Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University

Some Early English Literature
Project Topic Suggestions

1. Identify a subtle and surprising contemporary survival of some specific instance of Medieval thinking or aesthetics. Give precise examples. Explain this phenomenon without resorting to post-Romantic goo (i.e., no drippy rhetoric about "a return to simpler times" or any of that crap).

2. Expose a pattern of clever subtlety on the part of the Beowulf poet, or the poet of The Wanderer, or of The Wife's Lament.

3. Despite everything, what brilliant literary artistry is discernible in Culhwch and Olwen?

4. Examine the sophisticated way in which the author captures a legitimate psychological perspective in Culhwch and Olwen.

5. What positive aesthetic effect comes from the disorienting quirkiness of Culhwch and Olwen?

6. Give The Art of Courtly Love a Robertsonian (exegetical) reading. (You may want to read further in the work.)

7. "Sumer is icumen in": Religious Allegory?

8. Discuss the philosophical difficulty of positing the existence of love given the spuriousness of its rhetorical construction in one of the representative lyrics.

9. Select any single Medieval lyric from our readings and analyze it in terms of philosophy (or maybe emotion) conveyed in technique. What, as New Critics ask, "happens" in the poem? How does the poem "work"?

10. Mine into the various levels of intricacy in a medieval lyric. Explain how the poet's craft succeeds or fails in conveying an effective and appropriate emotion or psychological state.

11. Using the relevant lyric(s), investigate the aesthetic dynamics of Medieval smut. (Perhaps see the Norton edition of Middle English Lyrics, ed. M.S. Luria and R.L. Hoffman.)

12. Discuss the interplay between religious and love impulses in a Medieval lyric.

13. Identify a special poetic effect available to poets of the alliterative revival and its artistic uses.

14. Focus on a limited section of Sir Gawain or Pearl and trace closely the art of psychology in art.

15. Examine closely Gawain's manner of speaking, comparing perhaps his eloquence at court in the beginning versus his controlled explosion near the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

16. Show how the Gawain poet conveys the knight's relative maturity against the backdrop of the Arthurian court at the beginning and especially the ending of the poem.

17. How does the contextualizing of anti-feminism in Gawain imply a certain feminism?

18. Describe Langland's style of composition -- narrow-minded, stubborn, controlled by one idée fixe after another, or intentionally complex? -- and the constructive toll it takes on the reader.

19. Show in a confined portion of Piers Plowman how the poetic artistry underlines the drama, politics or philosophy of the moment (a particular sin's confession, for example).

20. Discuss Pearl or Piers as both a medieval and, especially, modern work. How does the fact that it is both affect the choices of critical tools needed to teach it?

21. Why are particularly significant words so slippery in Pearl, or in Piers?

22. Describe the poet's philosophy of life and death in Pearl.

23. Why does the Pearl poet sometimes translate scripture closely and other times embellish? Is there psychological sense to the use of texts in the poem?

24. What particular kind of logical progression is there to the stories in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women?

25. What is Chaucer's point in the Legend of Good Women?

26. Discuss Malory as a psychological realist by analyzing carefully his use of dialogue.

Some Humanities Project Topic Suggestions
and Some Raw Notes Towards Topics

1. Identify a subtle and surprising contemporary survival of Medieval thinking or aesthetics, perhaps a popular fad such as the 1990s return of chant to the charts, or a spate of films. Give examples. Explain this phenomenon without resorting to post-Romantic goo (i.e., no drippy rhetoric about "a return to simpler times" or any of that crap).

2. Treat a cathedral doorway, or a stained glass window, or a rose window, as a work of art.

3. Track down an example of chant and discuss it as a work of subtle art. How do the dynamics of the music (the rising and falling line, the phrasings, the interval leaps) effectively convey the meaning and mood of the text?

4. Track down a motet score and a recording, and take a standard critical approach to this piece by deciding what the composer intended in his combination of various lyrics. What special effects does he create and how do these further the intention? You could consider melodic lines, harmonic intervals, musical phrasing, rhythmic decisions, the interplay of lyrics (specifically and generally), and the aural qualities of the piece.

5. Check out other web sites or artbooks and select an illumination by Hildegard we haven't exhausted in discussion. What message is Hildegard subtly conveying?

6. Where do we find evidence that Hildegard von Bingen was not just a talented and strong woman, but actually a feminist, or at least subtly subversive to patriarchy?

7. We can see the development of love as a literary phenomenon through such works as "Culhwch and Olwen" and Medieval lyrics. Discuss the philosophical difficulty of positing the existence of love given the spuriousness of its evolution.

