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Heroes and Saints: Old English Epic Tradition

Class at Faculty of Arts |

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The course is only open to DALC incoming Erasmus students.


The course will examine a range of Old English narrative poems. Starting with texts which can be broadly defined as secular, we will look at the variety of approaches and agendas which these texts represent and explore the ways in which the concept of an underlying heroic poetic tradition is constructed from the limited extant material. Religious epic will then be discussed in terms of its relation to models encountered in the secular poems. We will concentrate especially on the presentation of the protagonist and his/her spiritual progress as well as on the order of the world which the texts construct. Ultimately, the course should offer students a deeper insight into the problems which shape our study and understanding of Old English poetry in general.

MATERIAL selections from:

The Finnsburh Fragment

The Battle of Maldon

The Battle of Brunanburh


Genesis B

Felix: Vita Sancti Guthlaci (in English)

Guthlac A


A selection of critical reading will be posted in Moodle.

Primary texts will be provided with an interlinear gloss and grammatical apparatus as well as translation for convenience, but an elementary working knowledge of Old English (e.g. the basic paradigms), and a willingness to look beyond the translation to the original is requisite for a fair treatment and discussion of the texts.

DETAILED PROGRAMME 1. Heroic narratives: searching for the “heroic poetic tradition”

The Finnsburh Fragment

The Battle of Maldon

Beowulf – selection

The Battle of Brunanburh

• Mathesius, V., from History of English Literature I, Prague 1910

• Davis, C.R.: “Cultural Historicity in 'The Battle of Maldon'”, PQ 78 (1999)

• Niles, J.D.: selection from “The Myth of the Anglo-Saxon Oral Poet” in Old English Heroic Poems and the Social Life of Texts, Brepols 2007 2. The biblical epic: Genesis A and B

Genesis A and B – selection

• Cherniss, M.D., "Heroic Ideals and the Moral Climate in 'Genesis B'", MLQ 30:4 (1969) 3. Between English and Latin: heroic elements in the Latin Vita of Guthlac

Felix: Vita Sancti Guthlaci (in English);

Beowulf – selection

• Damon, J.E.: selection from ‘St Guthlac, Spiritual Warrior’ in Soldier Saints and Holy Warriors, Ashgate 2003

• Meyr-Harding, H.: selection from ‘Saints and Heroes’ in The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England, B.T.Batsford 1991 4. The hero, the hall, the wilderness: Beowulf and Guthlac

Beowulf – selection

Guthlac A – selection

• Damon, J.E.: selection from ‘Holiness and Heroism: Poetic Lives of Soldier Saints’ in Soldier Saints and Holy Warriors, Ashgate 2003

• Roberts, J.: The Guthlac Poems of the Exeter Book, OUP 1979 – selection

• Nicholas, G.E.: “Monasticism and the Social Temptation in the OE Guthlac A”, The American Benedictine Review 46:4 (1995) 5. Revaluing heroic imagery: Cynewulf's Juliana

Juliana – selection

The Life of St Juliana; in: Calder, D.G. and M. J. Allen: Sources and Analogues of Old English: Major Latin Texts in Translation, Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1976

• Damon, J.E.: selection from ‘Holiness and Heroism: Poetic Lives of Soldier Saints’ in Soldier Saints and Holy Warriors, Ashgate 2003


Students are expected to give one oral presentation of 10-15 minutes (accompanied with a handout/presentation summarizing the core points) and submit a paper of 1,000 words for a credit. As per the Dean’s Decree No. 2/2024 the credit requirements have to be completed by September 2025. An essay of 5,000 words should be submitted as a graded paper; this has to be completed by the end of the year following that in which they registered for the course in keeping with the rules set for zkouška, with a special extra year allowance as per the Dean’s decree No. 2/2024 (i.e. by September 2026). Active participation is of the essence.