Medieval & Renaissance Studies Curriculum

Students in our Medieval & Renaissance Studies AOC are encouraged to seek both a broad historical and cultural knowledge of the period as a whole and knowledge in depth of some important segments of it by taking appropriate courses and tutorials. To ensure breadth, students must take at least one Medieval/Renaissance class in each of the following areas:

(1) Art History/Music
(2) History
(3) Literature
(4) Philosophy/Religion

At least three classes or tutorials should be in one of these four areas in order to provide the student with a disciplinary “base.” Students should also take at least two courses in related fields such as classical antiquity, early Judaism and Christianity, Byzantium, classical Islam or the 17th century, as well as at least three semesters of a foreign language. Normally, this will be Latin, but for some programs, at the sponsor’s discretion, another language might be substituted. As with all AOCs at New College, a senior thesis is required.

Here’s a list of recent course offerings in Medieval & Renaissance Studies:

Chaucer: Imaginary Persons and Narrative Form
Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales has been considered an important precursor to the modern novel both because of its focus on citizens rather than royalty or members of the nobility, and the potential to read the participants in the Canterbury pilgrimage as specific persons with individual psychologies. While this particular interpretive strategy was largely rejected by critics by the mid-twentieth century in favor of an understanding of the Tales in the context of character types and estates satire, its persistence suggests the complex relationship between the individual and the community, the particular and the general, and the process by which authors endow imaginary persons with the illusion of selfhood and subjectivity. Chaucer’s works invite consideration of how historical circumstances and generic conventions might affect how we imagine character, from the absent and idealized lady and her almost catatonic knight in The Book of the Duchess to the startlingly vital Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales, to the complex and ambiguous lovers in Troilus and Criseyde. The prominence of Chaucer’s narrators further complicates the intersection of imaginary people and literary convention. The course will cover works from Chaucer’s entire career with a focus on his experiments with personation and personhood, narration and narrators, and the relation between medieval theories of genre and their particular executions. All texts will be taught in the original Middle English (which is much easier than it looks).

The Gothic Cathedral
The Gothic cathedral has been the focus of some of the most interesting recent scholarship in art history. In this course we will read and discuss some of the classic texts dealing with these monuments, and we will also explore some of the newer ways of interpreting them, ranging from social history to studies on engineering and technology. We will begin with background material from the Early Middle Ages (consideration of representative Early Christian and Romanesque sites, particularly monastic and pilgrimage churches). The emphasis will then be on the development of the Gothic style in France, including the Early Gothic sites (St.-Denis, Laon, Noyon, and Notre-Dame in Paris), as well as the major cathedrals of the High Gothic: Chartres, Bourges, Reims, and Amiens. We will also investigate the Gothic outside of France (England, Germany, Italy, Spain), as well as (time permitting) aspects of the Gothic revival in the nineteenth century. Consideration will be given to architecture, sculpture, and stained glass.

The History of Music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance
This survey course introduces students to the history of European music during the Middle Ages and Renaissance (the period c. 600–c. 1600). It will examine not only the different types of music produced in this period, but also the historical, institutional and personal contexts in which that music was produced. Topics to be studied include Gregorian chant, medieval drama, the secular music of the Troubadours on the theme of courtly love, the development of music notation and theory, the beginnings of polyphony, choral music, the effects of the Reformation upon European music and the place of music in Medieval and Renaissance society. No prior musical training is required. The course will offer students the opportunity to explore an area of cultural history that was of central importance to the lives of Medieval and Renaissance societies.

Imagining and Reimagining Early England
An enthusiastic reviewer of T.H. White's The Once and Future King, a twentieth-century adaptation of Thomas Malory's fifteenth-century Morte D'Arthur, described it as "A glorious dream of the Middle Ages as they never were but should have been." What "should" the middle ages have been, in the dreams of its writers and the writers (and filmmakers) of subsequentages? How was medieval England imagined and reimagined? What do modern versions of medieval texts tell us about the ages that produced them? This course will introduce a selection of English literature written before 1500 (to be read in modern English translations) and then examine nineteenth and twentieth-century adaptations of this material. Texts and issues fall into three basic units: 1) The relationship between the human and the divine in medieval poetry, personal narrative, and drama, and the uses of the idea of affective piety and medieval Catholicism in contemporary drama. 2) Building knights and nations in narratives of King Arthur and Camelot--the medieval texts include Crétien de Troyes, Marie de France, Thomas Malory, and several anonymous writers including the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; modern adaptations include Tennyson (Idylls of the King), Lerner and Lowe (Camelot), and Monty Python (and the Holy Grail), 3) Exclusion and community in Beowulf and John Gardner's Grendel, which retells the story from the monster's point of view.

Medieval Europe
This survey course introduces students to the formation of European civilization between the years c. 700 and c. 1350. It deals in particular with the history of western continental Europe, focusing on political and institutional developments, ecclesiastical and social history, the history of political thought and intellectual history. The course will trace how ideas, communities, and institutions in these various areas evolved and affected each another. Topics to be covered include the Carolingian Empire, feudalism, the crusading movement, the papacy, medieval government and the beginnings of democracy, medieval urban culture, heresy and intellectual life. Special emphasis will be placed on the study of primary sources—chronicles, charters, diplomas, law codes, lives and so forth—in order to illuminate the history of the period.

