The first half or more of this course will be devoted to the study of 8th-12th-century language and literature, with attention to grammar, metrics, translation, and transmission. We will cover a wide range of texts, such as the Life of Saint Andrew, a saint who saved his followers from cannibals; Aelfric's Preface to his landmark prose translation of the bible; King Alfred the Great's Preface to Gregory's Pastoral Care, a brilliant meditation on the relationship between memory and culture; Wulfstan’s thunderous Sermon to the English, which rebukes the Anglo-Saxons for stooping to fratricide, incest, and child slavery during the Viking invasions; the very strange collection of monstrosities and prodigies, which we call The Wonders of the East; “Caedmon’s Hymn”, what might just be the first recorded poem in English, supposedly composed by an illiterate cowherd; and the stunningly beautiful lyric poem “The Dream of Rood” in which the Cross recounts its heroics during the Crucifixion.
In the second half of the course we will turn to post-Conquest literature (and beyond), as we explore the ways that medieval writers documented and theorized the Anglo-Saxon past. This section of the course will be determined in large part by the interests of students. Our questions will include the following: what constitutes a significant event? In what ways do different genres - chronicles, saints' lives, encyclopedias, sermons, romances, genealogies, geographies - offer competing or affirming views of the past? Do linguistic change and continuity matter? What impact did the Anglo-Saxons’ pressing concerns with conquest, anonymity, decadence, and suffering have on later writers? And how did pre-Conquest England serve the needs of later English propaganda, antiquarianism, and reform?
Texts will include Ranulph Higden's popular universal history, the Polychronicon (c. 1320s-50s, later translated and updated by England's first printer, William Caxton), the reception of Bede's continually recycled Ecclesiastical History of the English People (c. 731); alliterative poems such as St. Erkenwald (c. 1390), and several genealogical rolls in Philadelphia collections.
Students are not expected to know Old English, but we will need to get up to speed pretty quickly (and for that reason, we will read more prose than poetry). A working knowledge of Middle English is helpful.
Undergraduates are not permitted to take 700-level courses.