BA Art History and English Literature

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Vital Matters: Medieval Ecologies

Unit code ENGL34111
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
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


Learning outcomes




[A course booklet will be provided - most of the readings for each week will be contained in the booklet, as most are extracted from very long works. ]

  • 1. Creation: Coming into Being
  • 2. Fall : Becoming Human
  • 3. The Animal Within: Hybridity
  • 4. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Vibrant Matter
  • 5. Museum visit
  • 6. Reading Week
  • 7. Topographies: Marvels and Monsters Period spelling here only?
  • 8. Atmospheres (Weather, Race, Food)
  • 9. Agencies and Entanglements: Human, Angel, Demon, Stars
  • 10. The Living Dead: Saints, Relics, Miracles
  • 11. Endings? Apocalypse Now
  • 12. Review of semester


Teaching and learning methods

  • This class will have a weekly 1- hour lecture and 2-hour seminar. There will be one visit to the Manchester Museum.
  • Pairs of students will be put in charge of the seminar topic for each week. They will open up the discussion by introducing the theoretical topic and readings for that week, and will be responsible for setting discussion questions.
  •  The ‘case study’ assignment will allow students to choose an object (animal, vegetable, mineral), to research it independently, and to write about it. Students will be introduced to, and encouraged to draw on, a range of media (images, manuscript illuminations, archaeological finds) and to incorporate both contemporary and medieval approaches to this item.
  • Materials including [lecture slides, bibliographies, study questions, exercises, handouts, etc]] will be posted on Blackboard each week

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


Assessment methods

Assessment task

Formative or Summative


Weighting within unit (if summative)

Leading seminar discussion


10 mins intro of topic; proposing discussion questions


Thing Case Study

Formative and summative








Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

  1. Seminar discussion intro: Verbal feedback in person.
  2. Case history: numerical grade and written feedback within fifteen working days.







  1. Essay: numerical grade and written feedback within 15 days.

Assignments 1. is formative.


Assignment 2. is formative and summative. Feedback will include suggestions for improvement.


Assessment 1. allows students to present theoretical material, and to practice critical engagement with it. Assessment 2. focuses on medieval material and on writing skills.


Assessment 3. is summative, and requires a combination of skills practised in assessments 1 and 2.




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

Independent study hours
Independent study 0

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Anke Bernau Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Timetable for 2019/20:

Lecture: Mon 2pm - 3pm

Seminar 1: Thu 12pm - 2pm

Seminar 2: Thu 3pm - 5pm

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