The Scale of Catastrophe: Ecology and Transition, Medieval to Early Modern (seminar)

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Spring 2015 Semester Seminar

Medieval and early modern texts share a vocabulary for catastrophe that intermixes deluge (the Flood that only Noah and his family survived) and incineration (the advent of apocalypse and the purging of the mortal world). Although one was in the distant past and never supposed to arrive again, the other to blaze forth at some uncertain future, both flood and fire tended to be invoked to mark historical breaks and anxious moments of transition. This seminar paired medieval texts fascinated by survival in the face of cataclysm with early modern ones that carry the stories they offer into new realms. Participants investigated the scale of catastrophe stories, where scale is both size (local versus cosmic) and structure, a ladder (scala) that arranges nature into a hierarchy. They also considered the gender of catastrophe, and map whether women tell different stories against and within catastrophe from men. Readings frequently paired medieval texts with early modern ones that reinterpreted them. Medieval primary texts included Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History, Des Grantz Geanz, the Chester play of Noah’s Flood, and Chaucer’s “Franklin’s Tale” and “Miller’s Tale.” Early modern readings included Hooke’s Micrographia, Raleigh’s Discovery of Guyana, Holinshed’s Chronicles, and several plays by Shakespeare before considering Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Director: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is Professor of English and Director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at The George Washington University. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green (2013), Medieval Identity Machines (2003), and Monster Theory: Reading Culture (1996). His book Stories of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman is forthcoming.