Mary Franklin-Brown, Poetry, Politics, and Community in High Medieval France | Newberry

Mary Franklin-Brown, Poetry, Politics, and Community in High Medieval France

Mary Franklin-Brown, University of Minnesota

Mary Franklin-Brown, University of Minnesota

Ten-week graduate seminar
Thursday, September 24, 2015Thursday, December 3, 2015

2 to 5 pm, ten consecutive Thursdays (skipping Thanksgiving)

Room B-91

Led by Mary Franklin-Brown, University of Minnesota
Center for Renaissance Studies Programs
Graduate Seminar

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 sizeable 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 apparatuses of power. They could even 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, participants shall examine how medieval poets represented lordship and tyranny, duty and dissent, sanctity and violence.


Our principal genre will be the epic (the chanson de geste), but we shall also study the earliest vernacular saints’ lives (which predate the twelfth century but are closely related to the early chanson de geste) and the lyric of overtly political troubadours. In teaching and scholarship, these texts have received less attention than romance and love lyric. Perhaps this is because everyone loves to talk about love, or because rude or violent texts don’t seem appropriate for polite company or the education of young people. Yet such texts raise fundamental questions about medieval ideology and art. How did these texts function aesthetically? rhetorically? psychologically? politically? In what form did they circulate and how did that mode of circulation shape their reception? What theories of language allow us to understand how these texts worked in the world?


To answer these questions, we shall make use of the Newberry’s collections of manuscripts and incunabula, digital manuscript repositories such as gallica.bnf.fr, and recordings of music and recitation. This inquiry into the material circulation of texts will be complemented by theoretical discussions based upon texts both ancient and modern. We shall read some of the writings of Cicero and Augustine that provided the theoretical paradigms for medieval writers, as well as foundational texts for Christian religious communities (the Rule of Saint Benedict and early saints’ lives by Sulpicius Severus and Gregory the Great). This early material will be balanced by discussions of language, ethics, and politics by thinkers of today (Fredric Jameson, Judith Butler, Giorgio Agamben). Particular attention will be devoted to studying Agamben’s most recent additions to his Homo sacer project and the new ways that they open for understanding medieval texts. The seminar will thus balance historical, literary, and theoretical concerns.


Notes On Language


  • Discussion will be in English, with written work accepted in either French or English.
  • A reading knowledge of modern French is recommended but not required. All of the primary texts except one are also available in English translation, and an alternative to that one text is included in the syllabus.
  • No knowledge of medieval languages is required, and participants may complete all coursework based on translations. However, their engagement with the material will be deeper if they possess a reading knowledge of at least one of the languages in which our texts were originally written: Old French, Old Occitan, or Latin. The instructor encourages students to write their seminar paper on a text that they can read in the original language.

Learn more about the instructor: Mary Franklin-Brown, University of Minnesota.


Participants: Ashley Fleshman, DePaul University; Matthew Hilferding, Western Michigan University; Jessica Jessen, DePaul University; Michael Lamble, Loyola University Chicago; Alexandra Larrave, Northwestern University; Kathleen Noll, Northwestern University; Maria-Isabel Orozco-Vela, Loyola University Chicago; and Filippo Petricca, University of Chicago


Students may take this seminar on a not-for-credit basis or arrange to earn credit at their home campuses. When space permits, consortium faculty members are encouraged to audit Newberry seminars, and graduate students from non-consortium schools may also enroll.


Faculty and graduate students of Center for Renaissance Studies consortium institutions may be eligible to apply for travel funds to attend CRS programs or to do research at the Newberry. Each member university sets its own policies and deadlines; contact your Representative Council member in advance for details.

Cost and Registration Information 

Enrollment is now closed.