Britain’s “Sondry Tonges”: Teaching a Multilingual, Non-Chronological Survey
At the Modern Language Association Convention earlier this month, I presented my course design for a multilingual, comparative version of the early British Literature survey course.
To emphasize the multilingual, multicultural nature of the British Isles, I have designed an early British literature survey course with weekly units of readings arranged by genre or theme. Instead of moving chronologically, my course features a series of multilingual units comparing works originally composed in Old English, Old Irish, Latin, Middle Welsh, Anglo-French, Anglo-Hebrew, and Middle English. This comparative approach allows students to notice how medieval and Early Modern authors drew upon common stories and themes across languages, cultures, and centuries.
During my presentation at the MLA Convention, I shared several of the course’s weekly units, including “Myth & Heroism” (Beowulf and the Welsh Mabinogion), “Gender & Authority” (Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Gwerful Mechain’s “Cywydd y Cedor” [“Poem of the Vagina”], and Margery Kempe’s The Book of Margery Kempe), and “Travel Narratives” (the Old Irish Voyage of Saint Brendan, Sir John Mandeville’s Travels, and Walter Raleigh’s Discovery of Guiana). While my presentation primarily focused on medieval multilingualism, it is also important to foreground for undergraduates the multilingual intertextuality of early modern literature, with Shakespeare’s continental sources as one example.
The final paper, a “diachronic essay,” challenges students to do a novel type of literary analysis. In essence, they write a miniature literary history of their own. Each student selects a theme or genre and makes an argument about its development across early British literature. Selecting and analyzing four primary sources from the course, each student also incorporates three scholarly sources to frame her commentary on the diachronic development of a genre or theme. In this comparative and non-chronological survey, students must do some of the analytical work to plot texts within a timeline and on a map of Britain, which we build collaboratively. This new model encourages students to engage more deeply with the content and concepts than usually possible in a survey, and teaches them that early English literature emerged in conversation with works from multiple cultures and languages.
The early British survey comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, and the flexible structure of this survey course design can be customized for any department’s curriculum. Several participants at the MLA Convention asked to see a copy of my syllabus, and I am sharing several different versions below: origins to 1660, origins to 1800, and a quarter-system version of the origins to 1660 syllabus.
Special thanks to Dr. Gabriel Ford (Converse College) for his suggestion that I incorporate a reading from the medieval Hebrew fables of Berechiah ha-Nakdan alongside other animal fables.