English - Free topic C: The Modern Construction of the Middle Ages

Course content

This course provides an introduction to medievalism – post-medieval work which deals with the Middle Ages, such as novels, poetry or art set in the medieval period, or dealing with medieval subject matter. It aims to provide a thorough overview of the changing perspectives on the Middle Ages through English literary history.


The course will be split in two parts. The first part of the course is concerned with the way in which the textual and material culture of the Middle Ages was made available in the nineteenth century, often for the first time. We will look at the earlier history of the collecting of Old and Middle English manuscripts, beginning during the time of the Henrician Reformation, and how antiquarians and scholars such as Matthew Parker, Humfrey Wanley and Elizabeth Elstob shaped the field. We will examine translations and reimaginings of key medieval texts such as Beowulf and Caedmon’s Hymn. With the material groundwork in place, we shall look at the various ‘revivals’ of the Victorian age, of tournaments, of Camelot, of chivalry, heraldry and orders of knighthood, at Arthurian myths and Alfred’s burnt cakes. We examine how Romantic, Victorian and Modernist works vary in their approaches to the Middle Ages, and how the idea of the medieval evolved. 


Ultimately, the course aims to provide both a strong sense of how integral medievalism has been to the English literary canon, and to show how “the Middle Ages” have been filtered and interpreted through material, linguistic, and cultural history.

In the module, we will work with early commentary from medievalists such as Matthew Parker (1504-75), Humfrey Wanley (1672-1726) and Elizabeth Elstob (1683-1756), and with translations and the publication history of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and other key medieval texts. Bede provides an account of the composition of the very first recorded poem in English, by Caedmon—though he records it only in Latin. Caedmon has inspired many English poets, but very few before the mid-nineteenth century. We shall look at the place of Caedmon in some late twentieth-century poets, among them Norman Nicholson, Denise Levertov, U. A. Fanthorpe and Neil Curry.


The Nineteenth century is the age of historicism, of re-enactments and recreations, and of chronological slippages and deceptions. For examples of these we shall read Ivanhoe (1819) by Walter Scott, and poems by Keats, Tennyson and others. Two chapters of Victor Hugo’s Nôtre-Dame (1833) will introduce us to the invention of the Gothic, as architectural style and as mode of reading. We will trace the architectural style through various modern buildings, including railways stations. Philosophical elements of the Middle Ages will be traced in the nineteenth century rediscovery of Duns Scotus and the influence of Duns Scotus on Gerard Manley Hopkins. This philosophical influence is matched by Hopkins’s understanding that the rhythms and sounds of Old English should be made available again to English poetry. Finally, we will examine traces of the medieval in the modernist poetry of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, David Jones and Basil Bunting.  Finally, we will read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958), which is not only a satire on the Middle Ages and Arthurian romance but a serious critique of the historical imagination and the ideology of revivalism.

This course only leads to exams Free Topic 1, Free Topic 2 and Free Topic 3.

Continuous feedback during the course of the semester
Type of assessment
Portfolio, A joint portfolio uploaded in digital exam: Deadline June 8th 2022
Essay 1, 6 pages. 20%, week 5
Essay 2, 6 pages, 20%, week 9
Project, 12 pages, 60%, week 14
Criteria for exam assessment

Single subject courses (day)

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 56
  • Preparation
  • 353,5
  • English
  • 409,5