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Introduction to Old English


  • Credit value: 15 credits at Level 6
  • Convenor: Dr Mike Bintley
  • Assessment: a 1500-word essay (50%) and an in-class test consisting of a translation (50%)

Module description

In this module we introduce you to the first 600 years of the English language and its literature, through works of poetry, hagiography and history written in Old English during the Early Middle Ages (fifth to eleventh centuries). You will develop the skills needed to translate, analyse and interpret prose and poetic texts written in Old English, and learn to understand them in their historical, cultural and material contexts. You will be introduced to a range of important issues in this period, such as:

  • intercultural contact and exchange
  • religious and social change
  • the development of the English language
  • the relationship between texts and the material environment in which they are written.

We will start this module by looking at prose texts, such as an historical episode from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which records the execution of the Archbishop of Canterbury by drunken Vikings, and an account of the miraculous preservation of a saintly East Anglian princess in a reused Roman sarcophagus. Once you have got to grips with prose, we will move on to look at poetic texts from the Exeter Book - a collection of elusive and riddling texts that consciously evade easy answers. The Exeter Book texts we study will include the kind of works that convey the emotional experiences of everyday people, such as the haunting elegy The Wanderer, which describes the travels of a lordless warrior over a wintry landscape, and The Wife’s Lament, which narrates the experience of a woman who may either be far from home, imprisoned in a hostile landscape, or quite possibly telling the story of her suffering from beyond the grave.

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will:

  • have an elementary reading knowledge of Old English language
  • be acquainted with a range of Old English poetry and prose
  • have explored aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture
  • have considered the importance of Old English for the history of the English language.