Course Description

Related themes that run throughout medieval literature in various manifestations, voyage, quest, and pilgrimage were also part of life for many during the Middle Ages, not only as a part of one’s physical existence, but also spiritual. The significance of this, both historically and narratively, can perhaps best be understood biblically: “For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding” (1 Chronicles 29:15). And in Hebrews 11:13, we are reminded that, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”

In order to better understand the profundity of this outlook—an outlook that would shape the course of Western literature—and the world of the European Middle Ages—a time period often neglected but yet foundational for that in which we live today—this course seeks to explore this one cultural facet in detail from both a literary and a theological standpoint. What is it that drives St. Brendan to get into his little boat and cast himself onto the tempestuous waves of the North Atlantic? How, after such a long and dangerous journey, would pilgrims feel upon finally catching a glimpse of the cathedral spires of Santiago de Compostela? And why is Lancelot so determined to rescue Guinevere that he would jump into a cart, and is this compulsion different from what urges him on towards the grail? All of these questions and more will make up the discussion-based format of this seminar as we examine a selection of texts spanning different centuries, languages, and genres.


The obvious goal of this course is to gain insight into the importance of voyage, quest, and pilgrimage in European cultures. A secondary goal is the familiarization of the student with a range of medieval texts and, to the extent we are able, languages and the ability to understand these works in context and to apply modern critical methods in approaching them. The assignments of the course are geared towards improving presentation skills and writing. More specifically, our aim will be:

  1. To develop critical and analytical thinking skills through the close reading and critique of biblical, literary, scholarly, and theological texts.
  2. To enrich reading comprehension and analysis through encountering, discussing, and writing about literary texts, using the discourse of literary scholarship.
  3. To explore the understanding of religious narratives, ideas, and practices as vital aspects of culture, ethics, and intellectual history.
  4. To consider the relationship of the religious in literature to historical (political, social, intellectual, aesthetic) contexts and to our own contexts and experiences.
  5. To strengthen skills in critical, ethical discussion and analytical, argumentative writing.

Contact Information

Instructor: Hannah Zdansky

(Ph.D. in Literature Program, University of Notre Dame)