Medieval Studies 310


MDVL 310C-Topics in Medieval Studies: Marvels (3 CREDITS)

Term  2: TTh 2:00 – 3:30
West Mall Swing Space 409
Juliet O’Brien
Department of French, Hispanic and Italian Studies
Office: (604) 822-4009
Course site:

Wonder. Delight. Awe. Joy. Imagination. Marvellousness (mirabilis, merveille, merveillos) suffuses Medieval European literature, crossing postmedieval borders of place, time, form (literary genre, type of artefact), audience, and register. From mermaids, giants, and unicorns to miracles, fairies, and marginal drolleries: Medieval imaginative marvels are a continuing popular association with the period. Exploring them helps to understand perceptions of “the Medieval,” a history of those perceptions, and what “Medieval” might be itself (or themselves): worlds of speculative fictions, escapism and consolation, metamorphosis and metaphor, playfulness, weirdness, shock, horror, beauty, dark humour, satire, human values, and sheer love of life.

Weekly topics and continuing themes include: perceptions of the natural world, creation and creativity, miracles, other worlds and the other-worldly, monsters, dream-visions and mysticism, the fantastic, hybridity, apocalypse, the idyllic and golden ages, utopias and other alternative worlds, automata, the nature of humanity and/as intelligent life.

Our adventures will centre on the imaginative worlds of some Medieval French texts: the Reynard romance and selections from the writings of Marie de France, Christine de Pizan, and François Rabelais. Other readings will include bestiaries, encyclopaedias, universal histories, fables, saints’ lives, maps, almanachs, books of hours, lyric and debate poetry, games, miscellanies, and plenty of marginalia. While our principal focus will be the study of literary works, we will also explore their influence throughout Medieval Europe; the historical landscape in which these landmarks are situated; the cultural background against which their actions are staged; and their relationship to an integrated creative and intellectual environment—including visual and plastic arts, music, ideas, technology, ecology, and the sciences.

Classes consist of interactive lectures interspersed with discussions. Reading assignments include translations of literary works (they may of course be read in the original, but this is not expected), and digitized manuscripts and other contemporary objects freely accessible online. Assessment is based on a midterm commentary paper; a round-table short presentation followed by a student-led discussion or debate; a bibliography; a final research project (“making a marvel”) and its presentation; and, throughout the course, class participation and regular short commentary writing on the course blog. The course is taught in English. Work may be written in English or another language according to preference or program requirements.  (This course is required for the Medieval Studies Major and Minor.)

Learning objectives: Students will develop:

  • a deeper knowledge of the culture, literature, and historical context of medieval Europe.
  • a grasp of how those fit into broader schemes and spheres of reference: European culture before c. 1700, the “pre-modern” world, world literature, and contemporary global and local cultures.
  • reading skills: from fast general-gist reading to very slow, careful, attentive, meticulous close-reading that includes rereading.
  • fundamental research skills: library, catalogues, databases, reference works, online sources and resources; the collection and sorting of data prior to its analysis and use; bibliography and synthesis.
  • writing skills: from short pithy paragraphs to longer forms; constructing sound arguments; using textual evidence and good reasoning; with an emphasis on commentary: the “close writing” that parallels close reading.
  • the development, enhancement, and honing of critical and creative thinking, presentation, and discussion skills: analogy and allegory—paralleling exegesis and analysis—and innovation.