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EN359 Further Explorations in Medieval Literature

This module is not currently running.

Module convenor: Dr Sarah Wood.

This module will be taught via a weekly 90 minute seminar throughout terms 1 and 2, and through revision seminars in term 3.


Module aims and outline

This module aims to extend students' knowledge of some of the major genres and preoccupations of Middle English literature, building on their first year taster module: EN121 Medieval to Renaissance Literature. It will introduce them to the important genres of popular romance and courtly dream vision, stage a detailed reading of William Langland's compelling religious and social allegory, Piers Plowman, and explore medieval religious writing written by and for women in a number of genres (saint's life, revelation, spiritual autobiography). In addition to strengthening students' linguistic abilities in late 14th and 15th century Middle English, it will also introduce them to some poems in Middle Scots, and to some earlier Middle English writing from the 13th and early 14th century.

Texts to Buy

William Langland, Piers Plowman, ed. by Elizbeth Robertson and Stephen H. A. Shepherd (Norton, 2006)

L.D. Benson et al. (ed.) The Riverside Chaucer (you have this already!)

A. Savage & N. Watson (eds and tr.) Anchoritic Spirituality: 'Ancrene Wisse' and Associated Writers (Classics of Western Spirituality Series) Paulist Press, 1991


Term 1

Weeks 1-5 Popular Romance

We will extend our first-year knowledge of medieval romance (SGGK, the Wife of Bath's tale), by reading a variety of popular romances (the so-called pulp fiction of medieval England!). Texts will include Sir Orfeo (a romance reworking of the Orpheus myth), Sir Gowther, Sir Degare, Havelok the Dane, and Amis and Amiloun (expect blood brotherhood, illicit passion, divine disfigurement, and child sacrifice!) For an excellent survey of Middle English romances, their plots and manuscripts, I recommend The Online Database of Middle English Romance:

For the digitalised Auchinleck manuscript (major early 14th century romance collection):

Week 1 Introduction to Middle English popular romance

Week 2 Middle English Breton lays: Sir Orfeo and Sir Gowther:

Week 3 Sir Degaré:

Week 4 Amis and Amiloun:

Week 5 The Matter of England: Havelok the Dane:

Each of these online editions comes supplied with an introduction and bibliography specific to each romance.

Weeks 7-10 Religious allegory: William Langland's Piers Plowman

We will conduct a detailed reading of the whole of Langland's Piers Plowman, one of the most complex and important poems of the medieval period. Piers Plowman is a religious allegory, restlessly surveying the social structures of late 14th-century England, interrogating its clergy and religious orthodoxies, and lighting on the figure of the agricultural labourer as an exemplary leader for a reformed vision of society. Langland rewrote Piers Plowman again and again.

We will read the poem in its 'B' version, considered by many scholars to be its most compelling form. Please read the whole poem (divided into sections called 'passus' from the Latin for 'step'); seminars will focus upon the following sections:

Week 7 Prologue to passus 4 (inclusive)

Week 8 Passus 5-7 (inclusive)

Week 9 Passus 13 and 14, 16 and 17

Week 10 Passus 18-20 (inclusive)

Term 2

Weeks 1-5 Dream Visions

Dream visions were used by medieval poets as a means to explore alternative realities, secular and sacred, and to encounter archetypes and abstractions (Erotic Love, Fame, Fortune, Earthly Honour, and so on). We will read some pre-modern dream theory in order to understand how these dreams were interpreted and positioned in the medieval period. We'll also read Pearl (a vision of a dead child in the earthly paradise, by the Gawain poet), two early dream visions by Chaucer: The Book of the Duchess and The House of Fame (Riverside Chaucer) and two 15th-century Scottish poems, offering some insight into the late medieval Scottish court: Gavin Douglas's Palis of Honoure, and James' I of Scotland's The Kingis Quair. 15th century Scottish isn't hard, but we'll use heavily glossed online editions.

