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Semester 1

Heroes, Wonders, Saints and Sagas: Medieval Celtic Literature in Translation (CELT08022)







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Course Summary

The course provides an introduction to selected genres of Celtic-language literature from c. 600-c. 1500 AD, and an understanding of the social and historical background that gave rise to these texts. Two strands of literature are combined: the Medieval Welsh and Medieval Gaelic traditions. English translations are used throughout the course; while no knowledge of the original Celtic languages is required, a small part of its contextual study will focus on limited aspects of relevant terminology (e.g. with regard to translators choices in particular contexts). The course is aimed at students who have completed Celtic Civilisation 1A and 1B, but is open to anyone who has taken a course in literary/historical or similar subjects at University level and wishes to explore the medieval Celtic-language tradition. The course does not aim to provide a comprehensive survey of the two literatures studied, but rather to examine in greater depth certain periods, themes, and genres that are characteristic and that, where possible, offer cross-cultural comparisons within the Celtic-speaking world. For history students, the course offers an insight to the nature and context of the two literary traditions; for literature students, it provides enhanced understanding of the social and political background to the Medieval Welsh and Gaelic texts and their composers. Students of Celtic Studies will gain a broader understanding of the medieval literary tradition, in advance of opportunities at Honours level to choose more intense but sometimes narrower, language-based courses. Content will consist of the introduction of new material, exemplified by particular texts, characters, or genres, set items of primary and secondary reading, and a range of student-led active learning events enabling discussion, response, and detailed engagement and analysis. It is hoped that many students will opt for CELT08023 in Semester 2, which continues this approach to the Celtic-language literary traditions of early modern to twentieth century Ireland and Scotland.

Course Description

The course introduces students to selected aspects of medieval Gaelic and Welsh literature in English translation. It will cover important and characteristic genres of these literatures, and provide historical and social backgrounds against which primary texts may be interpreted. The medieval Gaelic strand of the course will examine key themes and features of literature, mainly prose saga, which dates from the ninth to the twelfth century. We begin with the contexts of the composition of these tales during or after the period in which the Gaelic-speaking world converted to Christianity, and the production of the manuscripts in which they are preserved; popular theories of the extent to which pre-Christian 'mythological' elements may be present in these texts will also be explored (e.g. descriptions of otherworlds and the afterlife). Next, we consider a series of texts from the corpus of 'Ulster Cycle' narratives, the oldest Gaelic-language literature preserved, enabling discussion of compilation, characterization (including of CĂș Chulainn, 'Hound of Ulster'), the relationship between different tales and why they were considered as parts of a cycle, and exploring concepts of violence, gender representation, and satirical humour. The final unit introduces texts that allow us to explore the boundaries between hagiographical, Biblical, and secular narrative traditions, and to assess the rich corpus of medieval Gaelic literature-in- translation, which reworked classical and continental texts and characters (such as Odysseus) into new vernacular (Gaelic-language) forms. The medieval Welsh strand will explore key themes and features of literature dating from the ninth century to the early fifteenth, beginning with poetry attributed to the elusive figures of Taliesin and Aneirin, praise poets to rulers of the Old Northern British-(Welsh-)speaking kingdoms of Rheged and Gododdin. Some of this poetry may have been composed in the late sixth century, but develops its own complex tradition following the decline of Welsh in northern Britain, and the promotion of the Old North as a 'golden age' of heroic behaviour. The later-medieval legacies of Taliesin, Aneirin, and a somewhat more famous Old Northern poet-prophet, known later as Merlin, are also explored, and the figure of Arthur is assessed from its earliest extant occurrence c. 830 to the dramatic appropriation of Welsh literature for pan-European audiences by Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the wake of the Norman annexation of England and the Welsh Marches after 1066. Arthur's reclamation by Welsh authors during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries concludes the course by exploring the vernacular (Welsh-language) tradition of prose romance, which also reflects on Welsh authors perceptions of the wider world and its peoples and literatures. In both strands of the course, study of primary texts will reflect in various ways upon the cultural, intellectual, and political contexts that produced them, and the means and context of their preservation. Assignments are designed to encourage deeper engagement with particular texts, providing opportunities for shorter reflective writing, close-reading, and textual analysis enriched by critical awareness of secondary scholarship and literary.

Assessment Information

Written Exam 0%, Coursework 100%, Practical Exam 0%

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