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Unit information: Courtly Desire from Troubadours to Elizabethans in 2018/19

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Unit name Courtly Desire from Troubadours to Elizabethans
Unit code ENGL30120
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Baden-Daintree
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of English
Faculty Faculty of Arts


In the twelfth-century poetry of southern Europe love was depicted as both a destructive and an ennobling force. Poets articulated the pleasures and pains of unrequited love at the same time that they explored the strength of character required to undergo extremes of humiliation and the physical embodiment of suffering with an almost religious fervour. The idea of ‘courtly love’ and its various literary conventions was discussed, debated and satirised, often in the contexts of the poems themselves, over several centuries and across all major European languages. However, in this tradition, the career of the poet and the act of writing are at least as important as the sexual desire and fulfilment which form the central subject matter. This Unit focuses, therefore, on the processes of writing, literary influence, and transmission of texts alongside the social, cultural and psychological impulses which inform such literary production.

The seminar series takes a chronological overview of the literary trope of courtly love, beginning with troubadour poetry in translation including authors such as Bernart de Ventadorn and Guido Cavalcanti. It then focuses on the English tradition, considering courtly desire in a range of lyric and narrative texts, the transformations of the courtly love tradition in Tudor and Elizabethan poetry, and the publishing tradition generated by Tottel’s Miscellany. The final seminar examines Žižek’s reading of the endurance of courtly processes in Neil Jordan’s 1992 film, The Crying Game.

Unit Aims:

  • To introduce a range of courtly love poetry and its enduring influence on English literature, together with a trans-historical and trans-European understanding of such texts.
  • To familiarise students with the major critical responses and debates surrounding courtly tropes, from C.S. Lewis to Slavov Žižek.
  • To encourage an awareness of the reception and transmission of literary texts specific to the courtly poetic tradition, including both manuscript context and publishing history

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit, students will be able to:

  1. Identify a range of texts and authors engaging with the courtly tradition, from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries, and have an understanding of the nuances of their respective engagement with the literary tradition.
  2. Demonstrate understanding of the literary structures and contexts supporting the tradition, including the transmission of texts orally, through coterie manuscripts and print publishing.
  3. Critically engage with the social and historical context of this literature, including the operation of the Courts of England and mainland Europe, the role of the troubadour, the medical tradition of lovesickness, processes of literary patronage.
  4. Demonstrate skills in textual analysis, argumentation, close textual analysis, and critical interpretation appropriate to level H/6 using evidence from primary texts and secondary sources

Teaching details

1 x two-hour seminar

Assessment Details

1 x 2000-word critical analysis of the theoretical and scholarly traditions related to courtly love (40%). [ILOs 2-4]

1 x 3000-word essay (60%). [ILOs 1-4]

Reading and References

Catherine Bates, The Rhetoric of Courtship in Elizabethan Language and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)

Catherine Belsey, Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (Oxford University Press, 1994)

C. Stephen Jaeger, Ennobling Love: In Search of a Lost Sensibility (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999)

James A. Schultz, Courtly Love, Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality (University of Chicago Press, 2006)

Malcolm Vale, The Princely Court: Medieval Courts and Culture in North-West Europe 1270-1380 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

Slavov Žižek, ‘Courtly Love, or Woman as Thing’ in The Metastases of Enjoyment: On Women and Causality (New York and London: Verso, 1994, 2005), pp. 89-112.