When I was such a freshly-minted PhD that you could still smell the wrapper on me, I gave little attention to the medieval lit in my British survey classes. My reasoning as Newbie Nokes ran something like this: I really want to teach the medieval, so if I'm teaching a lot of medieval, it's because I want to, not because the survey needs it. I have a responsibility to the students to avoid self-interest and to cover the other material as well as possible. The anthology was broken up into three sections, with the first (medieval) being by-far the shortest, so I spent the least amount of time on the medieval lit, thus avoiding the guilt of assigning readings that I wanted rather than what's best for the student.
Dumb. But fortunately, I had a (non-medieval) colleague kind enough to tell me what an idiot I was being. He saw my syllabus, and asked why there was so little medieval. I piously gave him the above justification, to which he responded by looking at me like I'm mentally defective. His answer ran something like this:
"So, you're going to deny the students your expertise in your specialty?
I don't remember my answer; it probably involved a lot of stammering. Suffice it to say that I reinvented my syllabus the next semester.
How much, though, is too much? At what point are you no longer teaching a British Lit survey, and are instead teaching a crypto-medieval course? It takes a lot more than you might think. Consider this side rant from de Breeze:
NOTE: someday I'll post a rant about the way this sequence is broken up. Let's see, there's approximately 1400 years of British literary history. Obviously we should spend one semester on the first 1200 and the second semester on the last 200. Seriously, WTF?
Whoa, whoa. De Breeze has closed that off in brackets as a little aside, but that's precisely the main point! Look at the Norton Anthology of English Literature, for example. The three volumes run at something like 6000 pages, less than 500 of which are medieval. Now, I'm sure M.H. Abrams is a really nice guy with a really low golf score, but he ain't the boss of me, and he sure ain't the boss of you. WE, the collective we of English professors, determine the field, not Abrams or whoever. If Abrams thinks that the English medieval literary tradition is represented by Beowulf, excerpts from the Canterbury Tales, and a few odds-and-ends, then perhaps we should esteem him accordingly.
Here's the balance I've struck. In Brit Lit I, I spend the 1/3 of the semester on Old English, 1/3 on Middle, and 1/3 on Early Modern. In other words, my students are 2/3 of the way through the semester before they get out of that first teeny volume. I would argue, however, that it's perfectly justifiable, if one wanted to do it as a true survey, to take all of Brit Lit I as medieval, because even that gives modern all of Brit Lit II, when it is only 1/3 of the period supposedly being surveyed.
Nor are our modernist colleagues offering us anything close to the same courtesy. Spend about ten minutes looking at the online syllabi of non-medievalists teaching the Brit Lit surveys, and you'll find that the norm is to teach zero medieval texts, though a good number will teach one and only one (generally Beowulf or CT). Quietly take a peek at the syllabi of your colleagues in your own department, and you'll likely find the same thing.*
The only way to change these survey courses so that they actually survey the first millennium of English literature is to teach them that way. No amount of cajoling your colleagues will help. Even if they editors of the Norton & Longman Anthologies read this post, it's doubtful they'll lose any sleep.** To change this, we have to offer a proper view of what the English literary canon is -- mostly stuff written in the Middle Ages.
So, my answer to Prof. de Breeze's question, "How much medieval is too much?" I respond, "Much more than you would think."
*Make it really quiet though. No need to cheese people off.
** It's amazing how smug a certain type of scholar is when it comes to his ignorance of medieval literature. If a medieval literature professor were familiar with only one or two modern texts, we'd rightfully consider him incompetent. Am I saying that modernists who aren't familiar with medieval texts are incompetent? You bet I am.