Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2010-2011 (archived)


Department: Classics and Ancient History


Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Available in 2010/11 Module Cap None.


  • None.


  • None.

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None.


  • In accordance with the general aims of the MA in Classics (and with a particular view to the MA in Ancient Epic), the aim of this module is to introduce students to comparative approaches to the study of ancient epic. The module will focus on the South-Slavic epic tradition, which will need to be understood in its own right before meaningful comparisons can be made. The module will provide students with a better understanding of formulaic language, stock epithets, type scenes and traditional plots; it will focus on the presentation of the hero and the concept of heroism; and - crucially - discuss the role of bards, audience and performance context.


  • Since the fieldwork of Milman Parry and Albert Lord, South-Slavic epic has become "a touchstone for comparative studies" (J.M.Foley 2005). The module focuses on the epics of former Yugoslavia, concentrating on both the Christian and the Muslim traditions. The epic poems shall be studied in translation and the following methodological issues will be central to the module:
  • Generic conventions, and contrasting definitions of 'epic' as a genre of poetry.
  • The place of epic among other oral genres such as lyric, panegyric, catalogue, charms, laments, women's songs and folktales. The unique standing of the Homeric epics in the Western civilizations has influenced the studies of oral poetry inasmuch as it predominantly concentrates on the genres that can be defined as epic. However, the oral tradition of most nations contains many other genres. Can we argue for a unique standing of the epic genre among them? How do the different genres complement each other?
  • Tradition and text: the South-Slavic epic tradition provides a unique possibility of investigating and understanding the modes of performance and its impact on the formation of the text. On the other hand, since these poems have been collected and edited for centuries, we need to investigate the relationship between the live word and the text. Is there a cross-fertilization of the written and the oral traditions? How does literacy influence oral poetry?
  • The role of singers: South-Slavic epic presents us with a unique opportunity to observe the bards in performance and investigate their own perception of and their place in the epic tradition. Numerous interviews with the bards provide an invaluable insight in this matter.
  • Formulaic language, stock epithets, type scenes and traditional plots; presentation of the hero and concepts of heroism.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • At the end of the course, the students will have read and discussed a wide range of South-Slavic epic poems and seen the recordings of several performances; they will have an overall view of the South-Slavic epic tradition and will have a good grasp of the methodological questions raised by the study of this genre.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Students will need to develop the skills relevant to the study of traditional epic in its cultural and literary context. They will have a firm grasp of the opportunities created, and the difficulties posed, by comparative approaches to the study of epic. They will also have acquired knowledge of South-Slavic epic, its performative and cultural context, modes of dissemination, stock-themes, motives and language.
Key Skills:
  • The analytical and interpretative skills required for the successful completion of this module are transferable to any field which demands sophisticated understanding of texts and performances. It also requires the effective use of library and IT resources and good written presentation skills.

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • The class will meet 8 times; class time will be split between survey introductory lectures given by the instructor, presentation of audio and video material and student presentations based on in-depth individual research. Assessment will take the form of one formative essay (c. 2500 words), based on an in-class presentation, and to be handed in after Christmas and one summative essay (5000 words), based on a second in-class presentation, to be handed in May. Classes and introductory lectures will help the students to orient themselves in the field; student presentations offer the opportunity for early and constructive feedback before the written assignments are due; a formative essay after Christmas ensures writing practice and early written feedback, in good time for it to be of use for the summative work.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Class 8 Fortnightly 2 hours 16
Preparation and Reading 284
Total 300

Summative Assessment

Component: Essay, due in May Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Comparative approaches to ancient epic essay 5000 words 100%

Formative Assessment:

One formative essay.

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University