skip to content


Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics


FR Medieval: Senses of the Text in Medieval France

FR Medieval: Senses of the Text in Medieval France

This seminar series will focus on the representation of the senses in the literary culture of medieval France, and the ways in which the senses of modern readers are involved in encounters with the materiality of medieval texts. 
Literature composed in the Middle Ages is transmitted to the modern age in the medium of hand-written texts (manuscripts) on vellum, often richly decorated with images. Medieval representations of knowledge and embodiment, as well as medieval accounts of cognition and learning, often evoke the senses: to explore these alongside an investigation of medieval manuscripts which attends to the sensory and the material can yield insights into the practices of medieval and modern reading. Manuscripts can also enable us to imagine sensing that which is absent: we might be able to hear song, for example, to feel breath, or to see impossible objects or bodies. 
The libraries of Cambridge house a wealth of manuscripts transmitting medieval literature: the seminar series will involve some library visits and the opportunity to discuss manuscript culture and the ways in which we encounter it in the twenty-first century, when we can become accustomed – and sometimes obliged – to interact with art, literature, nature, and other humans via digital media. 
While students will be encouraged to explore these ideas and approaches in relation to a wide range of medieval texts in French and Occitan, in seminars we will use readings taken from textual traditions that privilege the senses in different ways, including bestiaries, troubadour songs, medieval theatre, and allegorical poetry. Secondary reading will enable us to theorise the sensory and the material, and to give students more familiarity with medieval accounts of the senses.
Questions we will explore in the seminar series: 
•    How did medieval accounts of the senses influence medieval representations of knowledge, embodiment and reading? 
•    How can a physical encounter with a manuscript enhance or affect understanding of the textual tradition it transmits? 
•    What sort of knowledge is afforded and privileged by such accounts and reading encounters? 
•    What are the differences between medieval and twenty-first-century apprehensions of the senses? 

Preliminary reading
Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours, edited by Robert Kehew, with translations by Ezra Pound, W. D. Snodgrass, and Robert Kehew (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). 
Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry, translated by Paul Blackburn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978; reprint New York: New York Review Books, 2017).
Jean Bodel, Le Jeu de saint Nicolas, edited and translated by Jean Dufournet (Paris: Flammarion, 2005).
Catherine Brown, ‘Manuscript Thinking: Stories by Hand’, Postmedieval 2, 2011, pp. 350-368.
Florence Bouchet, ‘Introduction: D’un sens à l’autre’, in Penser les cinq sens au Moyen Âge: poétique, esthétique, éthique, edited by Florence Bouchet and Anne-Hélène Klinger-Dollé (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2015).
Mary Carruthers, The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400–1200 (Cambridge: CUP, 1998).
Mary Carruthers, The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages (Oxford: OUP, 2013).
Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet, ‘Le Schéma des cinq sens, d’une théorie de la connaissance à la creation de formes littéraires’, I cinque sensi; The Five Senses, Micrologus, 10, 2002, 55-69.
Sarah Kay, Animal Skins and the Reading Self in Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries (Chicago UP, 2017).
Mark Michael Smith, Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008).
Paul Zumthor, La lettre et la voix : De la ‘littérature’ médiévale (Paris: Seuil, 1987) (read selectively)
There will normally be a maximum capacity of 14 for this module.

[back to Modules]
[back to Course Content]