Oxford has a long and distinguished history of studying medieval English language and literature. In 1795 it established one of the first ever professorships in English, the Rawlinson and Bosworth Chair of Anglo-Saxon, currently held by Andy Orchard. Amongst those who taught here are of course J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, people who made the motifs and languages of medieval English part of the imagination of the modern world. Other distinguished Oxford scholars of medieval English have included C.T. Onions, Helen Gardner, Dorothy Whitelock, Neil Ker, J.A.W. Bennett, Norman Davis, Ursula Dronke, Eric Stanley, Malcolm Parkes, Anne Hudson and Paul Strohm. Numerous more recent alumni of its graduate courses teach medieval languages and literature round the world. The current generation of medievalists is one of the largest, if not the largest, in any English department globally. With our 650–1550 MSt, as well as our MPhil and DPhil programmes, we are teaching future generations of scholars in these fields.
Graduate Study today
Central to that expertise is the extensive training in handling and thinking about the ‘material text’ (the ‘B course’) – how we read, date, interpret, and edit from primary sources – including coursework studying some of Oxford’s astounding holdings of manuscripts and early printed books; such training will transform the way you think about medieval literature, bringing it to archaeological life, and open up new resources for and kinds of research.
Students then pursue their particular interests in two taught courses, choosing from a range of half-dozen or so which change each year (the ‘C courses’). Recent years’ courses have included Anglo-Saxon riddles; Cynewulf; archetypes of the high middle ages; early Middle English women’s religious writing; post-Conquest literature; Chaucer’s places; intellectual dissidence and dissent in the fifteenth century; the language of Middle English literature; Older Scots literature. Students are also welcome to choose a course offered by another MSt strand, for example in another period, or in English Language. Each student submits an essay on two of these chosen subjects for assessment.
Finally, each student prepares, with the guidance of a specialist supervisor, a dissertation (the ‘D course’) on any subject of her or his choice concerning the language, literature, or cultural history of the British Isles and the Norse world in the Middle Ages. These dissertations bring to bear the skills and perspectives acquired throughout the course on one focused piece of research. The dissertation, as well as the coursework for the B and C courses, can often become the seeds of doctoral research or a first publication.
The structure of the course
- The A course: seminars over the first two terms introduce a range of medieval literature composed between 650 and 1550 and a variety of topics and approaches for consideration, such as voice and writing, authorship, form and formalism, historicism. Students give presentations in the weekly seminars but there is no formal assessment.
- The B course: seminars over the first two terms introduce skills in transcription, palaeography, codicology and editing and introduce reflection on the significance of studying the material forms of and textual transmission of medieval literature. Students sit a short test in transcription and submit a piece of coursework demonstrating research on literature in original material form or editorial transformation.
- The C courses: students choose one C course in each of the first two terms on a range of specialist topics and are taught in weekly small-group seminars. They submit an essay of 5,000-7,000 words at the end of each term related to a term’s C course.
- The D course or dissertation: in discussion with Faculty members, students devise a research project of their own. They then receive one-to-one supervision on that research and complete a dissertation of 10,000 words by the end of the third term.
For those who would like to take their studies further, there is a second taught Master’s level course, the MPhil, which runs over two years, but whose first year syllabus is the same as that of the MSt course. It includes further taught courses, opportunities for more linguistic training, and a second, longer dissertation in the second year. It is possible to apply for this course from the outset or apply to switch onto it at the end of the MSt.
The Faculty offers MSt funding each year through the Jeremy Griffiths Studentship, which is generously supported by John and Jeanne Griffiths in memory of their son, Jeremy, who was a graduate student in medieval literature in our Faculty. In addition the Cecily Clarke scholarship may be awarded to a student of English Medieval Studies, with a preference to subjects relating to Middle English Philology.
The intellectual life of the Faculty of English
As well as the formal teaching and assessment, there is a thriving community of medievalists engaged in research and discussion in the Faculty. Those teaching and researching in the Faculty form one of the largest cadres of medievalists in the world, whose interests cover the full range of Old Norse, Old English, Middle English, early Tudor literature and Older Scots, as well as several members with interests in Anglo-Norman and Celtic literatures. The Faculty’s medievalists and their activities are listed here. The graduate students – many of them published scholars and adept teachers in their own right – are crucial members of this community.
The medievalists gather every Wednesday for the Medieval English Research Seminar, at which eminent visiting speakers and locals give papers for discussion, followed by a social gathering. There is a work-in-progress group for people from dissertation students to Faculty members who are studying manuscripts or textual transmission, and there are extra termly seminars of specialists in Old Norse. There are similar research seminars in other parts of the English Faculty and in other faculties (‘medieval church and culture’, medieval social history, medieval music, Anglo-Norman reading group, literature and medicine, the history of the book) at which you are welcome: the current programme for all these can be found on the Medieval Research page.
Oxford hosts annually the Oxford Graduate Medieval Conference and meetings of the student-run Oxford Medieval Society run throughout the year. The Faculty regularly hosts conferences at which our own students give papers or assist with the organization. Events in the next few years include conferences on literature after the Conquests of 1016 and 1066; on the important literary milieu of Syon Abbey; and the major international conference of the Early Book Society. The literary life of the Faculty reaches forwards too, of course, with lectures by our Professor of Poetry and special events such as the Clarendon Lectures by a distinguished guest each year. Recent years’ Clarendon Lecturers have included David Wallace, James Simpson and Brian Cummings. Each year, a distinguished medievalist is invited as a guest lecturer in Medieval Studies, and gives a lecture, seminar, and workshop with current graduate students across different faculties. Previous incumbents include Caroline Walker Bynum, Jeffrey Hamburger and Christopher Page.