English 443: The Literature of the Middle Ages

About the Course

This course will introduce you to the language and literature of the English Middle Ages through a focused study on the development of the English romance. The course will cover a range of texts written in the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries and cover with a focus on the medieval reception of the past.

In this course, you will learn:

  • to read several dialects of Middle English
  • to recognise the characteristics of major literary genres in the English Middle Ages
  • to appreciate forms of literature that are little known to readers today
  • to examine critically the way literature interacted with the cultural and material conditions of the Middle Ages
  • to examine how writers mediate the representation of the past


Course Information

  • Days: Tuesday/Thursday
  • Time: 11:00 AM-12:15 PM (Course Number 14975)
  • Location: Jerome Richfield 244
  • Office Location: Sierra Tower 803
  • Office Hours:


In addition to the assigned textbook, many course readings will be made available through the class Canvas site or links in the course schedule. A number of texts we will be reading are available through the TEAMS Middle English series. If you are a graduate student or have a serious interest in the material, you may wish to purchase these editions from Amazon.com. Otherwise, please print the text and bring it to class as your textbook.

Always bring your textbook to class. Really.

Coursework and Grading

Your grade will consist of four elements: Preparation and Participation, a series of text analyses, a midterm exam, and two essays. Important: All quotations from the Middle English texts must be made in Middle English, not in translation. Assignments quoting the text from a translation will not be accepted and will be receive an automatic F.

Preparation and Participation (5%)

Preparation and Participation reflects my assessment of your in-class contribution. I will assign points based factors such as on-time attendance, classroom participation/disruption, bringing your textbook to class, and so on. For further information, see under Class Policies below.

A Group Editing Exercise (10%)

For this exercise, you will divide into groups to edit portions of the South English Legendary&squo;s Legend of the Holy Rood. This will require you to examine the language and plot of the text and build an apparatus suitable for helping students to engage with it critically.

Middle English Analyses (15%)

These are small assignments are designed to increase your engagement with the language of the text, as well as to help you to learn Middle English. The assignments will ask you to perform a series of tasks: identifying examples of particular grammatical forms, looking up words in the Middle English Dictionary, or thinking about the implications of certain words or phrases. Some questions will also be designed to engage you with certain patterns of reading and writing scholarship about Middle English literature.

Midterm Exam (15%)

This is not a true midterm, but rather an exam to make sure that you are familiar with the many basic technical terms and concepts relevant to the understanding of Chaucer, as well as your understanding of the basic plots of the texts.

Two Essays (25% for the first, 30% for the second)

Essays will be approximately 5-6 pages on a topic of your choice from a number of prompts.

Class Policies

By enrolling in this course you agree to be bound for the purposes of this class by the policies below, which serve as a formal legal agreement. You may reject these policies by dropping the class within the time allotted by the University.


Grades are A, B, C, D, or F and can receive a plus or minus. To receive a grade other than a WU, you must have completed more than half the coursework (no exceptions).

Since students in English courses are expected by society at large to be acquiring writing skills, I privilege grammar, spelling, and editing in my grading. Work containing distracting numbers of typos, spelling mistakes, or grammatical errors will be graded primarily on these criteria on a sliding scale which may supersede the percentages given in the Coursework and Grading section above. That is, the more distracting these factors are, the more they are worth (up to 100% of your grade). A rough guide to what is distracting is any sign that might give an employer pause when evaluating a job application.

Make-Up Tests

I will only administer tests once and am not required to provide you with the opportunity to take make-up tests if you miss them at the assigned time. I will only administer make-up tests if 1) you have a legitimate excuse recognised by the university, 2) I am able to do so without adversely impacting other students either by taking time from my other duties or by creating conditions that would give you an unfair advantage for the purposes of grading.

Extra Credit

Although I may award extra credit for some non-required activities (such as attendance at guest lectures), I regret that I am unable to grade assignments beyond those required for class in order to award extra credit.

Preparation and Participation

Enrolling in this class requires a commitment to participate in a community of learners in which you agree to contribute to and not to detract from the learning environment. In order to receive full credit for participation, you must do the readings in advance, bring assigned textbooks to each class, be prepared to discuss the materials, and complete all assignments. You must also arrive to class on time and remain in the class room for the duration of the class period. For disruptive behaviour, I reserve the right to increase the proportion of your final grade allotted to participation, as I feel appropriate.

