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Old English Literature: Language as History

Learn the basics of Old English and reveal what literature can tell us about the origins of English-speaking culture in medieval Britain.
Old English Literature: Language as History is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 42.
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Rated 3 out of 5 by from Desperately needs a course guidebook While I found this course to be overall well-presented, I agree with some of the other reviewers about its odd juxtapositioning of 4 Old English grammar lessons in Lectures 5-8. Having said that, this was not something that would discourage me from recommending this course to others. However, what I find most disturbing about the class--and what ultimately causes me to suggest that someone think twice before proceeding with it--is the lack of any meaningful written course materials accompanying it. I have taken dozens of GC classes and all have had excellent, supportive course guidebooks. Virtually the SOLE content of the @ 80 page course materials provided with this lecture series deals with the 4 Old English grammar lectures; essentially, its a "cram course" on the translation of Old English. Totally absent is any overview/summary/guidance regarding the other 20 lectures, which, one can argue, serves as the real "meat" of the course. Nor are there more than 2 blank pages for "Notes" at the end of the Guidebook, which I candidly filled after the first few lectures, after which I was relegated to using a separate notebook. The suggestion is made that a student can pay extra and separately buy a "transcript" of the lectures and highlight/annotate those. But that should not be a substitute for a legitimate lecture outline. By comparison, Professor Seth Lerer's GC "The History of the English Language; 2nd Edition," which has several chapters devoted to Old English, contains the type of substantive guidance when it comes to the study of the history of the Old English language that is called for here. I don't know who, in the context of preparing a GC series for publication, is responsible for compiling a Course Guidebook, but the job was not done here. For this reason, I simply cannot recommend this course to a friend.
Date published: 2023-06-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A most excellent course! I learnt more in each lecture alone in this series than I did during an entire term (two months) on the history of English during my undergrad studies, and during an entire semester module (four months) on medieval literature during my fourth year (Honours year in South Africa, where you specialise in one major subject). I'm so grateful to have come across this series, which has ignited an already brightly burning passion into a raging bonfire. What an honour to have such a knowledgeable and passionate professor share this wonderful and fascinating subject with us. Thank you so much!
Date published: 2023-04-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Needs to Decide What It's Doing Some of the lectures are very good, but a lot of them are not well focused on the topic of "Language as History". To begin with, 4 lectures are spent on the structure of Old English, and cover trying to learn paradigms of pronouns, verb endings etc. This is completely useless in my opinion, as this is much to little to really learn to read - much less learn to speak - Old English. For example, Greek 101, which covers the Homeric Illiad, takes 36 lectures to cover a similar amount of material. So taking up 4 lectures to cover Old English is entirely useless. Similarly way too much of each lecture is taken up with the professor reading Old English. We can't understand this -- she might just as well be speaking Sanskrit or Chinese -- and then she translates this into English. She could just as well simply say it in English to begin with, with the occasional use of OE as example phrases or sentences. And none of that has anything to do with "Language as History". That said, a good portion of the rest of the course does cover language as history, and is very interesting and enlightening. How the language grew and was used in chronicles and medieval documents is most interesting and to my mind throws a lot of light on how medieval England saw itself and how the people of that time (at least the elite who could read and write) thought about their world and themselves is most useful and entertaining.
Date published: 2023-02-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Demanding Course First off, let me say that it was It is fun to learn how the English language of 1,500 years ago is basically unintelligible to users of modern English. I'm studying a Slavic language on the side and Old English, with it's multiple cases, noun and verb endings and verbs declinations seems very similar. This course was not easy to watch, mostly because it's two courses in one. It's a language course (Old English) and a history course (The Anglo-Saxon era of Great Britain) all rolled into one and this is it's weakest link. The course guidebook teaches and describes Old English 101 which is fine, but the guide contains no information on the lectures dealing with the development and history of Old English or the Anglo-Saxon era. Luckily, other course offerings by the CG taught by Dr. Jennifer Paxton cover this era better and in much greater detail.
Date published: 2023-02-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb, well delivered, hugely inspiring I found the course to be highly informative in an easy to follow and entertaining way. It consolidated fragments of knowledge I had and added greatly to my awareness of the subject. It has also inspired me to study further which i feel is the highest compliment one can pay to a lecturer. The lectures were well sequenced ad so flowed perfectly which I liked as i could see how everything fitted together, drew on previous works and also how it all fitted into the context of the historical period. I have recommended Wondrium to several people on the basis of this course alone and strongly suggested they should take it. I am fortunate to live not far from Oxford University and am now motivated to go and look at the originals of many of their early English texts as well as study further. Thank you for an excellent course.
Date published: 2022-12-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting course! I got admit this was a heavy course for me. I am writing the review after 2/3 of lectures being watched and reviewed. I was attracted to it because I am a history buff, but then I realized this is a language course as well, so obvi have to do more homework than I want to. I think I will come back to last third of the lectures later.
Date published: 2022-11-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Old Englsh Literature A+A+A+A!!!!!!!! OLD ENGLISH LITERATURE: Language and History course was very informative of the OE period. Dr. Trilling's lecture were definitely enriching. It was a delight to listen to each lecture. She spoke very well with a clear and pleasant voice. (no interjections of useless and unnecessary words or phrases.) The one aspect I found difficult to follow was how the lectures on OE language were squeezed between the history lectures. The first 4 lectures were about OE history; the next 4 were on OE language (parts of speech, conjugations of words) ; the remaining lectures blended OE history literature with OE historical events . I found going from history, jumping to language and back again to history was disruptive with my mindset. Overall, Dr. Trilling was an excellent speaker and the lectures were very interesting. She is very knowledgeable. I found it wise to get the transcript so I could make notations in the margins. I could also underline passages. Getting this course is a "definite".
Date published: 2022-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Content but Skip the Woke History has been my lifelong hobby, and I bought this course because I have enjoyed other Medieval courses with Professors Harl and Armstrong. This instructor knows her subject, has a pleasant voice and smooth delivery. I skipped the 4 lessons on Old English grammar but some may find it interesting. My main reservation about the course is her use of BCE and CE instead of the traditional BC and AD, and her slam of Western civilization and colonization in the last lecture. Christianity, in spite of the unavoidable politics, is what civilized our European ancestors. It improved women's status, rescued abandoned children, built hospitals and promoted literacy which gave rise to a middle class and increased prosperity. They in turn brought civilization, human rights and technology to other cultures. I would probably recommend the course with those caveats.
Date published: 2022-09-27
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In the 24 lessons of Old English Literature: Language as History, you will experience the premodern world through the powerful tool of the written word. With the guidance of author and medieval scholar Professor Renée Trilling, you will look back on the early medieval history of the British Isles and discover what Old English can reveal about the peoples, traditions, beliefs, and cultures of the past.


