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FR7: Bodies in Space in Medieval French Literature

This paper is available for 2020-21.

To be embodied is to take up space, to exist in time, and to be part of a community. In this paper we explore a series of medieval texts and artefacts which shed light on how bodies were interpreted, imagined, included, and excluded in the Middle Ages. The lectures and supervisions are organised into four themes: Race in the Middle Ages; Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory; Gender and Space; and Animal and Human.

Figures and narratives from the European Middle Ages have recently become misrepresented and appropriated by groups who wish to portray that era as a time of “purity”: in Race in the Middle Ages, we show how misguided this move is by looking at the development of racializing discourse in medieval French literature. The portrayal of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory enables reflection on spaces which lie beyond mortal temporality and yet shape human life. While medieval literature may often seem to depend on fixed ideas of binary gender, we will look at texts and traditions which open spaces to trouble that binary. And in Animal and Human, we explore stories, artefacts, and images which remind us how much human bodies share with animals.

A course which encompasses romances, saints’ lives, lais and chansons de geste from the eleventh to the fifteenth century, Fr7 offers a chance to explore a broad range of medieval literature, as well as looking in detail at some aspects of medieval literary culture. 


Topics covered in lectures and supervisions will include the role of the body in determining human identity, particularly in tales of shape-shifting (e.g., various lais) or animal disguise (e.g., Guillaume de Palerne); the ways that human identity is linked to gender, both in ‘courtly love’ poetry and in tales of cross-dressing and gender-switching (e.g., Roman de Silence); the ways that marginal beings—fairies, giants, monsters—both approach and depart from human identity (e.g., Conte du papegau); the interplay of humanity and divinity in both Christ and the Virgin Mary; the ways in which sin, penance, and redemption play a role in defining—or destroying—human identity.

Preparatory reading: 

Primary Texts

Le Conte du Papegau, ed. H. Charpentier and P. Victorin, Champion Classiques (Paris, 2004)

Jean d’Arras, Melusine, ed. J.-J. Vincensini, Lettres Gothiques (Paris, 2003).

Lais anonymes des XIIe et XIIIe siècles, ed. P. M. O’Hara Tobin (Geneva, 1976)

Heldris de Cornuailles, Le Roman de Silence, ed. L. Thorpe (Cambridge, 1972) OR Roman de Silence, ed. and transl. by Sarah Roche-Mahdi (East Lansing, 1992)

Secondary Texts

Bildhauer, B., and R. Mills, eds., The Monstrous Middle Ages (2003)

Friedman, J. B., The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (1981)

Steel, K., How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (2011)

Full reading list

Please see the reading list for Fr.7 here.

Teaching and learning: 

The paper is taught through weekly lectures during Michaelmas and Lent Terms; two revision seminars in Easter Term; and 10 fortnightly supervisions throughout the year.


The paper is assessed through a three-hour written paper, following the standard format for French Department papers, namely, answering one question from each of the three sections. Section A consists of broad questions to be answered using a range of texts chosen by the candidate; Section B questions are more specific, and are normally answered with reference to just one or two texts; Section C offers a selection of passages for commentary. Alternatively, students can choose to submit an Optional Dissertation. 

Course Contacts: 
Dr Miranda Griffin