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EN398 Medieval Alterities: Race, Religion, and Orientalism in the Literature of Medieval England


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General Presentation

The Module will analyse the representations of ethnic, religious, and cultural difference found in literary and non-literary texts produced in England during the period 1250-1500. The main aim of the module is to allow students to develop a clear and nuanced understanding of medieval constructions of identity, with primary emphasis upon the identity of groups and communities. Three broad and overlapping categories and their intersections will be explored: Race; Religion; and Geographical/Cultural identity.

Rather than being concerned with historical realities as such, the module will largely be focusing on cultural perceptions, constructions, and fantasies of alterity. This will shed light on the primary categories invoked to define the identity of a recognisably Christian, Western European, and English community, primarily through narratives of conflict and/or encounter with various types of real or imagined historical ‘others’. The principal minority groups examined will be those of Muslims/Saracens; Jews; the ‘East’ more broadly; Vikings and Saxons; and the culture of Pagan Antiquity. The types of texts considered range from travel narratives to crusading romances, ‘historical’ accounts, plays, and some of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Learning Outcomes

• To familiarise students with some of the most important literary and non-literary genres involved in representing cultural difference during the late medieval period in England (1250–1500).

• To understand some of the most fundamental historical, religious, and cultural categories invoked in the construction of identity during the period. • To understand the role of fiction and imagination in shaping the Western perception of non-Christian and non-European cultural and religious practices as well as oriental geographical locations.

• To emphasise the importance of imaginative constructions, fictions, and fantasies in shaping the course of history.

• To familiarise students to the cultural and intellectual context of religious persecution and crusading during the late Middle Ages.

• To stress the role of narratives of violent conflict and warfare, as means of 1) constructing and/or consolidating binary identitarian models (‘them’ vs. ‘us’); 2) Interrogating and undermining this same binarism, and questioning the legitimacy of narratives of Western/Christian/European cultural superiority.

• To introduce students to the fundamental principles of medieval geography, ethnography, anthropology, history, and cosmology.


Pilgrimage, Exploration, and Orientalism:

Introduction and Module Themes: Powerpoint presentationLink opens in a new window

w1. Primary Text: Mandeville’s Travels

Context and Criticism:

The Romance of England:

w2. Primary Texts: King Horn; Havelock the Dane

Context and Criticism:

w3. Primary Text: Bevis of Hampton

Context and Criticism:

Saracens and the East:

w4. Primary Text: Richard Coeur de Lion

Context and Criticism:

w5. Primary Text: The King of Tars

Context and Criticism:



w7. Primary Text: The Siege of Jerusalem

Context and Criticism:

w8. Primary Text: ‘Prioress’ Tale’ (Riverside Chaucer)

Context and Criticism:

w9. Primary Text: Croxton Play of the Sacrament

Context and Criticism:

Pagan Antiquity:

w10. Primary Text: ‘Knight’s Tale’ (Riverside Chaucer)

  • Extracts from A.J. Minnis, Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity (Boydell & Brewer, 1982)

Required reading: Introduction + chapter 2Link opens in a new window

Optional additional reading: chapter 4Link opens in a new window


• 1 x 5000 word essay (100%), from a given choice of topics

• short in-class presentation (formative)

Required Primary Texts

NB - most texts are available online, and can be purchased as hard copies through the TEAMS website

- The Book of Jean Mandeville - online edition hereLink opens in a new window

- King Horn ; Havelock the Dane; Bevis of Hamptoun - online edition hereLink opens in a new window

- The King of Tars - online edition here

- Richard Coer de Lyon - online edition hereLink opens in a new window

- The Siege of Jerusalem - online edition hereLink opens in a new window

- The Riverside Chaucer

- The Croxton Play of the Sacrament - online edition hereLink opens in a new window