Eng 108 — Study questions for common texts (medieval)

Augustine, Confessions

1.  Does Augustine’s sense of sin seem familiar or unfamiliar to you?  Offer a definition of “sin” as Augustine presents it and discuss how you react to his view.
2.  Augustine says he is ashamed of having wept for Dido.  What does he think is wrong with reading imaginative literature?  What kind of conflict, on a broader cultural scale, could this represent?
3.  Look closely at Augustine’s tribute to his mother, Monica.  What virtues does he particularly commend in her?  How do these virtues compare to modern views on women?
4.  If you took Eng 107, or have a background in classical literature, how would you describe the differences between Augustine’s vision of humanity and the classical vision?  What traits are important and valuable to each?

Song of Roland

1. What restricts how Charlemagne can act?  How does his role of king fit into the social structure?
2.  Compare the ideals in this warrior society with the Greeks & Romans – what is familiar and what has changed?
3. Why is Ganelon upset at the honor of being ambassador? What acts while he is ambassador are wrong and how does he justify his actions?
4. Read Roland’s death scene carefully – what causes his death?
5. Does Turpin fit your image of a Catholic archbishop?  Explain.
6. What role does religion play in this work, both in the battles and otherwise?
7. Compare the kings, Charlemagne and Marsilla.  What traits are emphasized for each?   What do they share? what not?
8. How is the trial by combat pictured – approval? disdain?  What is significant about its outcome?
9. Describe the picture of Islam drawn in this text; what does it tell you about the Christians?
10. Discuss the traits of oral-formulaic composition that come through in the text.

Marie de France, Lanval

1.  Point out places where Marie builds our compassion for Lanval; how does this affect our attitude toward the Arthurian court?
2.  What ideals of human behavior does Marie support?  Examine one passage in detail to illustrate an ideal.
3.  The concept of “aventure”, a moment in one’s life causing change and/or testing one’s potential strength, is evident here.  What, for Lanval, is being tested?  How does he change?
4.  In romance, the goal is often a re-integration of the hero into society.   That doesn’t happen here.  What does Marie imply about love, about society, and about individuals’ relationship with society via the ending?

Medieval lyrics

1.  As with the Greek poet Sappho, many medieval lyrics were written to be sung.   Pick two poems and imagine the music that would accompany them — describe the rhythm, volume, pace, range of notes (high to low), type of voice, etc.
2.  Take any two religious poems and comment on how they present the religious theme.  What aspects of religion or spiritual experience are important?  How is the “divine” element described?  What is the relation of each poem’s speaker to the religious experience?
3.  Take any two secular (non-religious) poems on a similar theme (love, season, war…) and discuss in some detail how each poet presents the theme.  Comment on their differences as well as their similarities.
4.  Compare Villon’s “Testament” with the Archpoet’s “Confession”.  Both of these use a rather satirical tone; discuss in particular how their diction (word choices) contributes to the satire, then point out the key differences in the speakers’ attitudes.

Gottfried von Strassburg, Tristan

1. What has changed in society’s worldview since Song of Roland?
2. Why does Gottfried include the story of Tristan’s childhood?
3. Carefully read the sections relating to the “love potion” – where is blame placed?
4. Consider King Mark as a husband and ruler.  Does he “deserve” any of the grief caused by the love affair?
5. What does Isolde’s manipulation of the ordeal tell you about contemporary attitudes towards trial by ordeal?  Compare/contrast with Ganelon’s trial.
6. If Tristan is the “ideal knight”, what attributes contribute to that status?
7. Look for the quest pattern in this work – which episodes fit the pattern?  which almost fit?
8. How are enemies identified and defined?  what different kinds of enemies are there?
9. Why does the romance end as it does?  what does it tell you about attitudes towards love?

The Death of King Arthur

1. Find evidence of the “courtly love” tradition.  Are these attitudes presented as a negative or positive influence on events?
2. Note where foreshadowing occurs — how do you feel about knowing ahead of time?
3. What two people really dislike Lancelot?  Consider what we learn about him through the attitudes and reputations of his “enemies”.
4. Identify places where irony pops up, especially situational irony.
5. Consider how trial by combat is portrayed here, and compare it to other texts this term.
6. What role does honor play here?  Whose honor is most important?
7. How does religion play a role?  What kinds of influence does it have?
8. What symbolism is attached to the Wheel of Fortune dream for this group of people?

Dante, Inferno

1.  Read Canto One and re-tell the “plot”, except NOT on the literal level.  Use the level which examines Dante’s religious status in the narrative (for example, he wanders off the “path” of religious correctness into a “forest” of sin…).
2.  Look for the times when Dante cries/weeps or faints.  What do these times have in common, and how should Dante be reacting to these situations?
3.  Pick 3-4 sins and discuss how Dante portrays their punishment in Hell.  How does the punishment symbolically fit the crime?
4.  In Canto Eleven, Virgil explains how Hell is “structured”.   Briefly describe the structure (or order), and explain why you think violence against the self is “lower” than violence against others.
5.  Draw a distinction between Dante the Poet and Dante the Character; what characteristics would you give to each, on what evidence?
6.  Point out and discuss 2-3 places where irony is used.  (Cantos 27 and 30 are especially rich.)
7.  In Canto 33, we see the traitors.  Discuss how Dante symbolizes their situation; what lessons are the living invited to learn from their situation?
8.  What three men are found in Satan’s mouth?  Why is each of them important to Dante’s concept of justice?
9.  Collect evidence for Dante’s fixation on the number 3, and discuss the variety of methods he uses throughout the Inferno.

