Monthly Archives: July 2013

Whatever Happened to the Fifteenth Century?

This fall I’m offering a graduate seminar on the 15th century: a period of literary history that’s rarely taught, and only known (if at all) for its representations in later history plays. Shakespeare’s interest in the period is partly because of the foreign and civil wars that kings like Henry IV and Henry VI were embroiled in — wars that also explain, to some, why conditions were difficult for good prose and poetry. (Drama’s a very different story: this is the age of Mankind, the mystery plays, and the great biblical cycle of York.)

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What survives is rarely praised, when it’s read at all. Thomas Malory’s great prose romance of King Arthur, Le Morte Darthur (1469-70), is one of the only recognized works of this century. The rest — from ballads to beast fables — are said to be “of a consistent and quite extraordinary dullness.” Douglas Gray disagrees in his 1985 Oxford Book of Late Medieval Verse & Prose, now (revealingly) out of print. He calls it “one of the great ages of English prose, as well as one of the most neglected.”

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