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FR7: Defining the human in medieval French literature and culture

This paper is available for 2019-20.

This paper is organized around various approaches to medieval concepts of humanity and human identity. Texts covered span the period from c. 1150 to c. 1450. We examine the various categories of difference that define human identity in medieval thought—race, class, gender, sexuality, and religious or other cultural practices—as well as the shifting boundaries that divide humans from other categories of being, such as animals, angels, fairies, demons, and monsters.

Medieval thought defined humans as having an immortal, rational soul and a mortal body. In contrast, animals lacked rationality and an immortal soul; fairies had immortal bodies; while angels and demons had no bodies. The ‘monstrous races’, such as giants, are variously depicted as both human and bestial, while tales of human-animal shape-shifting further problematise boundaries. It is fascinating to examine the ways that normally human identity traits, such as aristocratic power, feudal values, masculine or feminine gender characteristics, rationality, and the capacity for sin and redemption, may be found—or distorted—in creatures whose humanity is at stake.


Topics covered in lectures and supervisions will include the role of the body in determining human identity, particularly in tales of shape-shifting (e.g., various lais) or animal disguise (e.g., Guillaume de Palerne); the ways that human identity is linked to gender, both in ‘courtly love’ poetry and in tales of cross-dressing and gender-switching (e.g., Roman de Silence); the ways that marginal beings—fairies, giants, monsters—both approach and depart from human identity (e.g., Conte du papegau); the interplay of humanity and divinity in both Christ and the Virgin Mary; the ways in which sin, penance, and redemption play a role in defining—or destroying—human identity.

Preparatory reading: 

Primary Texts

Le Conte du Papegau, ed. H. Charpentier and P. Victorin, Champion Classiques (Paris, 2004)

Jean d’Arras, Melusine, ed. J.-J. Vincensini, Lettres Gothiques (Paris, 2003).

Lais anonymes des XIIe et XIIIe siècles, ed. P. M. O’Hara Tobin (Geneva, 1976)

Heldris de Cornuailles, Le Roman de Silence, ed. L. Thorpe (Cambridge, 1972) OR Roman de Silence, ed. and transl. by Sarah Roche-Mahdi (East Lansing, 1992)

Secondary Texts

Bildhauer, B., and R. Mills, eds., The Monstrous Middle Ages (2003)

Friedman, J. B., The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (1981)

Steel, K., How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (2011)

Full reading list

Please see the reading list for Fr.7 here.

Teaching and learning: 

The paper is taught through weekly lectures during Michaelmas and Lent Terms; two revision seminars in Easter Term; and 10 fortnightly supervisions throughout the year.


The paper is assessed through a three-hour written paper, following the standard format for French Department papers, namely, answering one question from each of the three sections. Section A consists of broad questions to be answered using a range of texts chosen by the candidate; Section B questions are more specific, and are normally answered with reference to just one or two texts; Section C offers a selection of passages for commentary. Alternatively, students can choose to submit an Optional Dissertation. 

Course Contacts: 
Prof. Sylvia Huot