Dr Rachel A. Burns

I work on medieval literature, with particular focus on Old English verse, manuscript studies, materiality, and verse metre. My research is animated by a materially and historically inflected focus on poetics and theology, reading both things and texts, and probing the global outlook of early medieval authors in the construction of their own national and religious identities.

Current monograph project

My new research project is titled Book of Discretion, Book of Desire: The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry. I will co-host a conference on the Exeter Book with Francis Leneghan in 2025, inviting new perspectives on this important manuscript from new and established scholars.

Recent monograph projects

My first monograph, under contract with ARC Humanities Press and due for publication in 2024, is titled A History of Old English Verse Layout: Poetics on the Page. This book gives the first comprehensive history of the mise-en-page of Old English verse, challenging the oft-cited belief that Old English verse is written out 'like prose'. Through comparative analysis of Old English and Latin verse layout, identification of unusual layouts in Old English, and assessment of inter-word spacing, this volume will demonstrate that the layout of Old English was in large part determined by its distinct metrical structure. The final chapter includes study of the reception of Old English texts from the seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries, considering the role of linguistic nationalism and turbulence in European national identities during this formative period of textual editing.

My second monograph, A Theology of Things in Early Medieval English Literature, is under contract with the series Studies in Old English Literature at Brepols and due for publication in 2025. Engaging with the ‘material turn’ in the humanities, this book reads Old English and Latin verse and prose alongside medieval theology to reconstruct early medieval theories of the material world. Across four chapters, a diverse range of textual 'things' are handled, including holy relics, speaking tools, buried treasures, sweet breath and broken bodies. The object-world of early medieval literature is shown to be a divinely organised complex of moral exempla, in which material objects could achieve transcendental status through acts of service to the human soul.

Articles, chapters and editing

My articles on Old English literature have been published in leading peer-reviewed journals, including RESAngliaNeophilologus and Studia Neophilologica, and I have chapters in two edited collections (including the prize-winning Ideas of the World in Early Medieval English Literature). Monastic reading practices, syncretic composition, source study, dialectics and emotion studies have all featured within my work. See the Publications tab, above and right, for further details.

In 2022, I published a collection of essays on Old English metre and literary criticism, co-edited with Rafael J. Pascual, titled Tradition and Innovation in Old English Metre (Arc Humanities Press, https://www.arc-humanities.org/9781641894586/tradition-and-innovation-in...). This collection follows a highly successful workshop on the application of Old English metre to questions of literary criticism, held in Oxford in 2019 (https://www.torch.ox.ac.uk/event/anglo-saxon-metre-and-literary-studies). I have also contributed a chapter to this volume ('Mind the Gap: Inter-word Spacing and Metrical Organisation in Old English verse'), positing a relationship between word-spacing and metrical organisation in a sample of Old English verse in its manuscript context.

I largely work with Old English texts, but also with Anglo-Latin material and on western medieval manuscript culture more broadly. I have produced an edition and commentary of a fourteenth-century Middle English lyric, published in Studia Neophilologica (‘God send vs þe dew of heuene’ in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Digby 172: a new edition of a bilingual lyric, with commentary').

Upcoming projects

I have worked extensively on the collection of Old English texts known as The Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn, and plan to undertake a monograph on this yet-understudied body of material in 2026 (proposed title: Scholars and Kings: The Old English Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn). My existing work on the Dialogues is extensive:

  • My most recent article ('Emotional disturbance in the Old English Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn') argues that the structure of the Dialogues reveals a vernacularisation of classical dialectic mode. Focusing on disturbances caused by anxiety and anger, this article points to the way affective response is built up between as well as within these texts.
  • I produced a chapter on these texts for an edited collection as part of the international research project From East to West: the Idea of the World in Anglo-Saxon England. This chapter, titled 'The Wanderings of Saturn: Psalms, Psychogeography and Solomon and Saturn', conducts a psychogeographical analysis of the eponymous character's wanderings in the Old English poem Solomon and Saturn II.
  • My article, 'Solomon and Saturn I, 89a, “prologa prim”: an Exercise in Monastic Reading Practice' was published in Anglia in 2020. Here, I propose an emendation of the ungrammatical half-line, prologa prima, arging that the multivalence of this half-line provides an exemplum of monastic reading practice.
  • In 2021, I published a short article on an aspect of the link between Solomon and Saturn I and Isidore's Etymologiae in Notes & Queries.

