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Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics


FR Medieval: Poetry, Politics, and Community

Poetry, Politics, and Community Convenor: Dr Mary Franklin-Brown (

This seminar will explore the theory and practice of political poetry during the long twelfth century. The period is significant for both literary and historical reasons: it is the first century from
which a sizable corpus of poetry in Old French and Occitan survives, and yet it is marked by only early signs of the centralized authority and bureaucratic structures that we think of as government. Therefore,
poets working in new literary forms could meditate upon shifting forms of communal life and apparatuses of power. They could wield poetry to shape the network of human relations. Understanding
the “political” in the broadest terms as that which relates to the organization of a human community or to the exercise of power within it, we shall examine how medieval poets represented the individual and
the communal, lordship and tyranny, duty and dissent, sanctity and violence.

Our principal genres will be the epic (the chanson de geste, specifically the Chanson de Roland and the Chanson de Guillaume), hagiography (the Vie de saint Alexis and Guernes de Pont-Sainte-Maxence’s Vie de
saint Thomas Becket), and political lyric (Guilhem IX, Bertran de Born, Richard Lionheart). Such texts raise fundamental questions about medieval ideology and art. How did these texts function aesthetically?
rhetorically? psychologically? politically? What theories of language allow us to understand how these texts worked in the world?

To answer these questions, we shall test the theoretical paradigms offered by ancient/medieval and contemporary thinkers. In the first category, we shall discuss Cicero’s On Obligations
(which remained influential throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern period) and selections from St. Augustine’s City of God and John of Salisbury’s Policraticus. In the second
category, we shall devote attention to Agamben’s recent additions to the Homo sacer project (The Sacrament of Language and Opus Dei: An Archaeology of the Oath) and the new ways that they open
for understanding medieval texts. The seminar will thus balance historical, literary, and theoretical concerns. All interested students are welcome. While students are encouraged to engage with the texts in the
original languages, all texts are also available in modern French and English translation.

Reading List

Before the term begins, please read the following. Throughout the semester, students with a concentration
in French should read the French texts in French (medieval/modern) rather than the English translations.
All of the following are required:

  • Bisson, Thomas, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European
  • Government (Princeton UP, 2009), Introduction and ch. 2
  • Weiler, Björn, “Politics,” from Daniel Power, ed., The Central Middle Ages (Oxford UP, 2005)
  • Haidu, Peter, The Subject Medieval/Modern: Text and Governance in the Middle Ages (Stanford UP,
  • 2003), Introduction and chs 1–3

Background for the Literary Texts
All of the following extracts are required:

  • Kay, Sarah, The Chanson de Geste in the Age of Romance: Political Fictions (Clarendon, 1996)


  • Stein, Robert M., Reality Fictions: Romance, History, and Government Authority, 1025–1180 (U of
  • Notre Dame P, 2006), Introduction, ch. 4, and epilogue.
  • (and browse:) Suard, François, Guide de la chanson de geste et de sa postérité littéraire (Champion, 2011)


  • (browse:) Jones, Catherine, An Introduction to the Chansons de geste (University Press of Florida, 2014)

***Get a good head start on the reading, especially the Augustine and the two epics (listed
below), and read ahead in the programme so that you can identify a module essay topic that is
not necessarily based on the work we will do in weeks 1–2 (i.e., if you think you are interested in
song, go ahead and read material for week 5! If your interest is in hagiography, read Alexis as well
as the Guernes de Pont-Sainte-Maxence text before the text starts).***

Students with strong theoretical interests may further prepare for the term by choosing one of the two sequences that
follow and reading the pieces listed. This preparation is not required but is encouraged if you anticipate writing a
theoretical paper for the seminar.
Nancy-Blanchot sequence:

1. Nancy, Jean-Luc, La Communauté désoeuvrée (Christian Bourgois, 1986), all; trans. Peter Connor
et al., as chs 1–3 of The Inoperative Community (University of Minnesota Press, 1991)
2. Blanchot. Maurice, La Communauté inavouable (Éditions de Minuit, 1983), all; trans. Pierre Joris,
The Unavowable Community (Station Hill Press, 1988).
3. Nancy, Être singulier pluriel (Éditions Galilée, 1996), ch. 1 only; trans. Robert D. Richardson and
Anne E. O’Byrne, Being Singular Plural (Stanford UP, 2000), ch. 1 only
4. Nancy, La Communauté désavouée (Éditions Galilée, 2014); trans. Philip Armstrong, The
Disavowed Community (Fordham UP, 2016)


Agamben sequence:

1. Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, trans.
Lorenzo Chiesa (Stanford UP, 2011)

2. Agamben, Opus Dei: An Archaeology of Duty, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford UP, 2013)
Guidance for Language
If you have not read Old French before, you will find the following particularly helpful.
• Hélix, Laurence, L’Ancien Français en 18 textes et 18 leçons (Armand Colin, 2014, ISBN 978-
2200620936) [The presentation of the grammar in this book is the most accessible and
concise of the many textbooks published in France. Short extracts from literature are
keyed to the lessons, making self-tutorial possible, and the grammatical topics are treated
in an order conducive to rapidly reading and understanding original texts.]
• Kibler, William M., An Introduction to Old French (Modern Language Association, 1984,
ISBN 978-0873522922) [Another grammar book with lessons organized to help you start
reading as quickly as possible and short readings of Old French literature. We
recommend this book principally to students of other languages who may find a
textbook in English more accessible.]

3.• Bertran, Olivier, and Silvère Menegaldo, Vocabulaire d’ancien français (Armand Colin, 2006,
ISBN 9782200614690) [This book presents the vocabulary most frequently employed in
Old French texts and offers useful explanations of the precise meaning of words in the
period as well as the differences in meaning between closely related words. It is especially
helpful for identifying faux amis between Old and Modern French and understanding
words that have been lost from the language.]

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