BA English Language and English Literature / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Old English: Writing the Unreadable Past

Course unit fact file
Unit code ENGL21162
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
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 introduce students to further study of Old English, following on from the compulsory first year course, ENGL10051 Mapping the Medieval
  • To extend student knowledge of Old English preparatory to more advanced work at Level 3
  • To expand understanding of how modern writers have engaged with the earliest English literature beyond Seamus Heaney’s 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

Employability skills

¿ Synthesise and present information in a lucid and engaging manner ¿ Work effectively as a member of a group ¿ Organise time effectively in pursuit of specific goals

Assessment methods

Close reading exercise 25%
Translation portfolio: translation plus commentary 75%


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

The Cambridge Old English Reader is required for this course. If you wish to begin your reading over the summer, I would recommend familiarising yourself with at least one modern translation of the following texts: Wulf and Eadwacer, The Wife’s Lament, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Ruin

Translations can be found in any standard anthology of Old English literature in translation such as Kevin Crossley Holland’s The Anglo-Saxon World or Craig Williamson’s Beowulf and Other Old English Poems.

Study hours

Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
James Paz Unit coordinator

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