Proseminar: Old English: Unlock the Wordhord!

Enseignant(s): Critten Rory
Cursus: Bachelor
Type d'enseignement: Proséminaire
Langue(s) du cours: Anglais
Semestre(s): SA-2020

The hero's first speech in the epic poem Beowulf is announced as a moment of liberation: "wordhord onleac" [he unlocked his hoard of words, l. 259]. Beowulf must answer the enquiries of Hrothgar's watchman, who calls to him from the Danish headland to determine the reason for his visit; the poet's framing of the warrior's response invites us to think of it as a release of treasure.

This course considers the rich "wordhord" on which the Beowulf-poet drew in the making of his poem, offering students a comprehensive introduction to Old English and the varied literature surviving in that language. Grammatical particularities will be introduced via the translation of a series of increasingly complex texts in verse and prose. Works considered will include prognostics (brief predictions for the future), instructions for monastic sign language, chronicles, Christian and secular poetry, riddles, and Beowulf itself, which we will consider in extract. This course will appeal especially to students with interests in the History of the English language and translation studies.


In a final exam in week 13, students will: 1) Translate a passage of Old English prose with the help of a generous glossary (a list of the words that will not be glossed on the exam will be circulated in week 1); and 2) Write an essay on the topics treated in the course, choosing from one of two prompts. Exams will be returned with feedback in week 14.


  • The ability to read Old English texts in student editions.
  • Familiarity with the history and vernacular literature of early medieval England.
  • An enhanced appreciation for the creative work of literary translation


Set Texts

Richard Marsden, The Cambridge Old English Reader. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2015. Copies of this book have been ordered at librophoros (