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  On course: Bryn Mawr courses and their reading lists

Classical Studies 220: ‘Writing the Self’ (cross-listed with Comparative Literature, Feminist and Gender Studies) Catherine Conybeare, Assistant Professor of Greek, Latin and Classical Studies on the Rosalyn R. Schwartz Lectureship and Graduate Advisor.

What leads people to write about their lives? Do men and women present themselves differently? Do they think different issues are important? How do they claim authority for their thoughts and experiences?

“In ‘Writing the Self,’ I teach some of my favorite texts,” says Professor Catherine Conybeare, who offered the course for the first time last year. “Students read a wide range of autobiographies from the medieval period and discuss them from a self-consciously personal perspective. Many of the issues they raise remain vividly relevant. Students also taking my Medieval Latin course can read two of the autobiographies in the original—the diary of Perpetua, as she prepares herself for martyrdom in the arena at Carthage on 7 March 203, one of the earliest pieces of writing by a Christian woman; and St. Augustine’s Confessions, an extraordinary work of tormented self-revelation and grappling with the divine.”

Three papers are required, two of 3-5 pages and one of 7-10 pages:

1) On authors of the third to seventh centuries: What impels them to write about themselves? Can we detect a difference between male and female authors?

2) 12th century autobiography: Abelard and Guibert. In what ways do both reveal themselves to be unreliable narratives? How does either challenge our notions of the proprieties of autobiography? Of what conventions of autobiographical genre are they aware? From what do they derive? What sort of “self” do they write?

3) Do you think that “writing the self” changes over time? How? Refer to at least three primary sources from 100-1500 C.E. and think explicitly about the fundamental terms of the question: “writing,” “self,” and “time.”

No linear development
“What we realized was that one couldn’t make a claim for linear development of the form, rather practitioners within a very loose genre,” Conybeare said. “Both men and women were concerned with legitimization and self justification, and that played out in very different ways.”

Readings include the correspondence between Heloise and Abelard, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, St. Patrick’s Confession, Guibert de Nogent’s A Monk’s Confession, Radegund’s Fall of Thuringia, and a colleciton of medieval writings on female spirituality.

Augustine’s Confessions are interwoven throughout the whole, as a touchstone and a focus for thinking about the properties of an autobiography.

Selected Readings

Augustine. Confessions (Oxford World’s Classics). Trans. Henry Chadwick. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

Bruner, Jerome, and Susan Weisser. “The Invention of the Self: Autobiography and Its Form.” Literary and Orality. Eds. David R. Olson and Nancy Torrance. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. 129-148.

Gilmore, Leigh. Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women's Self-Representation. New York: Cornell UP, 1994.

Howlett, D.R., ed., trans. The Confession of Saint Patrick. Liguori, Missouri: Triumph Books, 1996.

de Nogent, Guibert. A Monk’s Confession. Trans. Paul J. Archambault. Philadelphia: Penn State UP, 1996.

Radice, Betty, ed., trans. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. New York: Penguin, 1974.

Spearing, Elizabeth, ed. Medieval Writings on Female Spirituality. New York: Penguin, 2002.

Stock, Brian. “The Self and Literary Experiences in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.” New Literary History 25.4 (1994): 839-52.

Talbot, C.H., ed., trans. The Life of Christina of Markyate. 1959. Toronto: Toronto UP, 2000.

Taylor, Charles. Sources of Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.

Zumthor, Paul. “Autobiography in the Middle Ages?” Trans. Sherry Simon. Genre 6.1 (1973): 29-48.

The Middle English Boke of Margery Kempe and Book of Showings by Julian of Norwich are interesting not only because they come from the edge of literacy and from authors known to be women, but because of the questions of authority they raise.

Both authors describe supernatural events they claim come to them from God, but they also interpret these experiences in their texts, which are usually described as spiritual autobiographies. Margery Kempe, however, records details of her antic everyday life as a wife and mother, and of her pilgrimage to the Holy Land, as well as visions and testimony from her sacred life. An anchoress who had retreated to a life of spiritual contemplation in a tiny room attached to the outer wall of the Church of St. Julian of Norwich, Julian focused upon her visions in her account.