“The Butcher of Abbeville” [fabliau] & Boccaccio, Decameron  [selections]

1.  Compare the world evoked here with that from Marie’s Lanval.   Discuss 2 or 3 distinct differences, with specific references especially to “The Butcher.”
2.  The techniques of farce are evident in the fabliaux form; describe several techniques used in the story which are meant to evoke laughter (even if uncomfortable laughter).

3.  6th story/9th day — Like “Butcher”, this is a fabliaux.   Comment on the traits these two stories have in common.
4.  6th story/9th day — Discuss the role of women in this story; often in fabliaux, the women outsmart the men.  Is that the case here?  How does the role of women affect your reaction to the intended comedy?
5. 10th story/10th day — This story is based on the tradition of the saint’s life, where the life events and attitudes of the saintly person are held up as a model for imitation.  How do you feel about the model Griselda offers women?  Keep in mind that her husband’s behavior is NOT held up as a model.
6.  10th story/10th day — The theme for this day’s tales is “magnificence” and this tale follows several that celebrate the magnificence of the ruler.  Clearly, this ruler is not celebrated and the tale’s narrator (Dioneo) states that the Marquis disproves the theme.  Explain in some detail how Dioneo uses his narrator comments to build the desired portrayal of the Marquis.

Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales [selections]

General Prologue:
1. Identify the pilgrims Chaucer approves of and does not; why does he feel positive or negative towards them?
2. Locate several comic techniques used in the General Prologue.
3. How does Chaucer portray himself (the narrator)?
4. For the tales we’ll read, decide how the tale fits the teller.

Knight’s Tale:
1. How does jealousy affect decisions in this tale?
2. Look at connections between the charactrs and the Greek/Roman gods; how do these connections add significance?
3. Does the tale have a “happy ending”? Explain.
4. Discuss the portrayal of Emily; what about her has caused Palamon and Arcita to love her?
5. Compare the “brotherhood” of Palamon and Arcita with Roland and Oliver.
6. How do the setting (time) and description of society clash?  Why does Chaucer do this?

Miller’s Tale:
1. Consider Alison as a heroine; compare/contrast her with Emily.
2. What elements of fabliaux are present here?
3. Why does Absalom “lose out” to Nicholas?  What stereotypes are brought into play?
4. Describe the trick used on Alison’s husband; how is it appropriate?
5. Who comes out best of the four main characters?  Consider the significance of that.

Wife of Bath:
1. Describe the Wife in your own words; what are her outstanding characteristics?
2. Why was her last husband her favorite?  What was “wrong” with the others?
3. In the Prologue and Tale, is Chaucer promoting different than usual attitudes towards women?  What evidence can be found for serious change and for satire?
4. In the Tale, do the knight’s punishments fit his crime?  Do your own attitudes toward him change?
5. Discuss the connection between the Prologue and the Tale.


1. Look at several ways the number 12 is important in the poem.
2. What is the relationship between Pearl and the speaker?
3. Why is Pearl separated from the speaker by a river?  Does either cross the river by the end of the poem?  Explain.
4. What weaknesses does Pearl chide the speaker for?
5. How does the form of the poem tie in the with meaning(s)?  Pay special attention to the link-words.
6. How do the settings add significance to the poem?
7. How has the speaker changed at the end?


1.  In literary terms, we often “date” the Italian Renaissance from Petrarch, yet he lived at the same time as Boccaccio, who is usually classified medieval.   Using the short pieces we have from each, can you distinguish and articulate a difference in attitude that justifies the separation? [and be sure you spell medieval and renaissance correctly!!!]
2.  Take one sonnet from Petrarch and follow its structural argument — paraphrase the poem, dividing your paraphrase into octave and sestet (the first 8 lines, the last 6 lines).  What images, symbols, metaphors are important to this poem’s point?
3.  Compare Petrarch’s climb up Mt. Ventoux with some of the ideas we discussed from St. Augustine.  What kinds of spiritual ideas come through in Petrarch’s piece?
4.  Petrarch’s love poems to Laura set the tone for centuries of love poetry to follow.  Taking the poems as a whole, describe some of the important love elements found there.

Christine de Pizan, The Book of the Duke of True Lovers

1. What attitudes towards courtly love appear in the course of the work?  Where do you find pros?  Where cons?  What seems to be the ultimate, final attitude?
2. What changes occur in the Duke as the affair progresses?
3. Since this work represents the “code” of courtly love, describe how lovers, male and female, should act.
4. Why are the poems included?  What do they tell us about the characters?
5. Compare this portrayal of love, lovers, and courtly behavior with the portrayal in the two romances; where are the most positive portrayals?  negative?  Explain.