Renée R. Trilling

Studying Old English language and literature is at once challenging, fun, and an utter revelation. It’s as close to time travel as you can get.


University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Renée R. Trilling is an Associate Professor of English and Medieval Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She earned her MA and PhD in English from the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of The Aesthetics of Nostalgia: Historical Representation in Old English Verse, which won an award for best first monograph from the International Society for the Study of Early Medieval England, and Old English Literature and Critical Theory, which is part of the Oxford Bibliographies collection. She is also the coeditor of A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Studies and the Old English editor of the Journal of English and Germanic Philology.

Renée’s research has been supported by the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, and the Center for Advanced Study. She has published articles on Beowulf, Wulfstan the homilist, Ælfric’s hagiography, vernacular historiography, and early medieval medicine, focusing on issues of gender, materiality, nostalgia, and literary form. Additionally, she has undertaken work that draws on trends in neuroscience and related fields to explore the role of materiality in early medieval notions of subjectivity.

By This Professor

Old English Literature: Language as History
Old English Literature: Language as History


The Literary World of Early England

01: The Literary World of Early England

English is one of Europe’s oldest written vernacular languages. Begin your exploration of Old English and its important role in both literature and history with a look at the Germanic roots of the language. Also, see how it was shaped by numerous influences, from literature and religion to science, cultural exchange, and more.

