Unveiling Chivalry: Chivalric Literature in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (1100-1600)

Prof. Filippo Petricca, The University of Chicago
ITAL CMLT MDVL 24218 . T, Th 11-12.20

Pablo Picasso, Don Quixote (1955)


Course description:

When we think of chivalry today we imagine damsels-in-distress, knights’ self-sacrifice, adventures and courtly love. But how was chivalry in the 11th or the 17th century literature different from today’s perception? What changed between historical chivalry and its fictional representation? This course aims to challenge the mainstream narrative of chivalry as conventionally characterized by its progressive decadence, from the superstitious Middle Ages to scientific modernity, from the virtuous Roland to the ironic Don Quixote. We will see instead how chivalry is constantly redefined across time and space, and how each literary text provides multiple layers of interpretation that contradict this stereotypical narrative. Exploring the notion of chivalry will allow us to question the so-called “spirituality” of the Middle Ages and the relationship between Early Modernity and the past. We will study chivalric literature from the Chanson de Roland to Cervantes’s Don Quijote. A strong emphasis will be given to Italian literature, including Dante’s Commedia, Boccaccio’s Decameron and Ariosto’s Orlando furioso. Readings will also include Marie of France’s Lais and Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot and Perceval, with a final session devoted to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Taught in English.

Primary sources:

Song of Roland. Trans. Simon Gaunt and Karen Pratt (Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2016)
– Chrétien de Troyes. Lancelot. Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven: Yale UP, 1997)
– Chrétien de Troyes. Perceval. Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven: Yale UP, 1999)
– Alighieri, Dante. Commedia. Trans. Robert M. Durling and Ronald L. Martinez (New York: Oxford UP, 1996-2003)
– Boccaccio, Giovanni, The Decameron. Trans. George H. McWilliam (London: New York: Penguin Books, 1995)
– Ariosto, Lodovico. Orlando Furioso: A New Verse Translation. Trans. David R. Slavitt (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2009)
– Ariosto, Lodovico. Orlando Furioso. Trans. Barbara Reynolds (London; New York: Penguin, 1975-7)
– Marie de France. The Lays. Trans. David R. Slavitt (Edmonton: AU Press, 2013)
– Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote. Ed. Edith Grossman (New York: Ecco, 2003)
– Eliot, Thomas S. The Waste Land. Ed. Nick Selby (New York: Columbia UP, 2001).

Notes on language: Discussion will be entirely in English. Primary sources are available in English translation, but reading in the original languages is highly encouraged.


– Attendance & Active Participation (30%)
Students are expected to prepare readings and actively participate in class discussions.

– Mid-Term Assignment (30%)
(1750-3000 words) Due by e-mail on or before November 12 at 5 pm.

Students can choose among the following options:
– Response Paper. Engage in a conversation with a secondary literature essay. The goal of this assignment is to summarize the main points of the essay and critically engage with its content.
– Short Bibliography. Create a bibliography on a given topic and contextualize the current trends in literary studies.
– Exercise in Close Reading. Text analysis of a specific passage from the literary works listed on the syllabus.

– Final Paper (40%)
(3500-5000 words) Due by e-mail, December 14 at 5pm.

Learning Objectives:

This class provides an overview of chivalric literature from the Middle Ages to Early Modernity. It aims to give you the tools to analyze literary texts, discuss and engage with secondary literature, and problematize categories such as “Middle Ages” vs “Modernity”, “superstition” vs “skepticism”, “science” vs “theology”.


1. Introduction

2. A Medieval Epic: The Chanson de Roland

Chanson de Roland, 1-1840

Erich Auerbach, “Roland Against Ganelon,” Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2003): 96-122.

3. Ganelon’s Trial: The Ending of the Chanson de Roland

Chanson de Roland, 1840-ending

Ernst R. Curtius, “Heroes and Rulers,” European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2013): 167-82.

4. What is “Courtly Love?” Chretien de Troyes’s Chevalier de la Charrette

Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot, ll. 1-457; 935-2970

Ethelbert T. Donaldson, “The Myth of Courtly Love,” Speaking of Chaucer (New York: Norton, 1970): 154–163.

