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EN2M7/EN3M9 Special Topic: The Deep Dive

beatus mapa

This is a 15 CAT open module, the topic of which will change annually depending on the convenor.


Term 2 only.

Course Contact 2024/25:
Dr Nancy Haijing Jiang

Contact Hours:
1.5 hour weekly seminar


1 x Short commentary piece (30%)

- intermediates 800 words

- finalists 800 words

1 x Essay (70%)

- intermediates 3000 words

- finalists 3500 words


The topic for 2024/25 is “The Global Middle Ages in Literature” and takes place in term 2 only.

The term the “Middle Ages”—the period “in the middle” between classical antiquity and the Renaissance—derives from European history and, for that reason, is often understood today through strictly Euro-centric frameworks. This module is an invitation to disrupt that tendency by examining texts of the “Middle Ages” period (roughly 500-1500 CE) that demonstrate the interconnectivity of peoples, cultures, and landscapes from many vectors in the world at that time.

We will look at stories that thematise the interconnectivities—the “globalism”—of the medieval world. On the one hand, this means examining narratives of people encountering lands and inhabitants foreign to their own as well as the cultural, political, and literary reverberations of their encounters. For instance, the Vinland Sagas that tell of Icelandic travellers taking advantage of climate change to explore North America, and Muslim seafarer Abu Zayd al-Sirafi’s Accounts of China and India that later inspired the Tales of Sinbad the Sailor in Europe. On the other hand, examining “global” texts in this period also means considering stories which have themselves been “globalized” as they were adopted, altered, and recirculated among and for different societies and cultures: the tale of Balaam and Josaphat, for example, that began as the story of Buddha’s life only to be adapted into one about two Christian saints, and the famous One Thousand and One Nights—a collection of tales co-created by tellers, writers, and travellers from Egypt to Syria to Greece.

This term 2 module can be paired with EN2F4-15/3F4-15 Medieval Tales (taught by Dr. Sarah Wood, term 1) to make a coherent 30 CATS two-term option that overviews medieval literature both in England (term 1) and abroad (term 2). By taking the modules together, students will see how texts of the “Middle Ages” relate to and differ from each other across regions, enriching their understanding of what “literature” in this period and beyond might be said to comprise.


(Certain elements are still liable for change. Everything will be finalised at the beginning of September 2024)

Introduction. In the first week, we use images of medieval maps and their descriptions to define some of the questions governing our entire course of study—what interconnects peoples in the early world? How did medieval subjects understand the wider world and what drove them to engage with a world beyond their own? We will also use this first week to introduce current scholarly debates about the Global Middle Ages: what does it mean to be “global” in a time before globalization and how might we question the time frame of “Middle Ages” through the texts we will study?

Week 1: Selections of medieval maps, including the Hereford Mappa Mundi, Isidore of Seville’s T and O map, and Muhammad al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana map and more; Geraldine Heng, “A Global Middle Ages,” in A Handbook of Middle English Studies, ed. Marion Turnor (2013); Kinoshita, Sharon. “Deprovincializing the Middle Ages,” in The Worlding Project: Doing Cultural Studies in the Era of Globalization (2007); Cord J. Whitaker, “Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages” (2015).

Unit 1: Travelling Fictions and Fictionalizing Travel. In this unit, we will first examine stories that were co-created and variously adapted by tellers across geographical and temporal realms. We begin with the tale of Balaam and Josaphat—the story of two Christian saints that Georgian monks adapted from tales of the Buddha’s life. We then examine the romances of Alexander the Great that circulated around Indo-Europe before moving onto One Thousand and One Nights. From fictions that travelled, we move onto a supposed “traveller”—Sir John Mandeville—who did not move yet who still fictionalized a best-selling ethnographic survey of the world. By investigating varying fictions that witness the animating forces of globalism in their time, we will see the significance of literature as a crucial tool for representing, theorizing, and ultimately realizing early globality.

Week 2: Barlaam and Josaphat: A Christian Tale of the Buddha, ed. Donald S. Lopez (2014).

Week 3: Selections from Walter of Châtillon’s Alexandresis, ed. David Townsend (2006); Kyng Alisaunder, ed. G. V. Smithers (1961); and “Qissat Dhulqarnayn” in Islamic Legends Concerning Alexander the Great, ed. David Zuwiyya (2001).

Week 4: The Arabian Nights, selected and edited by Daniel Heller-Roazen, trans. Husain Haddawy (Norton, 2010).

Week 5: John Mandeville, Book of Marvels and Travels, ed. and trans. Anthony Bale (Oxford, 2012).

Week 6: Reading Week

Unit 2: Global Encounters from West to East. Building on the questions and ideas of narrative-making, memorialization, and imaginary world-building from the previous unit, this unit introduces texts that use many of those same strategies to present “true” accounts of people encountering habitats and inhabitants differing to their own. The texts are organized roughly as a progression from the West to East—beginning with the Vinland Sagas that witness Icelandic exploration in North America. We then examine the accounts of two Muslim explorers: Ibn Fadlan who journeyed to Russia and the Abu Zayd al-Sirafi to China and India. We end this module with Marco Polo’s famous Description of the World that detail his experiences in the Mongal empire and the courts of Kublai Khan. When reading, we will consider the complex interplay between historicity and embellishment. We will also investigate the textual strategies writers used to present the foreign and alien as well as the role of those strategies in the construction of national history and identity.

Week 7: The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America, trans. Magnus Magusson and Hermann Pálsson (Penguin, 1965); The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, trans. Keneva Kunz (Penguin, 2001); Joseph Bruchac, The Ice-Hearts (1979).

Week 8: Ibn Fadlan, Ahmad, Mission to the Volga, ed. and trans. James E. Montgomery (2011); Selections from the film The Thirteenth Warrior (Touchstone pictures, 1999).

Week 9: Abu Zayd al-Sirafi, Accounts of China and India, ed. and trans. Tim Mackinstosh-Smith (2011); Online exploration of the Tang-Belitung Shipwreck in the Asian Civilisations Museum, “the Tang Shipwreck.”

Week 10: Marco Polo’s Description of the World, trans. A.C. Moule (London, 1938).