COOL CLASSES: “Cross-Cultural Lament Traditions”

A complement to the current faculty seminar, “Attending the Dead,” this comparative literature course explores medieval laments and elegies alongside primary sources that contextualize the role of lament and lamenters in their societies.

Class name: “Cross-Cultural Lament Traditions”

Taught by: Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities Postdoc Kristen Mills


Here’s what Mills had to say about her class:              

I designed this class to complement the current faculty seminar, “Attending to the Dead,” and my own research, which is on death, grief, and mourning in medieval societies. The class is about lament with a focus on the Middle Ages. We are reading laments and elegies alongside primary sources that allow us to contextualize the role of lament and lamenters in their societies. We are also reading critical literature on the practice of lament.

Many of the most beautiful and moving poems of the medieval period are laments, and they reveal a great deal about the societies in which they were composed. Gender roles can be investigated via lament; in some societies men lament, but in others the practice of lamenting is chiefly performed by women. The question of who laments for whom in a given culture can provide information about social roles and status. Medieval Irish penitentials assigned penance for people who performed a lament for someone who had died, which tells us that the Church discouraged keening. This is intriguing, and some scholars have seen this as an indication that the practice of lamenting the dead had pagan connotations in medieval Ireland. Also interesting is the fact that the penance is lesser the higher the social status of the deceased. Someone who keens for a bishop receives far less penance than someone who keens for a layperson.

It is typical to think of laments as expressing sorrow exclusively, but a range of emotions can manifest, such as anger. In some cultures, lament can serve as an incitement to revenge, by reminding people of what they have lost. Lament can articulate a critique of cultural norms or individual behaviors, they can express sorrow and rage and fear, and they can offer a powerful catharsis. In some societies, lament is part of the funerary ritual that is intended to see the deceased safely established in the afterlife, and thus ideas about the mythology of death often crop up.

I want the students to come away from the course with an appreciation of the complexity of the interactions between individuals, societies, emotions, and ritual.


See what other courses the Bi-Co Comparative Literature Department is offering this semester.

Photo courtesy of Copenhagen, Danish Royal Library, MS NKS 1867 4to, fol. 96r.

 Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford experience.