appears in Levi-Strauss’ “The Structural Study of Myth” provides a technique for gathering information and looking for potential patterns resulting in something like:

Super Powereds is far more traditional in some ways (capes, secret identities, lairs, etc) than Vicious, but there are overlaps in things like concerns for ethics and individual moral choices/reasoning, starring college age individuals who must learn how to use their abilities, the perceived gaps between those who have powers and those who don’t, and the question of created vs naturally super-powered individuals.

Now that I’m thinking about it, there’s a lot of ways this could go. I’ll have to work on this further.

Modern Theory Goes Medieval (or Tries)

A while back I mentioned that I have a problem with applying a lot of contemporary literary theories to medieval literature. Now, I’m going to explain why in more detail. The major problem with most contemporary literary theories is that they are not text-based; rather, theories like feminism, psycho-analysis, post-colonial, deconstruction, etc., are based on current culture, sociology, psychology, etc. Why is this a problem for application to medieval literature? All that remains of the medieval time period is text. So, in order to apply a more modern theory to a medieval text, you either have to bend the theory itself (meaning apply it in ways that might be contrary to the theory itself) OR risk serious argumentative fallacies like reversing the burden of proof or assuming an unproven – untested premise.

Here’s an example of what I mean. A few weeks ago, I went to a talk by a medieval scholar who considered himself an eco-critic.

I now interrupt this reasoning for some theoretical definitions.

Ecocriticism is relatively new, having developed as a literary discipline in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although the definition can vary depending on who you ask here’s a few of the key points, courtesy of the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. One of the editors of an influential collection on the subject, Cheryll Glotfelty, defines ecocriticism as “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment {taking} an earth-centered approach to literary studies”.  Ann Milne adds that often ecocriticsm contains a degree of activism and advocacy for awareness and change. A third scholar, Lawrence Buell, defines the theory as “the relationship between literature and environment conducted in a spirit of commitment to environmental praxis”. Buell adds that, in order for text to be considered ecocentric, it must meet the following requirement: “that the “non human environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence”.

Back to my argument.

This talk I attended discussed a set of three vitae of a particular saint written within about 50 years of each other. The earliest is anonymous, the other two are by Bede. Bede likely knew the first anonymous text, as his first vita of the saint was a continuation or companion to the earlier version. Bede’s second text, the presenter argued, was intended as an update or replacement. The key difference in Bede’s new version of the Vita was that Bede removed several of the place names, and instead used generic location descriptions. The argument of the talk was that Bede likely made the alterations in order to account for leadership and power-political changes in the bishoprics the saint visited or lived in.

The talk was interesting and founded on good scholarship, but the label of ‘ecocriticism’ does not work for me. First of all, the evidence is almost purely textual. The geography involved did not focus as much on nature or even place, as it did on name (a textual feature). Second, the focus was not on human interaction with the land other than naming areas. Lastly, according to the definitions cited above, the argument does not qualify as ecocriticism on the grounds of 1) not featuring any kind of advocacy and 2) not containing ‘nature’ as a distinct presence (in this case, only places names and frame-setting).

Another general problem I have with theories like eco-criticism and medieval literature is that the core concepts, like “Nature”, had very different meanings in the Middle Ages. Ecology was less a factor in the use of the term ‘nature’, and nature was more often thought of in terms of ‘human nature’. While anthropomorphizations, allegories, and frames involving the natural world abound in medieval literature, ecocriticism’s focus on activism and non-textual meaning and relationships are nearly impossible to establish for texts from a time and place like the saint’s lives considered in the talk.

I liked the talk and found it interesting, but I disagree with the scholar’s appraisal of the theoretical approach. Ecocriticism and theories like it are not helpful (in my mind) in determining how the medieval thinkers and writers saw themselves, their history, or their world. Ecology as we now consider it implies understanding, values, and science beyond what was known or even accepted between 1066 and 1500. What modern theories like ecocrticism can do in terms of medieval literature is help current students and scholars understand how we view the medieval thinkers and writers.

The problem is that most modern students, and literary theorists and critics aim for the former rather than the latter.

Medieval Literature, Theory, and Beyond

Much 20th century literary theory does not work well when applied to medieval literature. The ideas of formalism, structuralism, reader response, and new historicism (for example) very rarely produce strong readings/interpretations of individual medieval texts. One reason for this problem is that much contemporary theory is designed to function on a genre or wider level, and suggests that texts of certain kinds share a certain set of features (for reasons defined by the theory). Medieval writing displays too much range of style for such ideas to work. A second reason for the incompatibility is that medieval writers and scholars had their own ideas about literary theory and practice which do not match well with the modern theories. Medieval literary theory as practiced and understood by medieval writers has been getting more attention in recent decades, and this scholarship agrees on the point that medieval writers appreciated both canonical styles (the auctores) and individual creativity (inventio). {I will present a more detail consideration of these ideas soon.}

I bring up the idea of literary theory, modern and medieval, because there is a way to adapt current literary theory to medieval literature, and that is to take the terms and key concepts and adapt them and/or combine them (as opposed to attempting to apply the entire theory).  For example, Thomas Reed borrows terms and ideas from Bakhtin and Gilman, and applies them to debate poetry, and Katherine Little borrows from Macherey, Alpers, Marx, and others to apply to late medieval poetry.

Now for confession time. I don’t especially like modern “literary theory” because it too often takes medieval texts out of their original context and gives them readings that may be interesting and intelligible to a contemporary reader, but that are entirely foreign to the culture which produced the texts in the first place.  Literary criticism should  not ignore the actual text in order to produce meaning, nor should it ignore the circumstances (literary, historical, cultural etc) under which the text was first produced.

Here’s what all of this has to with my own work (beyond my personal understanding and practice in terms of theoretical approaches): I am (as mentioned in an earlier post) trying to work on two projects at once. Newer project considers the concept of the medieval pastoral poem as adapted to the university setting, while big (older project) considers Gower’s Confessio Amantis as a debate poem. I looked into Katherine Little’s Transforming Work in hopes that it might work for both projects. The bad news: the argument will only be useful in my pastoral project. The good news: some of her theoretical references will be helpful in both. (Note: I will always advise students and scholars to mine the Works Cited of any publication for your own personal gain. This works every bit as well with digital sources (like Wikipedia) as with print.) Pierre Macherey published A Theory of Literary Production in 1966 (in French; the translation in English was done in 1978) using ideas from Marx and Freud to first define and then outline the practices of ‘literary criticism’.  The ambiguity and manipulation of the art vs science dichotomy to create meaning that Macherey sets up will prove useful in both projects.

Before I end up with further project ideas (more is better than none though), I will pause for now to return to work on working through my ever-expanding reading list for my Gower analysis, while keeping an eye out for ideas that might be useful for the pastoral paper or any other project ideas that might arise. Stay tuned…