Medieval Philosophy and Religious Thought
The period from 200 c.e. to 1400 c.e. has often been described as the Age of Faith. And such figures as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas had important things to say about the nature of God, the relationships of human beings to God, and the nature of faith. They also discussed the nature of reality, analyzed language and its various uses, and offered a variety of theories about the nature of ethics. Their views became the foundation on which later philosophers and theologians constructed their systems. While we will pay special attention to the thought of Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, we will also be concerned with the influential views of such thinkers as Boethius, Scotus Eriugena, Abelard, and Duns Scotus.

Renaissance Epic
This course will explore two of the most ambitious works in English literature: Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Written less than a century apart, these poems attempt to do for England what their authors understood Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad and Virgil’s Aeneid to have done for classical Greece and imperial Rome: to both demonstrate and epitomize the glorious history and worthy aspirations of the civilizations that they came to represent in the popular mind. Given England’s relative political and, many would argue, cultural insignificance in early modern Europe, to write an English national epic was an act of unmitigated gall, and astonishing hope for the significance of both the nation to its world and its writers to the nation. Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is an enormously complex moral and political allegory borrowing the forms of both classical epic and medieval romance, in which knights representing holiness, temperance, and chastity, among others, do battle with enchanters, sorceresses, and monsters representing greed, deception, and the Catholic church. The preface claims that the poem’s purpose is “to fashion a gentle manor noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline." We will examine Spenser's investigation of the forces that shape England and the English gentleman, and his work's attempts to become one of them, and then move on to Milton’s Paradise Lost , which, less optimistically, seeks to find “fit audience, though few.” Milton's epic on the fall of humanity into original sin is a product of both his conscious effort to model himself on the poetic career of Virgil, the great poet of Augustan Rome, and his intense involvement with the political and religious controversies of his day. His attempt to write the English national epic never explicitly mentions England, and explicitly expects a hostile reception in its native country. The character who most closely resembles the epic hero of Homer or Virgil is Satan. We will explore these and other paradoxes of Milton's Christian epic. Our most important tool for investigation will be close readings of the text, but we will also pay attention to contemporary political, religious, and poetic theories and the course will involve some secondary criticism.

Renaissance Italy
The Renaissance is one of the most hotly debated subjects in all of modern scholarship: what was it? how should we define it?—even, did it happen? This seminar will take an interdisciplinary approach to the history of Italy between 1350 and 1550, looking not only at intellectual trends traditionally identified as “Renaissance”—such as humanism, individualism, and classicism—but also how they reflected and affected contemporary politics and society during an especially turbulent time on the Italian peninsula, which included recurring plagues, religious upheaval, and almost constant war. The course will consider a broad variety of primary sources, from statutes and censuses to art, music, philosophy, and drama — keeping always in mind the arguments of historians across the ages about their meaning and significance for the development of Western civilization, and the usefulness of categories and periodization for the understanding of the past.

Renaissance and Reformation Europe
This survey will cover the tumultuous age in European history between the Black Death and the end of the Thirty Years’ War (AD 1350-1650). Students will be introduced to key cultural, socio-political, and economic developments of the early modern period, including but not limited to: the Italian Renaissance, exploration and the opening of global trade, the Reformation, and the scientific revolution. We will also re-evaluate traditional interpretations of this period's pivotal role in European history: historians have long recognized the significance of innovations such as three-point perspective, the printing press, the nation-state, and proto-industrialism, but we will also consider to what extent such changes affected everyday people. Did peasants and women have a Renaissance? Was this really “progress” and/or the "birth of the modern world"?

Twelfth Century Renaissance
The ‘twelfth-century renaissance’ is the name given by scholars to a momentous intellectual movement that witnessed startling new developments in the history of Western thought. This intellectual renaissance saw the rise in importance of cathedral schools, renewed interest in classical Greek and Roman literature, the use of that literature in the service of theology and the development of scholasticism. Yet, although many embraced these new ideas enthusiastically, others railed against the intellectual excesses of those who sought to know everything and to understand even the workings of God Himself. The period is thus also characterized by lively debates about the utility and purpose of education. This seminar will study the twelfth-century renaissance by focusing on the history of the movement as well as on the important new works written at the time. Each week different primary sources will be read in English translation, not only in order to study the ideas of their authors, but also the context and development of those ideas. The seminar will cover thought in disciplines such as logic, grammar, rhetoric, music, history, politics, astronomy and theology—in short, the school curriculum of the middle ages. It will also introduce students to the exciting currents of modern scholarship about the twelfth-century renaissance and encourage them to see established orthodoxies with well-informed and critical eyes. This course will give students the ability to work in great detail on their writing and oral presentation skills. It will be of particular interest to students in Medieval and Renaissance studies, history, art history, philosophy and religion.

The World of Saint Francis
This intermediate course will take an interdisciplinary approach to the study of Saint Francis of Assisi. Aiming for a broad understanding of the saint’s life and legacy, we will combine questions of theology with those of medieval art, politics, and economic life in an attempt to fathom the paradoxes of medieval Italian life: specifically, how did the rampant commercialism and gaudy competitiveness of the Italian cities produce the late medieval world’s greatest advocate of simplicity, poverty, and nature? How did such a person end up with perhaps the most expensive and elaborate church in medieval Italy as his sepulcher? We will consider not only Francis’ life and teachings but also his broader influence on late medieval European society, with its controversial and divisive “Franciscan question.”

For detailed requirements, check out our General Catalog.

For a complete list of courses, click here.

[Did you know?]

The Biennial New College Conference on Medieval & Renaissance Studies held every two years on campus offers students the opportunity to hear the most recent work in a variety of fields, encounter a broad range of critical methods and gain valuable insight into the study of the past.

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