MA Medieval and Early Modern Studies / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Old English: Writing the Unreadable Past

Course unit fact file
Unit code ENGL61162
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by English and American Studies
Available as a free choice unit? No


Old English tests your skill as a reader – and as a writer. The remains of this early literature survive in burnt manuscripts and ruined fragments. Anonymous voices still call out to us from these texts, but it is not always clear whether the speaker is a man or woman, pagan or Christian, saint or sinner, or even human or animal. They sing moving songs about themselves but their worldviews may seem strange and challenging to us today.


Can we still make Old English literature speak? What will it say? Modern writers, from Auden to Heaney and beyond, have refused to abandon this vanished literary world. Instead, they have drawn on it as a source of creativity, inspiration and poetic experiment. In one-hour seminars, we will compare and criticise a range of these published translations. But students on this course will get the chance to go further still. In two-hour workshops, you will turn your critical insights into creative energy, making new translations of your own and shaping living songs from fading parchment.


  • To extend student knowledge of Old English preparatory to more advanced work
  • To expand understanding of how modern writers have engaged with the earliest English literature beyond Beowulf
  • To explore the ways in which creative approaches to Old English poetry can enhance critical responses (and vice versa)

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Analyse a number of important Old English poems from the Exeter Book manuscript
  • Appreciate the range and scope of Old English poetry, beyond Beowulf
  • Compare and criticise published translations of these Old English poems
  • Produce translations of their own, rendering Old English into good modern English

Knowledge and understanding

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Demonstrate a basic understanding of Old English grammar, vocabulary and poetics
  • Identify and explain the distinctive formal properties of Old English literary texts
  • Understand important critical interpretations of Old English literary texts and produce critical and creative interpretations of their own
  • Reflect and comment upon the practice and theory of medieval to modern translation

Intellectual skills

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Offer a cogent overview of the earliest English literature and the modes and methods of its production
  • Render linguistically difficult, often fragmentary, texts into an accessible modern idiom
  • Make reasoned judgments about other modern translations
  • Apply these judgments to their own work

Practical skills

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Decipher texts written in Old English
  • Acquire skills in language-learning
  • Acquire skills in translation
  • Give and receive constructive criticism on their own work and that of other students

Transferable skills and personal qualities

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Analyse and process complex information
  • Acquire or improve upon transferable skills in language-learning and translation
  • Work effectively in groups
  • Demonstrate appreciation and sensitivity towards a historically distant culture

Assessment methods

Portfolio 100%


Feedback methods

  • Oral feedback (from tutor and fellow students) on translation and pronunciation during weekly workshops
  • Written feedback on essays and translation portfolio
  • Additional one-to-one feedback (during consultation hour or by making an appointment)

Recommended reading

Primary Course Book


Marsden, Richard, ed., The Cambridge Old English Reader (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)


Further Reading


Delanty, Greg and Michael Matto, eds., The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation (New York and London: Norton, 2011)


Godden, Malcolm, and Michael Lapidge, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)


Jones, Chris, Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English in Twentieth-Century Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)


Lees, Clare A., ed., The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)


Liuzza, R.M., ed., Old English Literature: Critical Essays (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002)


Owen-Crocker, Gale, ed., Working with Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 2009)


Pasternack, Carol Braun, The Textuality of Old English Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Practical classes & workshops 22
Seminars 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 117

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
James Paz Unit coordinator

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