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

Spring 2010

E 379N • Geographies and Places: The Medieval World

Unique Days Time Location Instructor
35085 MW
3:30 PM-5:00 PM
PAR 105

Course Description

This course will look at how the world fits together in the Middle Ages: a period that follows the known worlds of the Greek and Roman empires, and precedes the discovery of new worlds in the so-called Renaissance age of exploration. Did medieval people believe the earth was flat—as popular culture likes to tell us—or surrounded by a vast encircling ocean (as the ancients believed)? Did people in Europe know that China and Japan existed, or that equatorial sub-Saharan Africa, a "hot zone," was habitable? Was there a concept of the Antipodes? Using maps, travellers' tales, chronicles of cities and communities, biographies of sojourners, and a range of other literary and cultural texts, we will assemble an understanding of how the geographical world was experienced by people who lived in the Middle Ages, and what a sense of place meant to individuals and communities. Medieval world maps, for instance, are oriented toward the East (a direction placed at the top of the map), and show Jerusalem at the center of the world, with Paradise located in the East, and cannibals isolated within mountain peripheries. In contrast to such symbolic cartography, medieval Portolan charts depict the Mediterranean coastline in such finely precise detail that it is still possible to navigate by them today. Beyond looking at the world as a whole, we will also consider how individual places were located and described. We will read the fictitious, invented “letter” of Prester John to see how India was described as a utopia, in Europe of the 12th through 14th centuries. We will read Marco Polo’s 13th century travelogue, to consider his perspective of the vast empire of the Mongols, and China, Southeast Asia, and Japan. A variety of texts on the Holy Land, intended for purposes of crusade and pilgrimage, will tell us how the Levant, Maghreb, and other regions of the Near East were envisaged. Benjamin of Tudela’s journeys will show us how communities of medieval Jews lived and where. Medieval romances will tell us how the continent of Africa, and its strange and diverse inhabitants, were imagined and puzzled over, across the centuries. Our survey of the world will not, of course, neglect the countries and cities of Europe itself. We will examine Chaucer’s London, Froissart’s England and France, and Gerald of Wales’s Ireland and Wales, as well as the forests of the Robin Hood ballads, King Arthur’s royal courts and cities, the “faeryland” of Sir Orfeo, and the “Land of Cockayne.” Through it all, we will ask ourselves what a sense of place meant, what travel meant, and how conceptions of the world changed.

Grading Policy

attendance & active participation (10%), in-class reports (40%), a final term paper due in the 2nd last week of the semester (50%).


Possible texts (likely to be reduced): Marco Polo, Travels; Ordoric of Pordenone, Description of the World; Benjamin of Tudela, Itinerary; William of Tyre, History (selections); Letter of Prester John; Gerald of Wales, History & Topography of Ireland, Journey through Wales; Froissart, Chronicles; Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain (Arthuriad only); Robin Hood ballads; Orfeo; Land of Cockayne; Selections from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales; Packet of materials


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