Race and Religion in The King of Tars: An Undergraduate Lesson

This is a pretty cut-and-dry account of a lesson I planned  and how it went. I’m sharing because 1) I’m proud of it; 2) I think it might be useful to others to see the overall lesson and the twists and turns of my reasoning for each step; and 3) it’s a good way to force myself to actually take notes on what I do… 

After what’s been described by some as the garbage-fire summer of medieval studies, I decided to switch out one text on my syllabus for The King of Tars, a medieval text about a Christian princess who is forced to marry a Saracen sultan. I usually mention race in medieval texts when we talk about Marie de France’s description of the fairy queen in Lanval, and in reference to some lines in Chaucer. But I wanted to foreground discussions of racial and religious in/tolerance more clearly, and this text was the way to do it.

I prefaced the two-day discussion with a heads-up about what we’ll focus on in the text, but I gave no further direction than that. I had switched the text after the semester had already started, so my students were aware of the change and they knew why I had made the change.

[The King of Tars is not available from any publisher in undergrad-friendly text, but thankfully a colleague had painstakingly translated and glossed the entire text for her students and graciously allowed me to use her translation. I have relied on the Norton Anthology for this class until now, but I intend to “resist the canon” a lot more in future sections I teach.]

On the first day discussing the text, I began class with a few slides to ground the discussion in the urgency the field medieval studies feels now: to directly address race, namely the alt-right / Nazis’ coopting of medieval symbols and imagery and the inaccuracy of the claim to a “pure” white past.

I showed them screenshots of Twitter posts, beginning with this, which delighted them:

I also gave them a brief overview, explaining that the idea of “race” developed long after the Middle Ages. So although the text definitely refers to whiteness and blackness, we need to dig into the text to figure out how it’s being portrayed and viewed, rather than relying on contemporary ideas about race.

After this presentation, we reviewed major plot points, and then moved into group work.

From the start of the semester, I’d begun each class with a ten-minute writing exercise in which I asked students to write down: one quote from the text; one comment about the text; one question about the text.

This time, I asked them to pair up and to find four quotes from the text, one in each of the following categories: race; religion; women; children. I acknowledged that these are broad categories, and I said that I’m not giving any further explanation for them because I want each pair to interpret the four topics as they see fit.

As I rotated among the pairs, many asked me to help them figure out which category a specific quote belonged to. “We want to quote this line, but it could fit into either the women category or the race category,” etc. I told them to think about which category they want to put it in – what interests them about this quote? Of course, there will be overlap among categories, but I want them each to choose one category for each quote.

Once each pair had chosen four quotes, I asked them to write one of their quotes (with line citations) on the board. I had written the four categories on the board and drawn lines separating them into columns. I stood back as they each chose one quote and wrote it in the appropriate category.

The Result: When everyone was done writing on the board, there were two quotes each for the categories of women, children, and race. Under religion, there were ten quotes. (With 29 students in the class, this means at least a few pairs wrote more than one quote, but I’m not complaining!)

I asked the class to look at the board and think about what this text is about, based on the quotes they focused on: is it about race, or is it about religion? Of course, they all agreed that this text is about religion.

We moved into an intense discussion about representations of race and religion in the text, particularly the way the sultan becomes white when he converts.

A few students asked about the confusing portrayal of Islam in the text (Mohammed as a god or saint rather than a prophet, Juipter and Apollo and idols as part of what appears to be a pantheon of gods), and we talked about how the text calls the sultan a “pagan,” a “heathen,” a “Saracen,” and the way the text uses these terms to refer to both non-Christians and non-whites without really allowing for the possibility of a black Christian or a white non-Christian. We discussed the text’s focus on presenting the sultan as different, as non-Christian, not on presenting an accurate portrayal of Islam.

We left off by the end of class with a number of questions that students posed about the text as they began to think in these terms, not least of which was: Aren’t the Christians as bad as the Saracens by the end, when they kill everyone?

Before wrapping up for the day, I handed out copies of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s chapter “Monster Culture: Seven Theses” (recommended by a few colleagues – thanks!) We read the introduction together, wading past references to de Man and Foucault to get to the undergrad-comprehensible part. After making sure everyone understood what to expect from the essay, I asked them all to read it for the following class, when we would discuss it and apply it to The King of Tars.

Day 2:

I reviewed the concept of differentiating between the medieval text and contemporary interpretation by dividing the board in half and asking students to review what we had discussed in the previous session. As they spoke, I took notes, placing each idea in the appropriate column.

We then returned to discussion of the questions we’d been left with at the end of the previous session, using the two columns on the board to keep the medieval and contemporary sensibilities from getting jumbled together. I particularly wanted them to keep this distinction in mind when asking “aren’t the Christians just as bad?”

Finally, we moved to the most intense part of the lesson. The class divided themselves into groups of three, which meant we had nine groups. I assigned each group one of Cohen’s theses, with two groups working on Thesis II and two on Thesis IV. I asked them to 1) review Cohen’s points and make sure everyone in the group understood the arguments, and 2) apply these arguments to The King of Tars, looking at specific lines or moments in the text which either support or refute Cohen’s claims about “monster culture.”

Since this is a 200-level class, I expected students to struggle with many of the ideas (a 300-level class would likely struggle too!). I sat with each group for a while, helping them work through the ideas and doing mini-lectures about each group’s assigned thesis. The small group was ideal, as students got to ask specific questions of me and of each other, and I was able to ascertain that all three students understood before I moved on to the next group. [Side-note: at one point, I thought “if this is what the UK tutorial model is like, sign me up right now!”]

The ideas that resulted from this group discussion were amazing. Students at first identified almost every character as a monster, but then they revised and edited, carefully differentiating between the perspectives of the medieval reader and our contemporary class. They questioned themselves and each other as they worked, forcing themselves to really think deeply about Cohen’s assertions and the text – on a level I would expect from an upper-level literature class. They worked through ideas about “pure body” and “pure culture,” they looked up lots of words they had never encountered before and might not ever encounter again.

They at times circled around to previous notions of monsters (violent, feared, hated) but caught themselves and each other and went back to wrapping their minds around the idea of a monster as a symbol and manifestation of cultural fears, anxieties, desires, and fantasies, etc.

For the wrap-up, each group presented an explanation of Cohen’s thesis and an analysis of The King of Tars through that lens. Again, I took notes on the board as they spoke (see image below).


(Note: “princess” should have been crossed out by the end of the lesson, I just forgot to do it on the board! Also note the distinction between medieval and contemporary views under Thesis II.)

We didn’t come to any hard-and-fast conclusions about what the text does in regard to medieval portrayals of race, but we did begin to dig into the development of monstrosity and difference in the Middle Ages, and to put it in context with our contemporary perceptions. And since I tend to leave many discussions like that (“so what’s the answer? whatever you can provide evidence for”), my students by then understood the benefit of simply raising questions about a text.

Some of them chose to return to these questions in their papers, which I may write about at another point…

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