MA Medieval and Early Modern Studies / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Vital Matters

Course unit fact file
Unit code ENGL64111
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


How can we think our world - and ourselves - differently, in the face of rapid environmental change? This is one of the most pressing questions facing us today. In the Middle Ages, similar issues were being explored: Was humanity the pinnacle of God’s creation, or simply of the same ‘matter’ as all other creatures? Was the universe vibrant or inert? While plants and stones possessed secret lives of their own, stars influenced the actions and fates of all life forms. Some of the vitalities that fascinated thinkers, writers and artists included hybrids (werewolves, mermaids, etc.), sexual rocks and angels. This course brings recent thought on climate change into dynamic conversation with a range of medieval texts and genres. We will discuss premodern understandings of the world, its creaturely life, the energies that shape it - and ask how they might help us to think differently about vital matters today.


The aims of this course are:

  • to introduce students to texts and issues from the late medieval period;
  • to introduce students to recent philosophical work concerned with climate change , primarily from the perspective of ecomaterialism;
  • to introduce students to the analysis of  a range of genres and media [drama, natural philosophy, romance, travel writing]  
  • to analyse the ways in which medieval texts interact with their cultural and historical contexts;
  • to widen our undersanding of formative categories (e.g., ‘the human’, ‘agency’, ‘environment’; ‘nature’)
  • to consider issues like gender, sexuality, race and animality in relation to the categories mentioned above;
  • to develop skills of critical thought, speech, and writing

Knowledge and understanding

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  • demonstrate familiarity with a diverse range of texts and genres from the late medieval period;
  • demonstrate ability to understand Middle English;
  • demonstrate a critical awareness of how contemporary philosophical and ethical debates speak to - and how they differ - from medieval understandings of living matter;
  • demonstrate an informed use of key concepts (such as: ‘agency’, ‘intentionality’, ‘subjectivity’, ‘materiality’, ‘entanglement’)
  • demonstrate an awareness of the historical nature of such concepts, and of how they change across time

Intellectual skills

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  • think critically and make critical judgments about different contemporary philosophical responses to climate change;
  • to analyse a range of medieval  texts in an informed and nuanced manner;
  • to identify and outline key problems and issues in both contemporary and medieval theories of ‘vital matter’;
  • reflect critically on the key concepts of this course as listed above;
  • develop and articulate a reasoned argument in response to contemporary and medieval sources texts studied on the course.

Practical skills

- make good use of library, electronic, and online resources pertaining to the course;

- speak and write clearly and with precision about the texts and topics studied on this course;

- comment on the performance of a peer, identifying strengths and making constructive

   suggestions for improvement where appropriate;

  • comprehend, ,discuss and interpret Middle English texts;
  • comprehend and discuss contemporary theories emerging from different disciplines (anthropology, literary theory, philosophy, political theory)

Transferable skills and personal qualities

- retrieve, sift, organise, synthesise and critically evaluate material from a range of different sources, including library, electronic, and online resources;

- lead discussions and identify key issues in the set material;

- produce written work using appropriate language for an academic audience;

- produce written work that collects and integrates evidence to formulate/test a critical argument;

- demonstrate good teamwork skills by acknowledging the views of others and working constructively with others;

- display basic negotiating skills in understanding and working with others;

- manage time effectively by scheduling tasks in order of importance;

- apply knowledge specific to the course (both contemporary and medieval texts) in everyday situations;

- demonstrate the ability to improve one’s own learning through critical reflection

Employability skills

Transferable skills: logical and analytical thought; familiarity with different cultural and temporal worldviews; good oral and written communication skills, resourcefulness in the ability to gather, interpret, analyse and/or evaluate critical sources; time management skills; articulacy and presentation skills. It helps students identify and understand a range of different viewpoints and/or critical approaches to pressing contemporary issues, and by situating these issues in a longer historical trajectory. T

Assessment methods

Assessment task

Formative or Summative

Weighting within unit (if summative)

Leading seminar discussion






Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

  1. Seminar discussion intro: Verbal feedback in person.



  1. Essay (100%). Summative. Numerical grade and written feedback.

Assignments 1. is formative.





Assessment 3. is summative, and requires a combination of skills practised in core modules on the programme.



Recommended reading

  • Anon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • Bartholomaeus Anglicus, On the Properties of Things [excerpts]
  • Bible / medieval drama: episodes:  ‘Creation’, ‘Fall’, ‘Flood’, ‘Apocalypse’
  • Isidore of Seville, Etymologies  [excerpts]
  • [John Mandeville], The Travels of Sir John Mandeville 
  • Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)
  • Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill (New York: Routledge, 2000).
  • J. Allan Mitchell, Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child (University of Minnesota Press, 2014).


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 11
Seminars 20
Independent study hours
Independent study 119

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Anke Bernau Unit coordinator

Additional notes

1 x 2 hour visit to Manchester Museum, subject to UK government guidance. 

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