Course: Debating Women: Female Voices in Pre-Modern Literature

HC 221H

Professor: Rebecca Lindner

Medieval literature is popularly characterized as stories about heroic knights and damsels in distress, about courtly love and male chivalry. This course explores a different side of this period by focusing on the many ways in which medieval writers – both male and female – challenged such stereotypes and advocated for the rights, power and status of women in education, politics, religion and domestic life. 

In this seminar we will read a selection of texts written in the Middle Ages, many of which were part of the ‘querelle des femmes’, a term used to describe a controversial literary debate about the place of women in society that raged across medieval Europe into the early modern period. As this debate drew on literature dating back to classical antiquity, we will read influential texts by Aristotle, Sophocles, and Euripides to see how gender roles are represented in the philosophy and drama of Ancient Greece. In order to explore similar debates beyond the western tradition, we will also look at women’s writing in early Japan and India as far back as the year 1000. 

We currently live in a world in which women are able to vote and in which female professional and political leadership is increasingly evident, yet the querelle des femmes continues to be relevant. Debates about gender difference, as well as about women’s political agency, legal rights, and domestic roles, persist today – and have been most recently reignited by the nomination of the first female U.S. presidential candidate. In this course we will identify significant thematic connections in literature from the past to the present. And we will seek to understand how beliefs and assumptions about sex and gender have been constructed and performed over time.  

Our reading list will include a range of periods – from the ancient to the early modern – and a range of genres - from poetry and drama, to letters, autobiography, and political treatises. The authors we read may include Heloise and Abelard, SeiShŏnagon, Christine de Pizan, Margery Kempe, Geoffrey Chaucer, Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Elizabeth I, Jane Anger, and William Shakespeare.