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Martin Kevorkian, Chair CAL 226, Mailcode B5000, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-471-4991

Fall 2006


Unique Days Time Location Instructor
35775 MW
11:00 AM-12:30 PM

Course Description

An inquiry into biography and its uses: social and scholarly, past- various pasts- and present. Our driving concerns will be to ask how doing biography (or biographically inflected scholarly work) is necessarily different with regard to early eras. 'Early' historical periods tend to be defined for us by their comparatively sparse documentation and/or their divergent communications technology; these are periods commonly regarded, moreover, as lying prior to the invention or definitive appearance of the "individual subject," "public sphere," etc. Given these and other conditions of difference between premodern and modern vantage points, what limitations frame the very undertaking of biography before modernity? And in the face of such obstacles, what may be gained by adopting an explicitly biographical approach in the study of early literature and/or history? Our texts and contexts in the seminar will range from classical through early modern, though with a center of gravity in the medieval. We will read outstanding examples of biography and autobiography drawn from these periods, as well as other works inflected by the biographical mode, in each case asking how the casting of a narrative in terms of the individual human life helps determine what meanings come to be found there. In addition to our premodern selections themselves, we will examine some famous models in the (always disputed, often maligned) scholarship of historical reconstruction. That works in this subgenre so frequently pursue a biographical narrative line, even (especially?) when the evidence fails them, must surely be an element related to their consistent academic success and crossover popular appeal. Indeed it might well be said that the writing of "premodern lives," by modern scholars across the disciplines, has had a strangely disproportionate impact on developments in disciplinary histories themselves. These two primary orders of reading (early life-writing itself, and modern reconstruction of premodern lives) will be supplemented by shorter selections on biographical theory and practice.


Primary Texts are likely to include:

The Book of Margery Kempe; St Augustine's Confessions; Peter Abelard's Historia Calamitatum; The Letters of Heloise & Abelard; The Paston and/or Cely Letters; Langland's Piers Plowman [selections]; Hoccleve's Le Mal Regle; one or more of Plutarch's Lives; The South English Legendary [& possibly other Saints' Lives]; Chaucer's Monk's Tale [& perhaps more, e.g. Prioress' or Man of Lawe's Tales, Legend of Good Women]; Pseudo-Bonaventure's Meditationes Vitae Christi [trans. by Nicholas Love as Mirror of the Blessed Life of our Lord Jesus Christ]; Patience [by the author of Pearl & Sir Gawain & the Green Knight]; the Vita Edwardi Secundi, Vita Edwardi Confessoris, or other political life]; one or another Middle English romance, chosen depending on the background/exposure of seminar participants; and other shorter pieces tbd. Seminar participants interested in particular additional texts of relevance are encouraged to lobby for their inclusion. Major Secondary Texts, beyond shorter pieces treating biographical theory & practice, will be drawn from among the following celebrated models: Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre

Erik Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis & History

Sigmund Freud, Leonardo Da Vinci: A Memory of his Childhood

Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese & the Worms: The Cosmos of a 16th Century Miller

Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error

Eileen Powell, Medieval People

Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard


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