Teaching Race and Middle English Literature

In the final week of term I taught a class on Race, Middle English Literature, and Medieval Studies. The class was for my second year students studying the ‘Literature in English 1350-1550’ course here in Oxford. I shared my class plan and materials on Twitter and I thought it would be worth posting it here in case it is of use to anyone else who is planning to teach this topic for the first time.

If you have taught a similar class, I’d very much appreciate hearing about other materials that you have used and activities you may have done that worked well! I should also note that this was quite a lengthy class (3 hours) with a small number of students (7) so some changes might be needed to adapt this to a different teaching context. Throughout this post I have tried to reflect on the choices that I made and what I might do differently next term. I’d also like to thank everyone who gave me advice on how to put the class together, in particular Johannes Wolf, and I’d like to thank Dorothy Kim for kindly sharing materials with me after the class.

I tried to make use of as many online resources as possible and they are linked here.

  • Primary Texts

The King of Tars (TEAMS edition)

The Book of John Mandeville (TEAMS edition)

Given time constraints, I asked the students to read The King of Tars in full but to read the TEAMS introduction to Mandeville and to dip into the text, as guided by the discussions of various passages in the introduction.

I also asked the students to choose a passage from a Middle English text to close read and to share that with the group. This could be something that they had come across in their reading during the week or they could revisit a text that we were already familiar with from earlier in the term (one of the students went back to the Middle English Romance Richard Coeur de Lion, which they had written about in an essay). I also chose a passage that had interested me in the reading, the moment in the prologue to Mandeville where the narrator says that he has passed through lands ‘wher that dwelleth many diverse folk of maneris and diverse lawes and shappes’ (line 66). I used this at the end of the class to tie together our discussions of diversity and the range of factors involved in the definition of ‘race’ (the body, laws and languages, customs and cultural factor).

  • Secondary Texts

The secondary reading was a key part of the class discussion and I began by asking the students to read three essays in Marion Turner’s 2013 Handbook of Middle English Studies: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen on ‘Race’, John Ganim on ‘Postcolonialism’, and Geraldine Heng on ‘The Global Middle Ages’. I used these essays as a springboard for an opening discussion on the definition of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ both in the modern day and in the Middle Ages. We also discussed John Ganim’s opening question in his essay, ‘is it possible to speak of the postcolonial condition in the Middle Ages?’, and Geraldine Heng’s discussions of the ways in which one might access early globalities (through ‘close (micro) reading or slow (micro) historicist sleuthing’ and ‘distant reading’ across documents and languages).

Since the class, Dorothy Kim has very kindly shared with me her forthcoming article on ‘race’ for the new Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages (ed. Ruth Mazo Karras, 2019). I would definitely make use of this resource in subsequent years.

I wanted the students to think about why race matters in the Middle Ages and what terms a Middle English text might employ to think about race (Cohen’s discussion of ‘kende’ was especially useful here). But I also wanted them to think about why race matters now: in the 21st century, in the discipline of Medieval Studies, and in the context of the university curriculum. So I sent the students links to the following blogposts from In the Middle:

Dorothy Kim, ‘The Unbearable Whiteness of Medieval Studies’, November 2016

Dorothy Kim, ‘Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy’, August 2017

The Medievalists of Color, ‘On Race and Medieval Studies’, August 2017

In this context, I also talked to the students about my decision to teach this class for the first time this year as part of my Middle English course and the various discussions that I participated in on the ‘Diversity Workshop’ that Robin Whelan organised in the History Faculty at Oxford last year. One of the issues we talked about was integrating diversity-related topics into our teaching (rather than doing a ‘separate’ class on a topic, as though it was ‘unrelated’ to the rest of the course) and I would say that my teaching of gender and sexuality is fairly well integrated throughout my first and second year teaching. I do teach a class on language and gender, race, sexuality, and age as part of my first year Linguistics course but I felt that in Middle English, I needed to directly address the topic of race in a specific class this year. This was in part because for the last two years, when my students have been given free choice for their tutorial essays, I have had a student choose to work on the postcolonial Middle Ages, so there is clearly appetite for the topic from the students. I also felt that given the complexities of the topic of race, I wanted to devote an entire class to it but next year one thing that I think I would do is to flag up the topic earlier when my students write their vacation essay over the summer on Middle English Romance. (Here I would use Geraldine Heng’s work in particular: Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy and recommend texts such as The Sultan of Babylon as well as The King of Tars. Thanks to Lucy Allen for recommending The Sultan and I look forward to her forthcoming book chapter on the topic!) I think I will still do a separate class on race next year because there is so much to discuss and work through but I will be clearer about integrating readings and approaches earlier in the course.

  • Secondary Texts for Presentations

I always ask my students to do presentations for classes and for this class I split them into two groups and assigned each group a selection of articles from the following special issues of journals:

1. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, vol 31:1 (2001), ‘Race and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages’, ed. Thomas Hahn.

In particular, the following essays: Thomas Hahn, ‘The Difference the Middle Ages Makes: Color and Race before the Modern World’; Robert Bartlett, ‘Medieval and Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity’; Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, ‘On Saracen Enjoyment: Some Fantasies of Race in Late Medieval France and England’; Linda Lomperis, ‘Medieval Travel Writing and the Question of Race’; and William Chester Jordan, ‘Why “Race”?’

2. postmedieval, vol 6:1 (2015), ‘Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages’, ed. Cord Whitaker.

In particular, the following essays: Asa Simon Mittman, ‘Are the ‘monstrous races’ races?’; Jamie Friedman, ‘Making Whiteness Matter: The King of Tars‘; Michelle Warren, ‘”The Last Syllable of Modernity’: Chaucer in the Caribbean’; Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Karl Steel, ‘Race, travel, time, heritage’ (book review); response essay by Sara Ahmed, ‘Race as sedimented history’.

I asked the students to summarise the articles and introduce the key points in the class, including crucial quotations from the articles themselves and the primary texts that they used. This worked well (in part because my students are quite used to doing this kind of summary task so I didn’t need to give specific guidance on how to go about this; advice on what to look for and how to write a succinct summary might be helpful if your group as never done this kind of presentation task before).

  • Individual Task

Finally, I asked the students to consult the fantastic crowdsourced bibliography, ‘Race and Medieval Studies: A Partial Bibliography’, currently hosted here at postmedieval: bibliography link. I asked each student to choose one article, blogpost, or online resource that interested them and to be able to tell the class about it. I tend to find that this kind of task helps the students to have ownership over the topic, to explore areas that I may not have specifically covered in the tasks set, and also to broaden the pool of material in the room for discussion.

Unsurprisingly, we probably had too much material to cover, even in three hours! But it gave the students plenty to think about and I hope that when they have free choice tutorials next term, some of them might revisit this material and choose to write an essay on race in the Middle Ages.

Thanks to my students for working hard for the class and for an excellent discussion. Thanks to everyone who responded on twitter to my requests for advice for the class and thanks for reading! Please do reply here or tweet me if you have any suggestions for improvements or additions to the material.

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