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.)
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.”
Are we wrong to think of the literature between Chaucer’s death (in 1400) and the Tudor court poets as dull or, at best, transitional? My premise is that we are. This was the era that witnessed the consolidation of English as a literary language; the arrival of new print technology from Germany; and the influx of humanist ideas from quattrocento Italy.
In this seminar, we’re going to find out what happened to the fifteenth century: not just what prose and poetry people wrote during it, but what happened to its non-dramatic writing afterward, in the 16th through 21st centuries. Why is so much writing of this period absent from our survey courses and anthologies? What are its legacies? What might we redeem? What are we missing when we make categorical judgements about a century’s worth of texts?
I wish I had the answers to these questions, and others that will arise in the seminar. We’ll answer them together, and share discoveries and queries in the face-to-face and digital formats that best address them: social media (including a course blog), wikis, and meetings. Our reading list will also be collaborative, as it addresses a few core topics drawn from our three common texts.
Many readings will come from Derek Pearsall’s 1999 Blackwell anthology, Chaucer to Spenser: one of the few (if only) to focus exclusively on this period.
We’ll also read long excerpts from the best-known text of this century, Malory’s Morte Darthur. I’ve opted for Helen Cooper’s edition of the Winchester Manuscript, discovered only in 1934 — and closer to Malory’s original design than the later printed text of William Caxton. It’s one of the most important romances of the middle ages, and bridges earlier, French and other continental narratives with the new eras of print and neo-Arthurian chivalry.
Finally, any study of 15th century literature would be incomplete without the legacy of Geoffrey Chaucer. So along with some of John Lydgate’s prodigious output (in Pearsall), we’ll read the Scots poet Robert Henryson’s continuation of Troilus and Criseyde in The Testament of Cresseid (c.1470-95). But we’ll read Seamus Heaney’s 2009 translation, because 15th-century Scots is just a bit too foreign for modern readers, and because we’re interested in the legacies of this period.