33 min
Where Did English Come From?

02: Where Did English Come From?

Germanic peoples began migrating to the shores of the British Isles in the 4th and 5th centuries, bringing with them the language that would eventually become English. What brought these new migrants to Britain, and how did their language change with their new environment? Look back on the linguistic history of the English language and discover how scholars can trace languages back even earlier than the written word.

32 min
Languages in Medieval England

03: Languages in Medieval England

From its earliest recorded history, Britain has always been a place of many tongues. Look back on the cultural interactions between the Germanic settlers—the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—and the Celtic, Roman, and Viking peoples that occupied Britain. See how these disparate groups and their languages intermingled to produce what would become Old English.

32 min
Germanic Culture and Old English

04: Germanic Culture and Old English

The premigration Germanic tribes of Northern Europe—grouped together as Germani by writers like Tacitus—had an oral culture rather than one that used much writing; thus, much of our historical knowledge comes from outside sources. Look at this early history and better understand how historical linguists separate fact from fiction when reconstructing the past.

29 min
Learning Old English: Pronouns

05: Learning Old English: Pronouns

Begin your first of several lessons on the mechanics of Old English with a look at pronouns. First, learn how to pronounce Old English and how the structure of the language works. Then, apply what you have learned to better understand pronouns and how they are used. As you will see, Old English is very different from modern English, yet many words still used today can be traced to their earlier origins.

31 min
Learning Old English: Nouns and Adjectives

06: Learning Old English: Nouns and Adjectives

Continue learning the basics of Old English with nouns and adjectives. As a synthetic language, Old English relies on inflections rather than word order, so here you will learn how to uncover meaning from the words themselves rather than their order. As you look at the different forms of nouns and adjectives, you will pick up invaluable skills you can apply to help you read—and understand—Old English.

31 min
Learning Old English: Weak Verbs

07: Learning Old English: Weak Verbs

In this first of two lessons focused on Old English verbs, you will start with what linguists call “weak” verbs. As you learn various verb forms, you will also learn more about how languages change over time, through both natural change from inside of the language and through the influence of outside contact with other languages.

31 min
Learning Old English: Strong Verbs

08: Learning Old English: Strong Verbs

This second lesson on verbs focuses on the “strong” verbs of Old English. As you gain a better understanding of the linguistic history behind how they work, you will discover how this apparently random and complex system turns out to be surprisingly regular and predictable. Learn the four principal parts and seven classes of verbs and how to recognize them.

33 min
The Germanic Migrations: 300 to 600 CE

09: The Germanic Migrations: 300 to 600 CE

What brought the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe to the shores of Britain? Look at the different ways scholars have approached the historical moment of the adventus Saxonum. Through these records and theories, you will see how these Germanic migrants introduced the language, customs, legal systems, and traditions that would eventually dominate Britain for centuries.

26 min
Old English Literary Aesthetics

10: Old English Literary Aesthetics

Explore the mechanics of Old English poetry and learn about the performers, known as “scops,” who composed, recited, and preserved it. As you examine a handful of poems to trace the medieval artistic tradition of the North Atlantic region, you will focus on four poetic techniques: meter, alliteration, appositive variation, and interlace. Along the way, you will also consider the legends that inspired these poems.

31 min
Warriors in Old English Poetry

11: Warriors in Old English Poetry

Dive into a beloved Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon, for a look at the noble ideals of the Old English literary canon. As you will see, Old English literature often combined real events and nostalgic, heroic fiction to create epic poems and stories that appealed to audiences through romantic ideals of premigration glory.

28 min
Beowulf: The Germanic Hero Par Excellence?

12: Beowulf: The Germanic Hero Par Excellence?

Beowulf holds a place of honor in the English literary canon, yet this famous epic poem was almost lost. Consider the many dimensions of this work that artfully combines history, legend, and poetic invention and discover the ways the heroic exploits of Beowulf illuminate the values and ideals of the Germanic peoples of England.

