HUM 295 is an Honors Seminar 

This seminar goes back in time to Medieval France to discover origins of the Western concept of romantic love. 

Our discussions explore historical, cultural, and symbolic aspects of Arthurian tales of romance and chivalry by Chretien de Troyes, lays by Marie de France, and a feminist manifesto (of sorts) by Christine de Pisan. 

All readings are in English. 

Evaluation will be based on active participation and a critical analysis, to be presented orally and also submitted in written form. The critical analysis is a scholarly presentation and as such must demonstrate original thinking about and specific references to one or more of the texts and topics studied in the seminar. The written document will be approximately 10 double-spaced pages and follow one of the following style formats: MLA, Chicago, or AP. 

Texts read in this seminar

1. Marie de France


Chevrefoil (a tale of Tristan and Isolde)

Bisclavret (a werewolf tale)

2. Chrétien de Troyes

Yvain, or the Knight with the Lion 

Lancelot: the Knight of the Cart 

3. Christine de Pisan

The Book of the City of Ladies (read excerpts online here)


Week 1: Introductions and presentation of course

             Viewing and discussion of Dr. Ryan Reeves' video lecture about Medieval Society 

               Discussion of concepts of romantic love 

Explore this site for general information about the Middle Ages: 

Week 2: Discussion of the chivalric code and concepts of courtly love

            The Song of Roland: Stanzas 1-87 here and Stanzas 88-161 here 

                  De Amore (excerpts)Andreas Capellanus' treatise on courtly love 

For further exploration (not required):

"Love and the Goddess" (video excerpt, full text), fromThe Power of MythEpisode 5, with Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers

Songs of Chivalry by the Martin Best Ensemble 

Le Tournoi de Chauvency, a narration of a courtly celebration, composed by high Middle Ages trouvère Jacques Bretel

Images by Jacques Bretel

"Holy War in The Song of Roland: The 'Mythification' of History"

Week 3: Introduction to Marie de France and the lai

             Discussion of the Prologue and Chevrefoil

             Read about the rote, a medieval string instrument, here.

To explore the Project Guttenberg website, click here.

Week 4: Discussion of Bisclavret

1. Outline the broad lines of the story.

2. Medieval society depended on oath and fidelity. Giving one’s word represented a morally binding contract. Breaking one’s oath was a serious, punishable fault. It violated the code of conduct between lord and vassal and between knight and lady, and represented a tear in the fabric of society. Identify examples of how this is demonstrated in Marie de France’s Bisclavret.

3. Discuss the role of oath and fidelity in today’s world. In your opinion and experience, does giving one’s word carry moral obligation in our culture? Explain your viewpoint.

4. Medieval society also greatly valued mesure: moderate, balanced behavior based on reason. Identify examples of how this is demonstrated in Marie de France’s Bisclavret. Consider passages that show mesure as well as passages that show a lack of it.

5. Examine the roles of language and gesture in Marie de France’s Bisclavret. Identify passages where language fails and where gesture succeeds. Discuss how these passages reflect the medieval emphasis on oath and fidelity.

6. The metamorphosis of Bisclavret in the lai is paralleled by the metamorphosis of his wife. Discuss the two representations, referring to specific passages in the lai to illustrate your remarks.

7. Consider the final outcome of the lai: Bisclavret is reintegrated into society, while his wife is cast out. How do you interpret this outcome? 

For next week: read Yvain, or the Knight with the Lion     

Week 5: Introduction to Chretien de Troyes

             Discussion of Yvain

     A. Passages to consider

 1. Calogrenant’s story (beginning of tale): Why does Chrétien begin with this?

 2. Lunete's protection of Yvain after he's vanquished Esclados, guardian of the fountain (spring) and husband to Laudine

 3. Yvain's promise to Laudine and his breaking of that oath

 4. Yvain's descent into madness upon realizing he hasn't kept his promise: Describe his state as a "wild man"; examine his relationship with the hermit; relate his encounter with the lion being attacked by a serpent.

     B. Points to consider

 1. The role of magic 

 2. The portrayal and importance of oaths

 3. The representation and role of women

 4. The battle episodes: What are the parallels between them? How are they different? What are Yvain’s motives in each?

 5. The need for balance between a knight’s obligations to the chivalric code and to the code of courtly love:     How is this represented?

 6. The role of Christian ideals in this story: Where and how are they represented?

     C. Create a portrait of Yvain, model knight

Week 6: Discussion of the marvelous and of Lancelot (The Knight of the Cart)

     This is a romance, a male "how to" guide for finding balance between love and duty. 

     Think about how the representations differ from those of Marie de France in her lais.

     Consult professor Gary Gutchess' website for a discussion of Chrétien de Troyes' romance: 

     With what do you agree? With what do you disagree? Prepare your ideas for class discussion.

For next week's class: 1) Read excerpts from The Book of the City of the Ladies. Online here; pdf provided below. 2) Note your reactions. 3) Prepare a written paraphrase of the reading.

Week 7: Discussion of representations of courtly love and chivalry in film

             Introduction to Christine de Pisan

             Discussion of The Book of the City of Ladies

Sites you may enjoy visiting: 

Brooklyn Museum 

The Irish Audio Project 

The Song of Joan of Arc 


For next week's class: Read Natalie Zemon Davis' foreword to The Book of the City of Ladies (handout), noting ideas that catch your interest. Be prepared to share them in class.

Week 8: Continued discussion of The Book of the City of Ladies

You may enjoy reading Christine de Pisan's poem, "The Song of Joan of Arc," the only popular work composed during the lifetime of "the maid of Orléans" (Joan). You can find it online here.

Discussion questions on Christine de Pisan and The Book of the City of Ladies

1. What is the tone of the text? How does Christine use that tone to make her points? 

2. What is significant about the opening scene? Refer to this blog for a discussion of Matheolus and misogyny. (The blog was a final research project for an art history course at Winthrop University under Dr. Laura Dufresne.)

3. Discuss the author's choice of allegory to frame her ideas. Do you find it effective? Why or why not?

4. From Christine's perspective, which has a greater effect on women, gender or class?

5. Why do Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice visit Christine?

6. What are the individual functions of Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice?

7. What do Christine the Builder and Lady Reason say about women's education?

8. What does Lady Reason say about misogyny?

9. What does the text say about women's contributions to humanity?

10. Discuss your reaction to this text in comparison to the other texts we have studied during this seminar.

Week 9: Oral Presentations; comparison of readings

Week 10: Oral Presentations; comparison of readings

Week 11: Oral Presentations; comparison of readings

Week 12: Conclusion and connections

               Papers due today 

You may enjoy comparing representations from our readings to those in Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale,"

translated by A.S. Kline. Read online here. Pdf provided below. 

Chaucer_The-Knight's-Tale.pdf Chaucer_The-Knight's-Tale.pdf
Size : 208.124 Kb
Type : pdf



 Yvain dueling with a knight. 

Image courtesy of Princeton University Librairies.

Portrait of Marie de France (upper left)


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