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Essays and assessment

Information about the assessment requirements for the module can be found on the Module Information page; this page provides further guidance on writing essays, commentaries, and translations. Past exam papers can be found to the right of this page.


One of the aims of this module is to improve your skills in textual analysis and essay-writing. To help you develop these skills, first year students will write two unassessed (formative) essays (for term 1, week 10, and for term 3, week 1). In the exam, first year students will write one essay on a Medieval and one on a Renaissance topic. (Hons level students will write two assessed essays.)

Using primary sources in your essay

Close engagement with the primary text(s) is critical to a successful essay. When developing an essay, you will need to return to your primary text(s) and identify passages relevant to your chosen topic. Read these closely and make notes on your responses to them before considering how the criticism/background material you have read helps (or doesn’t help!) to illuminate them. Remember to make a note of the page numbers (for prose) and line numbers (for poetry) of any relevant passages from the primary sources so that you can cite them properly when you come to write up your essay.

Secondary sources and help with research skills

When writing your formative or assessed essays, you should use the course bibliography to identify a few secondary sources relevant to your choice of text and essay title.

The Library has produced a short online course, called Researching the historical context, to help you develop your skills in academic research. The course focuses on contextual research on the medieval period, helping you to identify appropriate sources. It includes a video and downloadable guide that you can refer to while carrying out your research. You can access the course by clicking here.

You may also like to check out two other short videos designed to help you get started on University-level work:

Starting your research journey: a student view

Top tips for first year research

See also the Library for English Students page for further help in locating resources for your essay. A particularly useful resource for finding materials on particular texts and topics is the International Medieval Bibliography, which can be accessed via the list of databases for English studies on the Library webpages here.

What makes a good essay?

A good essay will be analytical rather than descriptive: that is, you should not simply summarise what the text says, but explain how it produces the meanings it does. Your essay should have an introductory paragraph setting out the topic and your thesis or argument about that topic. Each subsequent paragraph should develop one point that relates to your main thesis.


Formative and assessed essays should be presented according to the guidelines in the Undergraduate Handbook.

Further sources of help with essay-writing

The Academic Writing Programme offers sessions on writing and referencing essays; for details and to sign up, visit: (for English students) (for Joint Degrees)

You can also book an appointment with a Royal Literary Fund Fellow for individual advice and feedback on essay writing. Your seminar tutor and/or your personal tutor will also be happy to discuss your work with you during their office hours, so do ask them for further advice, too!


The commentary question on the exam tests your skills in close reading of Medieval and Renaissance texts in the original language. To practice these skills, you will write a non-assessed commentary from a selection of Renaissance poetry/prose in Term 2. As this task is designed to develop your skills of close reading, you are not expected to read secondary sources for this exercise: devote your time to careful reading of the passage and planning of your answer.

A good commentary will show detailed comprehension of the passage: what’s happening, who’s speaking, what ideas or arguments are being discussed. You may wish to give a short summary or overview of the passage at the start of your commentary to show this comprehension.

If the passage is from a longer work, e.g. The Faerie Queene, you will be expected to locate it within its context in the text: what has just happened, what happens next, what is the significance of this passage to the narrative as a whole?

If you are writing about poetry, particularly about sonnets, you are expected to show some knowledge of poetic form and how it relates to meaning in addition to discussion of imagery, point of view, sequence of ideas etc.

Middle English Translation

Like the commentary exercise, the translation question on the exam tests your skills in reading Medieval texts in the original language. In the exam and in the practice translation test in week 10 of Term 1, you will be given a passage of approximately 12 lines from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. A good answer will offer an accurate literal prose translation. You are not being asked to translate into poetry but to write something that reads clearly and makes sense in modern English prose. Don’t retain line breaks or poetic inversions. Your translation should demonstrate your detailed comprehension of the meaning of the passage; don’t simply ‘translate’ by changing the words into modern English spelling.

A sample translation of a past exam passage is given below. More information on Middle English language and suggestions for further reading can be found in the Guide to Middle English.

‘Lo, lord,’ quoth the lede, and the lace hondeled,

'This is the bende of this blame I bere in my nek;

This is the lothe and the losse that I laght have

Of cowardise and covetyse that I have caght thare;

This is the token of untrauthe that I am tan inne,

And I mot nedes hit were while I may last.

For none may hyden his harme bot unhap ne may hitte,

For there hit ones is tached twynne wil hit never.’

The kyng comfortes the knight, and all the court als,

Laghen loude therat and lovelyly acorden

That lordes and ledes that longed to the Table,

Uch burn of the brotherhede, a bauderyk schulde have,

A bende abelef him aboute of a bryght grene,

And that for sake of that segge in sute to were.

From Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

‘Look, my lord’, says the man, and took hold of the belt, ‘this is the sash (external sign) of the reproach that I carry in my neck; this is the injury and the harm that I have taken (received; been given) through the cowardice and covetousness which I contracted there (lit. ‘that I was infected with there’)*; this is the symbol of the infidelity (untruthfulness) that I have been taken in (caught displaying), and I must of necessity wear it for as long as I live. For no one may conceal his guilt without misfortune befalling him,** for where it has once become fixed (attached) it will never be separated.’

The king consoles the knight, and in addition the entire court laugh loudly about that and graciously agree that the lords and knights (men) that belonged to the Table, (and) each man of the fellowship (brotherhood) should have a baldric, a bright green sash slantwise (diagonally) around him, and wear it to match (Gawain’s sash) for the sake of that man.


* ‘Demonstrated’ or ‘showed’ would also be acceptable here

**Andrew and Waldron translate this differently as ‘for one may conceal one’s offencce but one cannot remove it’. Both readings are acceptable.