Reading Medieval Courtesy

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This dissertation explores the significance of medieval courtesy literature in its larger literary context. Courtesy literature was central to early education; furthermore, alluding to courtesy books as a literary move could evoke problems surrounding the educational process they stood in for as well as problems surrounding self, community, and society. I have attempted to restore some of the context that shows courtesy literature to be more than just the formulaic, sententious side that shows most readily. I begin by reading the Harley 2253 version of Urbain le courtois, together with other works related to it, arguing that Urbain is a more dynamic examination of family and social life than a reading of the poem in isolation might suggest, one that raises more questions than it answers about the instability of words, the limitations of didacticism, and the practicability of any set of precepts in a treacherous society. I then read Guillaume de Machaut's Fonteinne amoureuse and Chaucer's Book of the Duchess as literary texts that draw on the language and conventions of didactic literature. Scenes of social instruction offer solutions to problems that could not be solved while characters occupy their ordinary social roles, though these special, mutually productive relationships are possible only in momentary departures from the ordinary world-in dreams, in poetry. I turn finally to Piers Plowman, which, like Machaut's and Chaucer's poems, brings the language of courtesy and the habitus of grammar school out of the schoolroom. Conscience transforms the initially suspect ethos of courtliness into "patient courtesy," stretching the limits of the concept and his own identity. Despite the comforting solidity of simple, didactic couplets, courtesy cannot entirely resolve the complexities of social life, and this is evident in literary works and courtesy books alike. Instead, courtesy (and the larger habitus it stands in for) offers a starting point for inquiry, a set of "rules" to be explicated, rationalized, adapted, parodied, and translated, in the pursuit of a knowledge that can never quite be contained in words.

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courtesy; conduct; habitus


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English Language and Literature

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Ph. D., English Language and Literature

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Doctor of Philosophy

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dissertation or thesis

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