Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2018-2019 (archived)


Department: English Studies


Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Available in 2018/19 Module Cap 20


  • None.


  • None.

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None.


  • The nature of Middle English writing is profoundly conditioned by the physical circumstances of its transmission. Before the invention of the printing-press, every text and every book was a unique product. On the one hand, this presents a challenge to scholars attempting to edit medieval texts, especially in the case of texts like The Canterbury Tales or Piers Plowman, which survive in large numbers of copies. On the other hand, it means that there is a very great deal of evidence about the provenance and reception of medieval literature that can be deduced from its physical context. The purpose of this course is to encourage students to look beyond the modern editions (on which, as undergraduate students, they will have been expected to rely) and to study Middle English texts intensively in manuscript-form. They will be invited to engage in current debates about the theory of editing and given the opportunity to put their theories into practice. They will also be given the opportunity to consider how our readings of medieval texts need to be modified in the light of their material contexts. The introduction of this module will facilitate students in the acquisition of some of the specific skills required for advanced work in medieval studies.


  • The palaeographical skills will be taught by means of a diverse range of samples - as diverse as is possible given the resources available. Editorial skills and issues, similarly, will be demonstrated by reference to a wide range of texts. The starting-point will probably be Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, but other cases for study will include earlier fourteenth-century manuscripts (such as Auchinleck or Harley 2253) and texts by some of Chaucer's near contemporaries (such as Hoccleve or Lydgate). The particular curriculum will vary slightly from year to year, depending on the interests of the students taking the course, on the availability of facsimiles and microfilms and on the demands of planning appropriate assessments. Critical and theoretical commentary on the material contexts of medieval literature is extensive and widely available, and students will be expected to familiarize themselves with it.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • On completion of this module, students will be capable of reading and analysing Middle English texts in their original contexts. They will understand the intellectual problems implicit in editing medieval texts; and be in a position to undertake such studies themselves. They will know how to go about extracting evidence for the circulation and social context of such texts from the surviving manuscripts. They will have looked in detail at a number of specific cases (including some texts by Chaucer). And they will have engaged with some of the broad intellectual issues raised by the course, both in terms of the theory of medieval literature and of literary theory more generally.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • They will be able to: 1) Read accurately the scripts commonly in use in English manuscripts between 1250 and 1500 2) Interpret scribal systems of abbreviation and punctuation 3) Present an edited text and an editorial apparatus, together with the appropriate annotation and/or glosses/glossary 4) Understand the principles by which medieval books were constructed, and use that understanding to deduce information about the circulation of texts 5) Use dialectological analysis 6) Evaluate different editorial methodologies (stemmatological, cladistic etc.), and put them into practice.
  • More generally, they will have familiarized themselves with a number of Middle English texts and manuscripts; and they will have developed a deeper understanding of the particular critical issues raised by the material contexts of medieval literature.
Key Skills:
  • Students studying this module will develop:
  • an advanced ability to analyse critically;
  • an advanced ability to acquire complex information of diverse kinds in structured and systematic ways;
  • an advanced ability to interpret complex information of diverse kinds through the distinctive skills derived from the subject;
  • expertise in conventions of scholarly presentation and bibliographical skills;
  • an independence of thought and judgement, and ability to assess acutely the critical ideas of others;
  • sophisticated skills in critical reasoning;
  • an advanced ability to handle information and argument critically;
  • a competence in information-technology skills such as word-processing and electronic data access;
  • professional organisation and time-management skills.

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

  • To begin with, this course will emphasize the acquirement of practical skills, such as a facility in reading medieval scripts (and these skills will be tested early on by means of an informal transcription exercise). Specific information about particular texts, manuscripts and editorial methodologies will be introduced as the course progresses; and students will be encouraged to debate the relevant issues. In line with the practical and material emphases of the course, students will be asked to undertake two editing exercises (one "formative", one "summative"). There will also be an essay-assignment, allowing more discursive work on particular texts or issues.
  • Typically, directed learning may include assigning student(s) an issue, theme or topic that can be independently or collectively explored within a framework and/or with additional materials provided by the tutor. This may function as preparatory work for presenting their ideas or findings (sometimes electronically) to their peers and tutor in the context of a seminar.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Seminars 9 Fortnightly 2 hours 18
Independent student research supervised by the Module Convenor 10
Preparation and reading 272
Total 300

Summative Assessment

Component: Coursework Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
One Summative Editing Exercise 50%
One Summative Essay 3,000 words 50%

Formative Assessment:

One informal transcription exercise (in class) One formative Editing-Exercise.

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