34 min
Heroism and Gender in Old English Poetry

13: Heroism and Gender in Old English Poetry

Germanic warrior culture was a masculine domain, but Old English literature also gives us insight into the experiences of those who were left on the margins. Here, you will look at three poems that highlight women’s experiences in the heroic culture of the Germanic peoples: Beowulf, Judith, and The Wife’s Lament.

31 min
Christianity Comes to Medieval England

14: Christianity Comes to Medieval England

Many medieval historians cast the history of early England as a story of inevitable conversion to Christianity. As you get a sense of the scale of Christianity’s influence and its far-reaching effects, you will see how the religion brought literacy back to the island and made English into one of the first written vernaculars in Western Europe.

29 min
Latin Literacy in Medieval England

15: Latin Literacy in Medieval England

With its focus on texts and the Latin language, Christianity transformed the literary landscape of early medieval England. Discover how the religious dimension of literacy in England changed the types of texts being produced and meet several influential writers whose works were deeply rooted in Christian values and perspectives.

33 min
Old English Preaching and Teaching

16: Old English Preaching and Teaching

Christianity became the dominant religion in England by the middle of the 8th century, yet few ordinary people could understand the church’s chosen language of Latin. Look at the ways this language barrier created a social division between those who could read sacred texts and those who couldn’t and how this created a need for prayers, sermons, and other works in Old English.

32 min
Christian Heroes in Old English Literature

17: Christian Heroes in Old English Literature

It is estimated that nearly a third of surviving Old English poems are translations of biblical texts, and even more are on religious topics in general. Here, look at some of these pieces of religious storytelling in Old English and see how the hybrid literature born of Christian and Germanic traditions suited the unique world of early English Christianity.

35 min
English Literacy and Learning under Alfred

18: English Literacy and Learning under Alfred

Meet the king who would come to be known as Alfred the Great and see how his unification of early medieval England cast him as a symbol of English national identity. Why did Alfred champion education and literacy as a common good? How did his promotion of learning help shape the English literary tradition for generations to come?

33 min
Old English and the Rule of Law

19: Old English and the Rule of Law

Despite the lawless way the medieval world is often portrayed in films and media, the premodern world had a very strong desire for laws and justice. As you will see, one of the reasons we know this is because law codes in the English vernacular were some of the earliest laws preserved in writing in Europe.

33 min
Old English and Scientific Learning

20: Old English and Scientific Learning

Look at scientific writings of the early medieval period and see how premodern people understood the natural world, time, weather, and even the human body very differently than we do today. Examine the works of scholars like the Venerable Bede and the English monk Byrhtferth to trace the progress of medieval English scientific thought and writings.

31 min
Old English versus the Vikings

21: Old English versus the Vikings

The Norse raid on the monastery of Lindisfarne in 793 CE was the beginning of the Viking Age in England. While this traumatic event would color the ways Scandinavians were portrayed in medieval records, here you will get a more nuanced look at the impact of these Northern European peoples and their prolonged influence on Britain.

34 min
The Norman Conquest of Old English

22: The Norman Conquest of Old English

Discover how everything changed with the arrival of William of Normandy and his conquest of England in 1066. The impact of the Battle of Hastings would touch every aspect of English culture and the changes it brought about would give rise to the English language as we know it today. Take a closer look at this watershed moment for English history, politics, identity, and language.

33 min
Old English Afterlives

23: Old English Afterlives

By the mid-13th century, the English language had changed significantly and the ascendency of French and Latin pushed English to the literary margins. Look back at this period and see why some scribes and scholars turned their attention to the past, reviving some of the conventions of preconquest literature to create a new literary style—and preserving collections of work that may not have survived otherwise.

31 min
Old English Today

24: Old English Today

Bring your exploration of Old English and premodern Britain to a close with a look at the impact of Old English literature and language of the modern world. Consider the impact of Old English literature on modern writers like J. R. R. Tolkien, W. H. Auden, and Ezra Pound. Reveal how premodern concepts—both real and imagined—influenced later political ideologies.

36 min