Old English II

Books from the era of invasion and reform


Course Convenor:  Prof. Susan Irvine

Taking the reign of King Alfred as its starting point, this course covers a period where the identity of the English nation is slowly emerging. Students will encounter a body of prose literature of the highest quality. Along with its artistic richness, much of this literature has a political and didactic agenda. In Alfred's Preface 'On the State of Learning in England', for example, we will see how English literature became a vehicle to promote the identity and prestige of the nation. The ninth-century literary renaissance also witnessed an interest in translating various classical works into English. The Old English Boethius, with its far from literal translation of its source, will give students an insight into the preoccupations of contemporary readers and writers.

From later in the period, we will study lives of English saints – a sort of celebrity culture for its age, but with a moral slant – for example the Life of St. Æthelthryth, by Ælfric, abbot of Eynsham. Dazzling rhetorical richness can be found in the Sermo Lupi ‘Sermon of the Wolf’ written during the final Viking War as a public address by the fire-eating Archbishop Wulfstan of York.

Amongst the poetry on offer, Judith imaginatively retells the apocryphal tale of the woman who seduces then beheads a general to save her town. The Battle of Brunanburh (the defeat of Vikings from Ireland near the Wirral in 937) and The Battle of Maldon (an English defeat followed by suicide action in a battle with Norwegian raiders in 991) reflect the impact of the Viking invasions, exploiting heroic culture in the context of contemporary historical events.

The course assumes some prior knowledge of Old English (such as the first-year Old English course).Teaching consists of twice-weekly one-hour seminars. The course is examined by a three-hour written paper containing translation of and commentary on texts already studied in class, and essay questions (NB: it is not possible to be examined by Course Essay for this course).