HENKF2203U English - Free topic C: The Modern Construction of the Middle Ages

Volume 2021/2022

This 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: Beowulf was first published in 1815, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in 1839. These texts were almost entirely unknown until then, while other texts were known to readers of Latin but found a wide audience only in the mid-nineteenth century through translations. The first into English of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Kings of Britain appeared in 1842, and of Bede’s History of the English Church and People in 1849. When first printed, in 1815, Beowulf was accompanied by a translation in Latin; only in the 1840s was an English translation made. 


In 1842 the Aelfric Society was founded for the editing and printing of Old and Middle English texts; this was succeeded in 1864 by the Early English Text Society, which still flourishes.  It is through the publications of these societies that the materials for the study of English literature were first made available and university degrees in English literature were first approved. Among the earliest universities to offer courses in Old English was Copenhagen.  The texts to be studied were exclusively of the time before 1400: nothing after Chaucer was deemed sufficiently demanding for university students, most of whom were studying Latin and Greek.  


We shall look at the earlier history of the collecting of Old and Middle English manuscripts, notably by Matthew Parker (1504-75) at the time of the Reformation (as an affirmation of a distinctly English or Anglican identity), and at the scholars who first took an interest in them, including Humfrey Wanley (1672-1726) and Elizabeth Elstob (1683-1756). Bede provides an account of the composition of the very first recorded poem in English, by Caedmon—though Bede 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 twentieth-century poets, among them Katherine Alice Murdoch, W.H. Auden, Norman Nicholson, Denise Levertov, Thom Gunn, U. A. Fanthorpe and Neil Curry. 


The way in which the material and textual artefacts of the Middle Ages were assembled, published, displayed and otherwise made available can hardly be separated from various ‘revivals’. Of these we shall concentrate on the most conspicuous, during the Victorian age, of tournaments, of Camelot, of chivalry, heraldry and orders of knighthood. This revival was underwritten by a national history that included both Arthurian legends and Alfred’s burnt cakes. This 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, Hopkins, 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 railway stations and universities. 


The course will conclude by developing this understanding of the medieval as a style and a resource available to modern thought and modern technology—not as revival but as renewal. 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.   


The course will conclude with T.H. White’s The Once and Future King which is not only a satire on the Middle Ages and Arthurian romance but a serious critique of the historical imagination and the ideological dangers of revivalism.


Anonymous. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967. Accessible online at: https:/​/​quod.lib.umich.edu/​cgi/​t/​text/​text-idx?c=cme;idno=Gawain

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Knight’s Tale. Accessible online at


Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Major Works.  Oxford: World’s Classics, ed. C. Phillips.

Hugo, Victor, trans. John Sturrock. Notre-Dame de Paris. London: Penguin, 2004.

Pound, Ezra. “The Seafarer.” Accessible online at


Scott, Sir Walter. Ivanhoe. Oxford: World’s Classics, ed. Ian Duncan. 

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “The Lady of Shalott.” Accessible online at

https:/​/​www.poetryfoundation.org/​poems/​45359/​the-lady-of-shalott-1832 (1832 edition) and https:/​/​www.poetryfoundation.org/​poems/​45360/​the-lady-of-shalott-1842 (1842 edition)

White, T. H. The Once and Future King. Glasgow: Harper Voyager, 2015. 




Girouard, Mark. Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman (Yale UP, 1981)

Hill, Rosemary. Time’s Witness: History in the Age of Romanticism (Penguin, 2021)

Holsinger, Bruce. The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory  (Chicago UP, 2005)

Howe, Nicholas. ‘Praise and Lament: The Afterlife of Old English Poetry in Auden, Hill and Gunn’ (1998)


Matthews, David. Medievalism: A Critical History (D.S. Brewer, 2017)

Niles, John D.  The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England 1066-1901: Remembering, Forgetting, Deciphering, and Renewing the Past (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015)


These recent films also may serve as instances of contemporary approaches to the medieval.


The Dig (2021)

Sir Gawain and Green Knight (2021)

The module is centred around readings of primary texts, which will be discussed in class. The students will be provided with secondary literature in order to provide knowledge of relevant theory, as well as historical context for the sources.

Emphasis will be placed on critical reading skills and the ability to locate the works within a larger context.
This course only leads to exams Free Topic 1, Free Topic 2 and Free Topic 3.
  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 56
  • Preparation
  • 353,5
  • Total
  • 409,5
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
Exam registration requirements

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

Criteria for exam assesment