8. Is there anything to redeem King Horn as a worthy romance work?

9. What is Andreas Capellanus really up to in The Art of Courtly Love?

10. Give The Art of Courtly Love a Robertsonian (exegetical) reading. (You may want to read further in the work.)

11. Beyond lamenting about the oppression of women in the age, offer a feminist reading of The Art of Courtly Love. What is really going on behind the surface of the text? Subtlety required for this one.

12. The teacher-pupil relationship, with all its dynamics and tensions, is a Medieval literary and scholastic tradition. Discuss the complexities of the relationship within any one of the relevant works we have read (e.g., The Art of Courtly Love, Inferno). What is the nature of learning as reflected in the work?

13. Construct a list of "The Rules of Modern Love" from a "scientific" study of contemporary love songs (ideally from top-40 radio). How does this exercise illuminate Andreas Capellanus' text?

14. Creative option: write a medieval lyric in proper Middle English, pretend it's a newly discovered piece, and provide the scholarly critical commentary that would accompany its first publication. Be sure your actual research, your grasp of the genre, and your analytical skills are displayed in the commentary.

15. Romance of the Rose: A Feminist Reading.

16. Romance of the Rose: A Marxist Reading.

17. Why birds?

18. What side effects does exegesis have on subjects, scripture, or art?

19. Le Menagier de Paris: The Prototypical Middle-Class Text.

20. Merchant-class pop theology in Le Menagier de Paris.

21. Reveal Christine de Pizan for the subtle strategist she is.

22. Look more closely into Medieval food. How does this aspect of life function as an "art"? Or, can we subject the relevant "texts" (the food itself, or the recipes) to a form of literary study? If you are headed towards the field of education, you could argue for the inclusion of food studies into the Arts and Humanities curriculum or into the syllabus of a course such as this.

Dante Topics

1. Dante pilgrim vs. Dante poet.

2. Any productive connections between an art piece of the time and the relevant Inferno section?

3. What sins does it seem Dante needs to be personally concerned about?

4. Is there any logic to Dante's deployment of monsters?

5. What can be said about the significance of the in medias res technique?

6. What common denominator can be detected among all the sinners who have to move along in circles? Or what do all the immobilized have in common? Or is there another pattern you see among the punishments?

7. Can you make sense of the geography of Hell, such as the placement of the cities?

8. Discuss a particularly successful instance of Dante's blend of Christian and Classical materials.

9. Either Dante's relationship with Virgil, or Dante's supposed educational progress along the journey.

10. The intricate artistic significance of the various epic similes in Cantos XXIV and XXV.

11. A discussion of the Gargoyle Cantos and the oddly-named demons.

12. With whom does Dante sympathize and why?

13. The Vestibule: Hell or not?

14. Gender issues in Inferno.

15. How has the concept of Hell evolved (or devolved) since Dante? Be specific with examples and data.

16. Consider one of the heavenly metaphors towards the end of Paradiso: the white rose, the "stadium," the leaves. Does this poetic image help or hinder a comprehension or experience of the Beatific vision?

These topics would not work for papers. Five-volume book-length tomes maybe.

i. How was Christianity affected by Dante's monsters?
ii. How did The Divine Comedy affect people's levels of faith, or was the response negative?
iii. How did the political climate of the time affect the creation of the work?
iv. How do Dante's politics show through?

[Preferably, think of something else instead of these suggestions. In any case, no cardboard mobiles of Medieval monarchs, please.]

* The following question comes from the late Thomas J. Garbáty, University of Michigan:
"What porridge had John Keats?" asked Robert Browning when questioned about the process of composition of one of Keats' poems. He meant that it was necessary to know certain facts concerning the creative process of a poet at work, and that at times these facts could be narrowed down even to what the poet had for breakfast on the morning he composed and how his stomach or digestion might have reacted. The example is far-fetched and absurd, of course, but it meant for Browning that Keats cannot be taught in a vacuum, although some modern (and not so modern) schools of criticism feel that this is the only way to understand literature.
Now, is the question "What porridge had your medieval author?" a valid one? Can medieval literature be taught without regard to "porridge"? Or can some works be so taught, others not? What kind of questions do need to be asked, if any are necessary? What other kinds of questions are unimportant? Is the nature of this course different from those of other periods, or is it not? This is a problem in pedagogy which some of you might encounter at some future time. Try to discuss it, using relevant examples.

Medieval Index