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Obscenity and Medieval English Literature


Admission requirements

A relevant BA degree, with a good working knowledge of Middle English, as well as an elementary knowledge of medieval culture.


Modernity often views itself as having spawned a tolerance to sexual explicitness unknown in other eras. Yet despite sexually restrictive medieval Church doctrine and later courtly medieval modes of behaviour, the Middle Ages was, paradoxically, a period that appears to have accommodated, in ways our modern liberal society seems not to, what might be termed the lewd, bawdy or obscene.
Beginning with the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book Riddles, this course will explore the discourse of sexual idiom in Anglo-Saxon penitential texts, law codes, and saints’ lives. Our consideration of later medieval literature will explore the emergence of the medieval bawdy tale par excellence, in the shape and form of the fabliau. We will consider the fabliau’s relationship with other genres such as the romance and its interaction with satirical anti-clerical literature and medieval antifeminist doctrine. We will consider what position and function the lewd held in medieval society and what insight it provides into the sexual attitudes of the time. Our consideration of later medieval literature will also delve into medieval French literature read in translation and also explore obscenity in visual ‘texts’ in the form of manuscript marginalia and church sculpture.

Course objectives

  • Students will acquire a thorough knowledge of the culture and customs that feed into and support medieval literature.

  • Students will develop their ability to interpret texts from a culturally contextualized perspective.

  • A good understanding of current critical work relevant to the subject.

  • The development of skills in carrying out and presenting small-scale research into primary sources related to the theme.

Successful completion of the course will enable students to write a master’s thesis on one of the topics treated in the course.


The timetable will be available by July 1st on the website.

Mode of instruction


Assessment method

Active course participation, including a presentation (25%), and a written essay (75%).


Blackboard will be used to provide students with additional information/reading material.

Reading list

  • Williamson, Craig ed. (1977). The Old English Riddles of the ‘Exeter Book’. University of North Carolina Press.
    • Salisbury, Eve ed. (2002). The Trials and Joys of Marriage. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications,
    • Benson, Larry D. ed. (1988 or later editions). The Riverside Chaucer. Oxford University Press paperback.

Further texts will be provided via Blackboard, in addition to an extensive bibliography of secondary reading.


Students should register through uSis. If you have any questions, please contact the departmental office, tel. 071 5272251 or mail.
Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply.

Contact information

MA Literary Studies departmental office, Van Wijkplaats 3, room 002A. Tel. 071 527 2251 or mail.
Coordinator of Studies: Ms T.D. Obbens, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 103C.