Although deeply familiar with devotional literature, Margery called herself “unlettered” and seems to have dictated her words to scribes. Julian is often credited as the first woman actually to write a book in English. She may have been able to read Latin.

On the edge of the world
“St. Patrick and Gerald of Wales are at the edge of the main world, desperate to prove themselves as claimaints to their positions,” Conybeare noted. “Marcus Aurelius is an exception, although Meditations is not really an autobiography.”

The Roman emperor (161 C.E.), wrote Meditations in Greek while on battle campaign as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement, advising detachment from worldly ambition, cheerful acceptance of life’s travails, and devotion to duty. Based on Stoic philosophy, Meditations is so introspective that it might be considered a diary.

“Writing the Self” was explicitly conceived as complementary to Arts 263: “Writing Memoir.” Students with a particular interest in autobiography and memoir-writing were encouraged to take the courses simultaneously.

“I set out with the agenda for people to be very reflective about their own lives and how they would construct their own narratives, but I’m not really equipped to deal with that, as it were,” Conybeare said.

Range of backgrounds
“The range of backgrounds in the class was extraordinary—there were people from classics and comparative literature, some very committed medievalists, people interested in the concept of the self through time, and some engaged by the spiritual aspects of the material.

“Most did not know anything about medieval history or medieval Christian literature, but there were 16 people in the course, making it just small enough so that they could learn from one another.”

Conybeare discouraged the use of secondary sources and encouraged students to trust their own responses to the primary texts, asking what they found startling or engaging about them. “What especially caught their interest was the notion of women being brides of Christ, and one of the most successful papers compared nuptial spirituality in three women mystics,” she said.

“I had them read the Penitential Psalms and Job as modes of first person narrative that the Christian world would have known as models,” she said. “They loved Heloise and hated Abelard; got a huge amount out of Perpetua. It fascinated me that they also loved Marcus Aurelius!”

Oxonian philology, Torontonian breadth
The serendipitous pursuit of a beloved path of research has led Catherine Conybeare to study on both sides of the Atlantic. “I was lucky enough to start both Latin and Greek as a child, and went on to read for a BA in ‘Greats’ at Corpus Christi College, Oxford,” she said. “There I took a special option in Medieval Latin, and became fascinated with the later developments of the language. This fascination led me to the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto for my doctorate. I found a breadth of training there—from palaeography and the editing of texts through Latin literature from the fourth to the 15th century—which has influenced my ideals for both research and teaching ever since.”

“Above all, it’s the period known generally as ‘late antiquity,’ the closing centuries of the Roman Empire in the West, that captures my imagination. My first book, Paulinus Noster: Self and Symbols in the Letters of Paulinus of Nola (Oxford 2000), was based on letter collections from the late fourth and early fifth centuries A.D., and particularly on the letters of Paulinus of Nola, who corresponded with many of the prominent figures of his day. The book looks at epistolary culture and ideas of friendship in late antiquity, the typological imaginary, and the construction of the self.

“Arguably Paulinus’ most important correspondent—and one of the few whose answers survive, at least in part—was Augustine of Hippo. Augustine is, of course, revered or reviled, according to preference, as a founding father of dogmatic Christianity. But his letters, through which I first encountered him, tell a more complicated and personal story, and my current book, provisionally titled The Irrational Augustine, is an exploration of anti-dogmatic tendencies in his early works. “Taking Augustine’s early Ciceronian dialogues as a starting point, it inquires what happens if one questions the idea of ‘ratio’ (which may variously—and in each case unsatisfactorily—be translated as ‘reason,’ rationality, or proportion) as a crucial constitutive part of a human being? (Cicero’s definition of a human being was “animal rationale et mortale.”) How would one even go about structuring such an interrogation? The ramifications extend into many areas of importance to intellectual discussion today: what are the consequences for how one values the body? Women? Children? Memory? How is one to structure an argumentative system that is intellectually satisfying, and yet does not exclude those whose grasp of ratio is traditionally considered to be imperfect? Thinking of dialogic form, it’s been fun to develop these ideas in conversation with the students here.”

You may order these books from the Bryn Mawr College Bookstore, whose proceeds benefit the College: Elizabeth Morris, Bryn Mawr College Bookshop, New Gulph Road, Bryn Mawr, PA 19010, 610 526 5322,

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