Following my broader interests in ethics and spatiality, I am planning an article on 'moral topographies'.

Other research interests and experience

From 2018-2022, I was a researcher on the ERC-funded CLASP Project (A Consolidated Library of Anglo-Saxon Poetry, https://clasp.eu/). My focus on this project was the manuscript record of Old English verse, expanding the database of scribal errors and editorial emendations.

Further interests arising from my research include: perceptions of Greek language and culture in early medieval England; Old English and Anglo-Latin riddles; the mise-en-page of modern English texts; digitization practice and the production, usage and preservation of digital resources.


Teaching areas: Old English and Middle English literature; English Language; Manuscript studies

I lecture on Old English in the Faculty of English for first-year (Prelims Paper 2) and finalist (FHS Course II Paper 1) undergraduates, and I teach postgraduate students on the MSt in English (​650-1550). At Hertford College I teach Old and Middle English (Prelims Paper 2; FHS Course II Papers 1 and 2), and I have also taught FHS Course I Paper 2 at St Peter's College. I have taught English Language for the Department of Continuing Education, and I deliver Faculty classes and tutorials for the Material Texts course (FHS Course II Paper 5a).

I am available to supervise undergraduate dissertations in medieval literature, and masters dissertations in Old English and Anglo-Latin literature.

I am interested in developing new tools for teaching, and exploring different approaches to pedagogy. I was co-editor of the annual newsletter published by the Teachers of Old English in Britain and Ireland (TOEBI) from 2020 to 2022.

I run a website which shares class plans, blog posts and book reviews related to a study of medieval literature through material culture (including manuscripts, materialism and digitisation). This includes a class plan aimed at tutors of undergraduate students, which uses objects from digital exhibitions to teach students about Old English riddles. You can access my site at www.saywhatiamcalled.co.uk


A History of Old English Verse Layout: Poetics on the Page, Book Cultures (York: Arc Humanities Press, forthcoming 2024)

A Theology of Things in Early Medieval English Literature, Studies in Old English Literature (Turnhout: Brepols, forthcoming 2025)


Edited Collections

Rachel A. Burns and Rafael J. Pascual, eds. Tradition and Innovation in Old English Metre (York: Arc Humanities Press, 2022).


Articles and Chapters

'Emotional disturbance in the Old English Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn', English Studies: Special Edition on Morality, Exemplarity, and Emotion in Old English Literature, ed. Niamh Kehoe (forthcoming 2024).

'The Wanderer and the Book of Ezekiel', Neophilologus (2023) [available online pre-print: https://rdcu.be/dANwN]

'"God send vs þe dew of heuene" in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Digby 172: A New Edition of a Bilingual Lyric, with Commentary', Studia Neophilologica 95 (2023): 226–40.

‘The Wanderings of Saturn: Psychogeography, Psalms, and Solomon and Saturn’, in Ideas of the World in Early Medieval English Literature, Studies in Old English Literature 1, ed. Mark Atherton, Kazutomo Karasawa and Francis Leneghan (Turnhout: Brepols, 2022), 69–102.

'Mind the Gap: Inter-word Spacing and Metrical Organisation in Old English verse', in Tradition and Innovation in Old English Metre, ed. Rachel A. Burns and Rafael J. Pascual (York: Arc Humanities Press, 2022), 207–18.

'Spirits and Skins: the sceapheord of Exeter Book Riddle 13 and Holy Labour', Review of English Studies 73 (2022), 429–441.

'Saturn’s Scythe: A Note on Solomon and Saturn I, Line 109a', Notes and Queries 67 (2021), 467–468.

'Solomon and Saturn I, 89a, “prologa prim”: an Exercise in Monastic Reading Practice', Anglia: Zeitschrift für Englische Philologie 138 (2020), 618–48.


Other publications

I have regularly contributed to the Old English section of The Year’s Work in English Studies (2020–present), writing or contributing in different years to sections on manuscript studies, riddles, wisdom and shorter poetry, and Beowulf. Between 2020 and 2022 I was co-editor of the Newsletter for the Teachers of Old English in Britain and Ireland.