Mosaic – an authors perspective

TALL has invited me to be the author of a short online course for a new project, MOSAIC, which will bring together, reuse, and provide guides to, existing material on the web. This seems like a very worthwhile project, as there is so much material online now that looking for specific information, and distinguishing between authoritative and unmoderated, and useful and less useful, sites can be daunting, and I’m guessing that a lot of very good sites which happen not to come up close to the top of a Google or other search are left languishing and unvisited.  There are excellent portals, lists of links, and bibliographies, but in the case of the subject of this course, Anglo-Saxon history and culture and Old English literature, the more accessible and unscary to the non-academic or non-specialist they can be, the better.

I’m very pleased to be asked to write this course.  Old English is very popular with those undergraduates and graduates fortunate enough to be able to study the subject (even with those who initially resisted but, in the days when it was mandatory, had to read it), but I think is considered difficult and obscure by those who have not read English, and even by English students whose institutions’ courses begin after the period.  This course will be accessible in all ways: it will not require prior knowledge; it will provide translations in Modern English of Old English texts; it will stake participants through the history of the Anglo-Saxon peoples in England (to use modern terms) step-by-step; it will allow participants to work at their own pace; it will bring to participants’ attention websites they might not otherwise have discovered, or have had access to; best of all, it will be free for anyone to use, anywhere, anytime. 

I hope that the course will dispel some of the myths about Old English literature that seem to linger among people who haven’t ha d the chance to read it, such as  that it is all about fighting or swilling mead after fighting. Old English literature is so varied, and the language of the texts so powerful , vivid, and evocative, that it should be available to everyone. Of course, translations and modernisations are not the same as the texts’ original language, but there are a number available for free legal download which give a sense of the metre, alliteration and other sound-qualities of the originals. It will be important to offer a selection of translations, and to encourage participants to think about the issues involved in translation.

Since Old English grammar is usually cited as the thing that puts people off trying to learn to read the texts, it will be important to make very clear that this is not a course that requires participants to learn the language. Equally important, however, will be offering participants the opportunity to have a taste of the language, and to get a sense of the ways in which it differed from Modern English (as well as the ways in which dialects spoken in Saxon England differed from one another). Fortunately, there are recordings of readings of Old English texts online, and I’m hoping it will be possible to commission a short recording of our own of the sounds of the alphabet. Obviously, our knowledge of the sounds of Old Englishes is a matter of scholarly surmise, but in discussing a culture that was largely oral rather than literate, it is vital to have a sense of the forms in which the narratives of that culture were transmitted.


Using online resources will mean that the website can be illustrated with and contain links to some of the fabulous artefacts and art of the Anglo-Saxons, some of which (such as the carved crosses and other religious artefacts, and the weapons and armour) illuminate elements of the texts. It also means that we can show what the manuscripts looked like when the oral narratives were committed to written language.

The books and more recently films of The Lord of the Rings, and the recent film of Beowulf have brought some elements of Anglo-Saxon culture into modern popular culture.  I hope that will lead people to our website.

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