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Passion and Distinction: The Encoding and Functions of Love in Medieval and Early Modern English Literature (206)

In medieval and early modern English literature courtly love plays a dual role: on the one hand it serves as a means of social distinction, on the other it becomes a marker of heightened literariness.

At the end of the fourteenth century Chaucer attempted to engender the first literary debate in English history. Its subject was Criseyde’s betrayal of her love to Troilus. The heroine’s changing emotions were used as a vehicle for staging new forms of literary self-consciousness. The next two centuries saw a succession of English and Scottish poets take up his challenge. This project seeks to investigate the specific links between love and literariness that characterize this debate.

Courtly love always represented an ideologically charged phenomenon. In the first place, it was meant to buttress the aristocracy’s claim to cultural superiority. But its elevation to a mark of social distinction made courtly love susceptible to other forms of cultural appropriation, too. Consciously breaking its rules or else pointedly exaggerating its aesthetics and thus stressing its artificiality, poets were able to harness courtly love to new purposes. This lead to a paradoxical cycle of mutual reinforcement: As the increasingly sophisticated representation and aesthetic analysis of courtly love turned into a marker of an increased sense of literariness, this sense of literariness itself could be employed as a novel means of social distinction.

Drawing on the theories of Pierre Bourdieu and attempting to further develop and add a specifically aesthetic focus to the historicist methods dominant in contemporary English studies, this project will scrutinize the Troilus-tradition from Chaucer to Shakespeare with a view to analyze the particular aesthetic strategies that turn courtly love into a marker of sophisticated literariness.