Old English lives: outside Oxford

May 19, 2000

Valentine Cunningham's gleeful response to the demise of compulsory Old English at Oxford (Soapbox, THES, May 12) seeks to escalate a local squabble into a national trend.

Evidence suggests that Old English nationally is in robust health. The parochialism of Cunningham's perspective is thus its saving grace.

Oxford is anomalous in its collegiate tutoring, its "modern Tolkienists" and the apparent widespread unpopularity of Old English among its undergraduates. Cunningham's criticisms are old hat: based on lambasting long-gone old-school tutors and the philological and masculinist teaching methods they championed.

The story is very different elsewhere. Most modern Anglo-Saxonists recognise that Old English does not equal Beowulf. There are many more interesting texts (The Wife's Lament with its complex semiotic language and timelessness, for example).

Anglo-Saxonists have adapted to meet the needs of their students, some of whose language knowledge is (to put it politely) limited. They use literary and cultural theory, the web and translations to place Old English in a broader cultural context than do most other literary courses.

The subject thrives in many universities and is taught by excellent and dedicated lecturers. The validity of the literature and language is demonstrated by a questionnaire carried out for the Teachers of Old English in Britain and Ireland. Forty-two institutions (out of 90 respondents) teach original Old English as a separate course and others incorporate it into survey courses.

Eighteen of these institutions teach compulsory Old English and show a healthy return on subsequent optional courses (with a minimum 10 to 15 per cent take-up rate for single modules).

Old English accounts annually for 3,000 undergraduates. Many students enjoy their experience and are, I believe, intellectually the stronger for it. Such figures and enthusiasm suggest we are far from saying "Goodbye to Beowulf".

Elaine Treharne

Reader in medieval literature

University of Leicester

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