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Unit information: The Comic and Grotesque in Pre-Modern Culture in 2018/19

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Unit name The Comic and Grotesque in Pre-Modern Culture
Unit code FREN20060
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Professor. Marianne Ailes
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of French
Faculty Faculty of Arts


What made a medieval audience laugh? How can we know if something is meant to be comic? Do the grotesque sculptures on medieval buildings mean anything? The unit will explore a range of visual and textual materials examining the function of the grotesque and the nature of humour. In an age when the majority of people were not literate ‘reading’ the visual was important in popular culture. At the same time neither texts nor image were necessarily lacking in sophistication. This unit will draw upon a range of visual artefacts, from manuscript illumination aimed at the elite, to sculptured grotesques in medieval churches and at several different literary genres, from the frequently erotic fabliaux to the parody of the heroic in a chanson de geste and the word play of Villon’s urban poetry.

Students will develop a more sophisticated understanding of the way medieval literary culture dealt with stereotypes and literary conventions than is possible in the one text studied in year 1 and begin to appreciate the complexities of premodern visual culture. They will have opportunities to consider how text and image may relate to each other in a manuscript context.

The teaching for the unit will exploit the opportunities of technology enhanced learning, including the use of computer software for analysing images, building on their experience of using the online tutorial on ‘how to read an image’ used in the teaching of year 1 unit ‘Shaping France’. Students will be taught how to use the software to analyse images.

The unit includes material from wider medieval Francophonia, specifically looking at a text which survived only in Anglo-Norman and which demonstrates knowledge of extensively disseminated French-language narrative.

Students will be taught through a weekly lecture and a weekly seminar (tutor and student led). Lectures from week 6 will be in French. One session will be held in the library looking at material in the Special Collections. A wiki glossary will be used to develop the correct understanding of technical terms. There will be an opportunity for students to participate in a visit to Bristol Cathedral to look at the misericords.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit, a student will be able to demonstrate:

  1. a high degree of understanding of texts and images from the medieval period and ability to articulate this orally and in writing;
  2. ability to use an appropriate range of cultural and historical criticism through which to interpret such material;
  3. ability to articulate an advanced understanding of the works’relationship to the historical and cultural context;
  4. advanced understanding of the methodological issues around discussion of humour in a different culture from their own;analytical skills in reading texts, as appropriate to level I
  5. analytical skills in reading images, to a standard appropriate to level I.

Teaching details

One 50 minute weekly lecture, one 50 minute weekly seminar

Assessment Details

1 x commentary (max 1500 words) on visual material to be presented using xerte online software (25%) testing ILO's 1,2,4 & 5

1 x 2500 word essay student's own title (75%) testing ILO's 1-4

Reading and References


Fabliaux érotiques, ed. Luciano Rossi (Paris: Livre de poche 1992)

Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, ed. Glyn S. Burgess (Edinburgh : British Rencesvals Publications, 1998)

La Farce de Maistre Pierre Pathelin, ed. Gme Picot (Paris : Larousse, 1971)

Villon, Poésies complètes, ed. Claude Thiry, lettres gothiques (Paris : Livre de Poche, 1991)

Secondary Reading

Brian Levy, The Comic Text : Patterns and Images in the Old French Fabliaux (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1983) PQ207 LEV

Philippe Ménard, Le Rire et le sourire dans le roman courtois au moyen âge (Geneva : Droz, 1969) PQ156 MEN

Strickland, Debra Higgs, Saracens, Demons & Jews : making monsters in medieval art (Oxford: Princetone University Press, 2003) N5970 STR