Before House Stark and House Lannister came the House of York and the House of Lancaster. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in England witnessed a series of social and political upheavals, from the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt to the Wars of the Roses. English poetry responds to and intervenes in these events. Political writing influenced the decisions of kings, shaped public perception of national politics, and landed people in prison (or worse). This course makes a survey of political poetry from England, 1300–1500, with focus on William Langland’s Piers Plowman and the poetry of John Gower. We read canonical authors such as Chaucer, Gower, and Langland alongside little-known texts from manuscript archives. Topics include multilingualism, the relationship between literature and politics, and the histories of poetic forms. No prior knowledge of Middle English required. Gower’s French and Latin texts read in translation.


I. Bearings
Singing and/or working (complaint and manorialism)
Deadlock (Chaucer, ballads, and Westminster)

II. Public poetry
A voice sounds out among the people (Gower, lollardy, trilingualism, and advice to kings)
Politics in the future tense (prophecy, alliterative verse, and the Wars of the Roses)

III. Contestation
An imaginary bomb with real shrapnel (Langland’s visio, the Peasants’ Revolt, and the commons)
Grammar, the ground of all (Langland’s vita, institutions of education, and the clergy)

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