Option 2: Death, Nature & The Supernatural In Medieval Literature

Dr Caroline Cole


Death, that ever-present terminus that lurks at the latter end of human life, is something we all have fashioned in our consciousness according to the cultural paradigms we inhabit. Twentieth-century western culture carries a curious denial of death, most acutely illustrated by our tendency to privilege youth and health, to secrete the aged away in care homes, and consider death and grief as a tragedy rather than a natural phenomenon. A culture’s attitudes to death and nature are necessarily included and encoded in the literature, and we will study these texts with a mind to what they tell us of the people who read them, as well as for their literary impact.

Course Objectives

By the end of the course you will be able to:
• Identify and describe some of the myriad attitudes to death, nature and the supernatural present in the literature of the middle ages.
• Translate passages of Middle English into modern English.
• Articulate some aspects and characteristics of genre and stories.
• Recognise how your cultural experience has fashioned your own values, attitudes and expectations.
• Identify some of your own learning strategies and deploy them to optimum effect.

Over the five weeks we will use death, and its close relatives nature and the supernatural, as thematic routes into some of the most gripping of medieval texts. Tutorials will incorporate both essay and commentary writing, translations (with help) and some creative work with the set texts.

Tutorial Programme

Week 1 : Visionary or delusional? Julian of Norwich

We begin with Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, Short Text, chs. 1-3 in which Julian begins her work with an account of a serious illness by which she nearly died and during which she received visions of Christ on the cross. We hope for a lively discussion around the title of this week’s topic.

Week 2 : The Pearl Poet: Pearl and Patience

The Pearl poet produced two very different poems that represent God and the good life in didactic yet vibrant terms. In the Pearl we are invited to interrogate our perceptions of order, and in Patience we find that our patience with Jonah and God may well be challenged as the relationship between them develops. These texts will reflect both the medieval and modern (our) attitudes to life, death and faith.

Week 3 : Sir Orfeo & Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Romances dominate this week; ‘otherworldliness’ and enchantment are foregrounded. The concept of genre will underpin this week’s work and you will be invited to explore whether it is at all possible to categorise literature or, indeed, anything!

Week 4 : Chaucer: the Franklin’s Tale, The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale; the Prioresse and the Noones Preeste

A Chaucerian romance, some sojourns with death and fun with ideas. Chaucer’s versatility, generic and philosophical playfulness, and intellectual wryness will be the thematic thrusts of this week’s work/play.

Week 5 : Lyrics: reflections of the literary world

We finish by looking at some lyrics that reflect some of the themes and ideas we have explored in the previous weeks – and that can be used to support (or not) arguments about medieval literature. This session will also summarise the course and your route through the course, paying particular attention to your learning processes and the meta-cognition developed regarding your learning preferences and performance in an academic culture.


We will look at the texts in Middle English and do some work during the course on language, but students may work from the following translations if preferred:

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (Short Text and Long Text), trans. Elizabeth Spearing
(London:Penguin, 1998).

The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet. Translated with an introduction by Casey Finch.
Facing-Page Middle English Texts by Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron
(Clifford Peterson. California, 1993) [contains both Gawain and Pearl]

G. Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, translated by Nevill Coghill, Penguin (1951)

General Reading

Dalrymple, R. D. (ed.), Middle English Literature, (Blackwell, 2004). For critical approaches and specific essays on the Gawain-poet (Pearl-poet), Chaucer, Julian, romances and lyrics.

©  Dr Ken Addison, St. Peter’s College, University of Oxford: for 2024

St Peter’s College Summer School at Magdalen College, University of Oxford