Inappropriate Use of Technology in Class

Ringing and/or vibrating cell phones in class disrupt my concentration and that of your fellow students, inevitably lowering the quality of the learning environment. If your cell phone goes off in class, I reserve the right to impose penalties to your grade or to ask you to leave the classroom, as I deem appropriate. If your cell phone disrupts my thought process as I am teaching, I may call a “class break” in order to recover from the distraction. It is in your interest to remember that you will have deprived your fellow classmates of this class time.

If you have a computer or smart phone in the classroom, it will be very tempting to check your e-mail, read Facebook, or generally surf the web for purposes unrelated to the class. Resist. If I catch you engaged in these activities, I reserve the right to impose penalties to your grade or ask you to leave the classroom, as I deem appropriate. Please be aware that this has the same effect on my teaching as cell phones and may also trigger the “class break” response.

Academic Honesty

It is extremely important that all aspects of your work are come by honourably. Efforts to gain an advantage not given to all students are dishonest and regarded as an extremely serious matter by the academic community. Consequences range from probation to expulsion. University policy stipulates that plagiarism, the submission of another person’s work as your own, is a violation of academic honesty, even if it arises out of ignorance or oversight, rather than deliberate cheating. Enrolling in this class means that you agree to abide by my decision regarding the appropriate action to take in cases of academic dishonesty. If you have any questions about plagiarism, paraphrasing, quoting, or collaboration, please consult me.

Add/Drop Policy

Students should make sure that they follow the university’s add/drop deadlines, outlined in the Schedule of Classes. According to university policy, drops are only allowed after the set date when “a) there is a serious and compelling reason–specifically the student’s emotional or physical health or financial condition is clearly in jeopardy, and b) there is no viable alternative–including repeating the class”. Students will need to provide documentation on official letterhead–a letter, on official stationery, from a doctor or an employer–to support their reasons. No adds will be allowed unless a student can provide documented proof–e.g., a clerical error–for the reason for the tardiness. Please make sure to meet the deadline!

Withdrawals and Incompletes

The standard grade if a student fails to complete the work for a class is a “WU”. This is the equivalent of an “F”, but the grade may be changed if you re-take the course at a future time. This grade is also assigned to students who have not attended after the first few classes of the semester but have not officially “withdrawn” from the course.

I may assign an Incomplete (“I”) if and only if you meet all of the following conditions:

  • You have completed the vast bulk of the assigned work;
  • You are passing the class;
  • You fill out and bring to me a “Request for an Incomplete” form (also available from the English Department office), on which I detail exactly what is still needed for completion of the course.
  • I can make no exceptions to this policy, even if it affects your financial aid.

Once you take an incomplete, you have a year from the date recorded on the form to complete the requirements of the course and have your grade changed; therefore, you should submit work early enough to allow me to grade your work and fill out the necessary forms to assign you a new grade.

Keep in mind that, after you take an Incomplete, any grading of your work becomes an added burden on my busy timetable during the following year. Therefore you should not expect the normal amount of comments on your work or any extra teaching beyond my normal office hours.


Tuesday 29 Introduction and Background
Thursday 31 Reading Middle English
The Life of St Alban from the South English Legendary
Tuesday 5 Reading: The Life of Saint Alban
Thursday 7 Reading: The Life of Saint Helen
Introducing the Literature of the Middle Ages, pp. 1-10
Tuesday 12 Reading: The Life of Saint Helen
Thursday 14 Reading: Saint Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins
Tuesday 19 Reading: Saint Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins
Thursday 21 Exercise: Editing the Legend of the Holy Cross
Introducing the Literature of the Middle Ages, pp. 11-16, 20-23 (the section on The English Language in the Middle Ages)
Tuesday 26 Introduction to Ricardian England and the Gawain-Poet
Reading: Introducing the Literature of the Middle Ages, pp. 16-20, 23-26
Thursday 28 Reading: Cleanness, lines 1-400. Glossary. Note: The photocopy of the text is a little blurry, so you may want to read it from this 1920 edition and consult the PDF as needed.
Tuesday 3 Reading: Cleanness, lines 401-800
Thursday 5 Reading: Cleanness, lines 801-1200
Tuesday 10 Reading: Cleanness, lines 1201-1812
Thursday 12 Reading: Cleanness (continued)
Tuesday 17 Secular Traditions: Historiography
Reading: Extracts from Geoffrey of Monmouth, Laȝamon, Saint Erkenwald, lines 1-175
Thursday 19 Reading: Saint Erkenwald, lines 176-351
Tuesday 24 Secular Traditions: romance and Breton lay
Reading: Lanval, extracts from Perceval (scroll down for the links to separate extracts)
Thursday 26 Reading: Athelston
Tuesday 31 Reading: Athelston
Thursday 2 Reading: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, lines 1-490
Tuesday 7 Reading: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, lines 491-927
Thursday 9 Reading: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, lines 928-1401
Tuesday 14 Reading: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, lines 1402-1869
Thursday 16 Reading: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, lines 1870-2211
Tuesday 21 Reading: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, lines 2212-2530
Thursday 23 Thanksgiving Recess
Tuesday 28 Reading: Pearl, lines 1-420
Thursday 30 Reading: Pearl, lines 421-840
Tuesday 5 Reading: Pearl, lines 841-1212
Thursday 7 Review
Tuesday 12 Finals Exam — 10:15AM - 12:15PM