5. Shame: Lancelot’s Charrette

Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot, ll. 3470-5358; 6130-Ending

Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovreignity (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2008): 1-22.

6. The Knight and the Holy Grail: Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval

Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval, 1-1709; 2785-3690; 4580-4747; 6218-6519

Maurice Keen, Chivalry (New Haven: Yale UP, 1984): 64-82.

7. Authorship, Chivalry, Love: Marie de France

Marie de France, Prologue, Lai de Guigemar and Lai du Laustic

Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, “Authority, Constraint, and the Writing of the Medieval Self,” The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Literature in English (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010): 413-33.

8. Chivalry in Paradise: Cacciaguida in Dante’s Commedia

Dante Alighieri, Commedia, Par. 1, 15-17

Jacques Le Goff, “Merchant’s Time and Church’s Time in the Middle Ages,” Time, Work & Culture in the Middle Ages (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980): 29-42.

9. The Knight and the Merchant: Boccaccio’s Decameron

Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Proem, 1.1, 1.8, 2.3, 3.5, 3.9, 4.9

Francesco De Sanctis, History of Italian Literature (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1968): 290-319.

10. Marketplace and Chivalric Virtue: Boccaccio’s Decameron

Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron 5.8, 5.9, 6.1, 8.1, 10.9, Concl.

Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style (London; New York: Oxford UP, 1974): 29-56.

11. The Orlando furioso: Parody or Poem of the Crisis?

Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando furioso, Cantos 1, 2, 4 (ott. 1-50)

T. S. Eliot, “The Sacred Wood” (1921): “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: https://www.bartleby.com/200/sw4.html

Mary Hollingsworth, Patronage in Renaissance Italy: From 1400 to the Early Sixteenth Century (London: Murray, 1994): 330-46.

12. Chivalry and Technology: the Arquebus in the Orlando furioso

Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando furioso, Cantos 9 (ott. 70-90), 10 (1-34; 69-72; 91-111), 11 (1-83), 12 (1-94)

George Orwell, “You and the Atomic Bomb,” The Tribune (October 19, 1945)

Michael Murrin, History and Warfare in Renaissance Epic (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1994): 123-38.

13. Orlando’s Madness and Astolfo’s Journey to the Moon

Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando furioso, Cantos 23 (ott. 96-136); 24 (1-14; 46-93), 34; 35 (1-31)

Elissa B. Weaver, “A Reading of the Interlaced Plot of the Orlando Furioso: The Three Cases of Love Madness,” in Ariosto Today: Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Donald Beccher, Massimo Ciavolella, and Roberto Fedi (Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 2003): 125-53.

14. The Orlando Furioso: A Book with no Ending?

Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando furioso, Cantos 41 (ott. 1-102), 42 (ott. 1-69), 46 (ott. 101-140)

Sergio Zatti “The Furioso between Epos and Romance,” in The Quest for Epic: From Ariosto to Tasso, edited by Sergio Zatti, Dennis Looney, and Sally Hill (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2006): 13-37.

15. Don Quixote: Rescuing Chivalry?

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Preface, Chapters: 1-6

Elizabeth A. R. Brown. “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe,” The American Historical Review 79, no. 4 (1974): 1063–88.


17. Perspectivism in Don Quixote

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Ch. 7, 8-9; 15; 21; 22-26; 38; 45.

Leo Spitzer, “Linguistic Perspectivism in the Don Quijote,” Linguistics and Literary History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1948): 41-85.

18. Don Quixote: Literature and Performance

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote Part 1: Ch. 48; 51-52 ; Part 2: Ch. 1-6.

Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994): 1-34.

19. Don Quixote: The End of Chivalry?

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Ch. 8-10; 22-23; 56-57; 64-65; 69-74.

Erich Auerbach, “Enchanted Dulcinea,” Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2003): 335-58.

20. Appendix: The Waste Land

Thomas S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Elspeth Kennedy, “The Scribe as Editor,” Mélanges Jean Frappier (Genève: Droz, 1970): 523-31.