This fall I'll be teaching a medieval literature survey based around the theme of "Love, Sex, and Marriage in the Middle Ages." To be honest, I was not particularly interested in that subject matter when I chose it. I decided to have a theme for the course because of the inherent problems of teaching medieval lit: how do you cram an entire millennium of literature from across Europe into a 15 week semester?
The practical answer is that one cannot. Being a medievalist, it seems to me, is almost always defined by what you choose not to teach, rather than what you choose to teach. Every semester I am forced to make inexcusable cuts. In the fall, for example, I will not be teaching Chretien de Troyes, having elected to do Malory instead. When I told my dissertation director about this choice, she said, "Oh, Scott ... how could you?" How indeed? By the same token, I could not very well cut Malory. Every semester I play a zero-sum game with my syllabus, slaying beloved texts to spare others.
In order to help me make these difficult choices, I like to develop a theme (I also like themes for other reasons, but I'll not digress at the moment). The theme helps me decide to take out certain texts. For example, I'll not do Dante this semester, as the Inferno does not fit so neatly into this category. On the other hand, Abelard and Heloise are definitely in.
So, why love, sex and marriage? I originally started with three different themes I was toying with:
1) "Medieval Women Writers Who Don't Stink" -- One of the big problems for opening the medieval canon to women is that so few writings by medieval women are extant. As a result, many of the canonical women writers are not, in my judgment, very interesting. In playing this zero-sum game, I think often women writers push out far superior male writers simply in order to have "women" covered. Some of the women writers are as good or better than their male counterparts, however, but for obvious statistical reasons there are not as many. I thought I might teach a course made up only of those medieval women writers I really like (such as Marie de France and Christine de Pizan), while basically ignoring the women writers I don't like regardless of their canonicity (such as Hildegard of Bingham and Julian of Norwich).
2) "Religion in Medieval Literature" -- An easy theme that still allows me to include most extant medieval literature. It also has the virtue of being a topic that interests students. I think, too, that too many classes on religious literature fail because they take opposing and self-defeating positions. The first such position is an anti-intellectual position that suggests that we can't really discuss the religion as religion per se because faith is not a matter of reason. The second is to step so far outside religion that we treat it as an alien artifact. I would prefer to teach a class that took the medieval viewpoint seriously, i.e. that religion is not only a matter of the intellect, but ultimately it is the only worthwhile thing to which intellect can be applied.
3) "Love, Sex, and Marriage" -- Also, a nice broad theme that appeals to students. I must admit that there was a rather subjective draw for me to this theme. When I was an undergrad, I took a Shakespeare class in which on a weekly basis the professor would say, "You can't really understand this until you've fallen in love. Your assignment for this semester is to fall deeply in love." At the time, I thought it was simply a rather droll joke, but as I grew older I began to realize that not only was the professor serious, he was also right. In the end, though, I selected this theme for entirely cynical reasons: my class was scheduled at 8AM, and I figured if students were going to be asked to get up for an 8AM class, they might as well have some hope for some salacious but non-gratuitous sexual content.
Next, Part II ... the under-theorization of love