FAQ for Tests

Q: How many questions will be on the test?

A: If you’re worried about the number of questions, it is probably just to ease your anxiety. The test is designed to be finished easily with lots of time to spare. Really. You may also be trying to perform some weird calculation about how much studying you should do. The worst thing you can do is make the number of questions an excuse to learn less. I can assess your understanding of the material regardless of the number of questions. My advice is that your make it a priority to use studying for tests as an excuse to make sure that the course material does not just go into short term memory. Remember that your education should be about personal growth.

Q: What should I focus on?

A: Focusing involves narrowing your vision and letting items on the periphery fade from your consciousness. To study for the test, focus on what we have covered in our class, and let other classes and other areas of your life (temporarily) fade. But don’t do that with anything we covered in the class. To understand the material, you need to pay attention to how all the pieces of the puzzle work together. Try to create a story based on the material we covered. Some items may be less important in the story than others, but deciding which items are and aren’t important will help you learn the story without ignoring things.

Q: How should I decide what is important?

A: You need a multi-part plan.

  1. Creating a mental timeline is important. Certain things occur in order relative to each other. Who wrote texts at what point in history? What was happening–either historical events or intellectual ideas–at the time of writing that might have had an impact on the literature? How long did the events or ideas continue to be relevant to writers’ works? How are two works of literature from the same period similar and different? How do they differ from works at other times in history? Remembering some dates are important for constructing mental timelines. They may be rough benchmarks, dates indicating beginnings and ends of period, or landmarks, dates of events that had particularly consequential results for long-term literary history. If you see dates in your notes, ask yourself whether they are rough benchmarks, landmarks, or incidental events that flesh out the historical period for you. If you don’t see dates in your notes, think about what dates could serve as rough benchmarks or landmarks.
  2. Understanding any period in history requires familiarity with the names of its more important people, places, events, and cultural concepts. You should able to name them (and spelling them correctly) for any given period you have studied after just a few seconds of thought. This is not just rote memorisation. You need to decide whether you can relate these names to works of literature. That is a measure of their importance.
  3. You can only understand the ideas embedded literary texts if you understand the words on the most basic level. Make sure you know the plots and the names of the characters (again, you don’t really know them if you can’t spell them correctly). You need to re-read the texts and, if possible, re-read them again. Break them down into sections and write summaries of the sections. Look especially at the sections we highlighted in class. There’s a reason why I brought them to your attention or why they came out in class discussion.
  4. Know the names of the authors and the original languages of literary works. It seems obvious, but a surprisingly large number of people don’t retain this information. Failure to learn the simplest of details about a work of literature almost always correlates to a lack of understanding of its complexities.

Q: What will the midterm be like?

A: Pretty much like a quiz in format. The scope of the material will be cumulative–meaning that it will cover everything we have discussed from the first day of class. This does lead to a few differences in how you should study.

  1. You need to refresh your memory of the earlier texts we looked at. Go back and re-read them. However, look for things we have studied in or relevant to portions of the text. What themes, cultural concepts, ideas, historical events, and so on can you now see as relevant to an understanding of individual passages, which you may not have on your first reading? You may even wish to draw up some charts with individual passages and arrows to the things you think help to illuminate our understanding of the literary work.
  2. By this time in the semester, you now have the historical perspective to think about how literature changed (in terms of interests, themes, and techniques) over time or between different genres. You might want to write up some statements about how the literature we have studied developed according to changing cultural conditions (and, naturally, study what those cultural conditions were).