I Fought the Law: the Criminal Underworld in Medieval French Literature

Our popular conception of the Middle Ages often depicts the period as rigorous, oppressive and moralistic, while in fact medieval literature and culture were fascinated with criminals, thieves, cheaters and swindlers, in a dual celebration and condemnation of the outlaw lifestyle. This year’s FREN 407 focuses on texts and authors living on the fringe of society, breaking the law and flouting authority.

We will begin with the tale of famous star-crossed lovers Tristan and Iseult, whose adulterous passion forced them to lie, cheat and hide in the forest like common brigands. We will then move on to satirical literature, specifically the humorous depictions of everyday petty crime in the 13th century fabliaux, and the animalistic shenanigans of Renart, the anthropomorphic fox, in the eponymous Roman de Renart. We will learn about the chilling exploits of Eustace the Monk, a pirate and mercenary who roamed the English Channel, before reading about the noble criminal Fouke Fitz Waryn, whose deeds may have inspired the legend of Robin Hood. We will conclude with the works of François Villon, who revolutionized late medieval poetry while living the life of an outlaw, constantly on the run.

This exploration of Medieval French literature through its fascination with the criminal underworld spans the entire period of literary production, from the 12th century to the 15th, while covering both Anglo-French and continental texts, manuscript and early print, poetry and narrative, history and fiction.

Required readings:

  • Béroul, Tristan et Yseut, Paris, Folio Classique, 2018, ISBN 978-2072775994
  • François Villon, Poésies, Paris, Poésie Gallimard, 1973, ISBN 978-2070320691

All other texts will be made available on Canvas.

Prerequisite: One of FREN 320, FREN 321, FREN 328, FREN 329, FREN 330

Note: FREN 407 may be taken twice, with different content, for a maximum of 6 credits.

Language of instruction: French

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