Accessibility statement

Why Read Literature?: Lessons from the Renaissance (& Beyond) - ENG00110M

« Back to module search

  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Jane Raisch
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2024-25
    • See module specification for other years: 2022-23

Module summary

Can we learn from works of fiction? How? What do they teach us? These central questions of not only literary studies but the humanities more generally were at the core of how Renaissance writers, thinkers, and educators imagined their intellectual moment. Indeed, pedagogical reform was crucial to artistic, literary, scientific, and technological innovations the period is more famous for today.

In this module, we’ll explore the relationship between Renaissance theories of education and works of Renaissance literature that represent forms of instruction. We’ll thus ask not only how, and if, literature seems capable of teaching us something, but what literature can teach us about teaching itself.

Reading pedagogical treatises, handbooks, and works of philosophy alongside Renaissance works of literature (Francois Rabelais, Thomas More, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare), we’ll discuss how the classroom is both theorized and fictionally imagined. We’ll consider both how literature depicts the processes and procedures of education and whether it enacts those processes itself. We’ll necessarily ask too how pedagogical discussions inflect questions of politics, religious belief, gender, sexuality, and nationhood. Finally, we will reflect on our own status as students of literature and as indirect products of this pedagogical system. What can Renaissance humanism tell us about the Humanities today?

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2024-25

Module aims

This module aims to introduce you to the centrality of educational theory and pedagogical practice in the early modern period, as well as to familiarize you with how literary texts were taught, read, imitated, and disseminated. Methodologically, it looks to expose you to the benefits of reading cross-disciplinarily and comparatively, both between literary and non-literary texts and between English and Continental contexts. Interdisciplinary analysis is increasingly a key skill for students at the MA level to develop.

Module learning outcomes

By the end of this module you should be able to 

  • demonstrate an advances understanding of and engagement with educational and pedagogical theories and practices from the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries
  • demonstrate an advance understanding of literary and historical questions by drawing upon archival, manuscript, and rare book resources (and to know how to find and acquire such resources in special collections and online)
  • produce confident and clear written and oral accounts of early modern education and the study of literature in the period, making sophisticated and substantial use of secondary criticism
  • Evaluate key debates within the relevant critical fields


Task Length % of module mark
4500 word essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

You will hand in an essay of approximately 2,000 words in Week 6 of the Autumn term. The main purpose of the essay is to ensure that the department can identify those students who may require additional assistance with academic writing skills.  Material from the procedural essay may be re-visited in either one of the January essays or the dissertation. It is therefore an early chance to work through material that might be used in assessed work. The title topic of the essay, like the title topic of all assessed work for the degree, is left open to the individual student.


Task Length % of module mark
4500 word essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

You will receive feedback on all assessed work within the University deadline, and will often receive it more quickly. The purpose of feedback is to inform your future work; it is designed to help you to improve your work, and the Department also offers you help in learning from your feedback. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further you can discuss it with your MA convener, module tutor or your supervisor, during their Open Office Hours

Indicative reading

  • Plutarch, “How a Young Man Should Read Poetry”
  • Roger Ascham, The Scholemaster
  • Thomas More, Utopia
  • Erasmus, On the Education of Children
  • François Rabelais, Gargantua
  • Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier
  • Edmund Spenser, Faerie Queene
  • Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quioxte
  • Phillip Sidney, Defense of
  • William Shakespeare, Rape of Lucrece and Othello
  • Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
  • Margaret Cavendish, The Blazing World

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.