Week 1 Pearl by 'the Gawain Poet':

Week 2 Chaucer, The Book of the Duchess, in The Riverside Chaucer, pp. 329-46. We will also look at an extract from an important work for medieval dream theory, Macrobius's Commentary on the Dream of Scipio.

Week 3 Chaucer, The House of Fame, in The Riverside Chaucer, pp. 347-73

Week 4 King James I of Scotland, The Kingis Quair

Week 5 Gavin Douglas, The Palis of Honoure

Weeks 7-10 Religious Writing for and by women

Some of the most important early Middle English writing was directed towards religious women (because they needed to learn about their faith but couldn't read Latin). Some of the most important late Middle English religious writing is by women and is heavily visionary (women couldn't be bible exegetes, but they could have visions and could claim divine inspiration). Religious women also frequently lived physically enclosed lives in anchorholds and convents in the Middle Ages (because the control of their bodies was a key concern and anxiety). We'll read some texts where several of these features intersect: Ancrene Wisse and treatises from the Katherine group (early Middle English spiritual guidance for anchoresses; we'll read these in Modern English translation), Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine love (viewed from a modern perspective as the most renowned mystical text of the late Middle Ages), the Book of Margery Kempe (Margery travelled all over Europe on pilgrimage, preached and taught publicly, infuriated many, and was interrogated by the church authorities for alleged heresy), and selected female saints' lives (virginity and sexuality are key concerns here).

Please buy Anchoritic Spirituality. For the extracts of the other texts that we'll be studying in class, plus links to the full texts, please see weblinks below.

Week 7 Extracts from Ancrene Wisse. Translated in A. Savage & N. Watson (eds and tr), Anchoritic Spirituality: 'Ancrene Wisse' and Associated Works (Classics of Western Spirituality series), Paulist Press, 1991, pbk. The relevant extracts are: Ancrene Wisse, Introduction, Part II Outer Senses, Part III Inner Feelings, Part IV Temptations (up until p. 128), Part VII Love, Part VIII Outer Rule. Ancrene Wisse Extracts Introduction to AW

Week 8 The Revelation of Divine Love of Julian of Norwich: . Please read chs 1-9, 16-22, 27-33, 45-52, 58-63.

Week 9 Selections from The Book of Margery Kempe. The full text is available here: Please read the Prologue plus chs 1-7, 11, 21-22, 26-31, 35-36, 52-55, 79-81, 88-89.

Week 10 Middle English Female Saints' Lives: a selection of female saints' lives from The lives in question from the TEAMS edition are The Stanzaic Life of St Margaret of Antioch, The Stanzaic Life of St Katherine of Alexandria, and Osbern Bokenham's The Life of St Anne.


The module will be assessed EITHER by 2 x 5000 word essays, one due in January, (Tues, week 1, term 2), one in April (Tues, week 1, term 3). 100%

OR by 1 x 5000 word essay (due in April: Tues week 1, term 3), plus a 2 hour examination in May/June. 50/50.

Second year students will be provided with a choice of essay questions for assessed essays; third year students will devise their own titles/topics in consultation with the tutor.

The exam is 2 hours in length, with 15 minutes reading time. In section A, you will need to write two critical commentaries from a choice of 4 extracts - one provided from each of the 4 units of the module. Each critical commentary should take 30 mins and is worth 25 %.

In section B, you will need to write one essay from a choice of around 8-10 titles spanning the 4 units of the module (1 hour, 50%). You may not write an essay on texts within the same unit that you wrote your 5000 word essay upon. So, if your 5000 word essay was upon the Middle English romances, you may not write an exam essay on any aspect of any of the romances.


Normally, students should have taken EN121, Medieval to Renaissance Literature, but I am happy to consider other students with some prior reading knowledge of Middle English. Visiting students wishing to take the module should have completed at least one semester of prior study of Middle English texts, and should meet with the convenor in Week 1 to discuss the suitability of the module.