BA Drama and English Literature

Year of entry: 2022

Course unit details:
Things that Talk: Nonhuman Voices in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Culture

Unit code ENGL31622
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by English and American Studies
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


‘Things’ could talk in Anglo-Saxon literature and culture. Nonhuman voices leap out from the riddles of the Exeter Book, telling us where they came from, how they were made, how they do or do not act. Readers of The Dream of the Rood will come across a tree possessing the voice of a dreaming human in order to talk about its own history, its former life as a gallows and a rood. Inscribed artefacts (swords, rings, brooches, caskets) use their voices to remind us of their makers and owners, while others want to talk about themselves instead of the humans who crafted them, recalling their former fate as living creatures.

This course unit asks students to rethink the lives of animate and inanimate things; the differences between human, animal and artefactual bodies; the relationship between human speech and nonhuman sounds; and what separates the manmade from the natural, the owned from the autonomous.




  • to engage with Old English texts in both poetic modern translations and the original language
  • to examine how early medieval writing might relate to recent ideas about the nonhuman in thing theory and eco-criticism
  • to rethink critical and theoretical concepts of voice, body and agency in relation to nonhuman beings
  • to develop skills in reading a range of Old English literary genres (riddle, charm, elegy, dream vision)
  • to explore the intersections between literature and material culture




  1. How Do Things Talk? (‘Thing Theory’ and Medieval Studies)
  2. Seeing Voices (Husband’s Message)
  3. The Natural World (Bird and Beast Riddles)
  4. Craft and Craftsmen (Artefact and Body Riddles)
  5. The Life, Death and Afterlife of the Franks Casket (Inscribed Artefacts)
  6. Creation (Creation Riddles and Old English Genesis)
  7. Knowledge of Nature: Religion and Science (Panther, Whale, Phoenix)
  8. Control of Nature: Magic and Witchcraft (Old English Charms)
  9. Being Human (Soul and Body)
  10. Voice-Bearers (Dream of the Rood)
  11. Voice-Bearers (Dream of the Rood and Ruthwell Runes)
  12. Exam Prep

Teaching and learning methods


1-hour lecture and 2-hour seminar per week


Bibliographies, articles, tasks, lecture slides, and study questions for each week will be posted on Blackboard. 

Knowledge and understanding

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

  •  identify connections between the themes of Old English literature and the concerns of thing theory
  • read a variety of early medieval genres closely and critically: riddle, charm, elegy, dream vision
  • identify and analyse different literary techniques used by Old English poets when writing about speaking animals and objects: prosopopoeia, paronomasia, chiasmus, cryptography, punning etc.

Intellectual skills

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

  •  present a coherent written argument
  • handle critical vocabulary and demonstrate a critical position according to the conventions of the discipline
  • demonstrate an awareness of recent theoretical approaches to nonhumans and the environment


Practical skills


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

  • use textual evidence to formulate convincing critical arguments about course texts
  • summarize and engage with the arguments in secondary texts
  • generate thoughtful written work on course texts and themes
  • speak clearly and articulately on course texts and themes
  • introduce and defend ideas in a presentation


Transferable skills and personal qualities


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

  •  analyse and process complex information
  • work effectively in groups
  • manage deadlines and self-motivated study
  • demonstrate appreciation and sensitivity towards a historically distant culture


Employability skills

Analytical skills
Students taking this unit will be able to analyse and evaluate arguments and texts. Above all, committed students will emerge from this course unit with an advanced capacity to think critically, i.e. knowledgeably, rigorously, confidently and independently.
Group/team working
Students taking this unit will be able to work courteously and constructively as part of a larger group.
On this unit students are encouraged to respond imaginatively and independently to the questions and ideas raised by texts and other media.
Students on this unit must take responsibility for their learning and are encouraged not only to participate in group discussions but to do so actively and even to lead those discussions.
Project management
Students taking this unit will be able to work towards deadlines and to manage their time effectively.
Oral communication
Students taking this unit will be able to show fluency, clarity and persuasiveness in spoken communication.
Students on this unit will be required to digest, summarise and present large amounts of information. They are encouraged to enrich their responses and arguments with a wide range of further reading.
Written communication
Students on this unit will develop their ability to write in a way that is lucid, precise and compelling.

Assessment methods

Essay (3,000 words) 50%

Exam (2-hour unseen) 50%


Feedback methods


  • Oral feedback during seminars
  • Written feedback on essays
  • Additional one-to-one feedback (during consultation hour or by making an appointment)

Recommended reading

Readings for 2017-18 may include:

Bird and beast riddles

Husband’s Message

Creation riddles and Old English Genesis

Panther, Whale, Phoenix

Soul and Body

Dream of the Rood

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 11
Seminars 22
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
James Paz Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Timetable for 2019/20:

Lecture: Tue 12pm - 1pm

Seminar 1: Fri 10am - 12pm

Seminar 2: Fri 1pm - 3pm

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