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Defining Nature in Antiquity & the Middle Ages - ENG00112H

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  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Michele Campopiano
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24
    • See module specification for other years: 2022-23

Module summary

How did people in premodern times view nature? This module will investigate this question through an exploration of classical and medieval literature. Medieval societies inherited from the classical period many of their conceptions of nature, but these notions were also changed in the light of new connections between humans and their environment, and by the transformation of social organizations and of the environment, that influenced each other reciprocally. Literature has played a major role in defining what nature is, starting with pre-Socratic poems on Nature. This module will build on the new literary field of ecocriticism, but it will incorporate into this investigation the history of societal transformation and its connections to the environment. In the ancient and medieval past, nature was not simply the description of the environment, but more broadly of the reality outside human and divine intervention: hence juxtapositions like nature and nurture or nature and norm. Nature is the world at large but also normality, acceptability. In a lot of ways, “Nature”, as conceptualised by writers and philosophers, is also a total construct and thus by some of these metrics profoundly unnatural.

In this module, we will also challenge modern preconceptions and misconceptions about “Western” or “European” civilization by studying Arabic and Islamic literature alongside Greek and Latin. We will see how profoundly those traditions were in contact and exchange. The course material will introduce these texts and their contexts, and no preliminary knowledge of the classical or medieval languages is required: all texts will be read in Middle or Modern English.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2023-24

Module aims

The module aims to investigate how nature was defined and described in literature, exploring how Greek, Roman and medieval texts (Arabic and Persian as well as ‘western’) discussed nature, what contemporaries considered part of nature (or not), how their perception influenced their understanding of their individuality and its connection with the cosmos.

Module learning outcomes

On successful completion of the module, you should be able to:

  1. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with Greek, Latin and medieval Literature and its different perceptions of nature

  2. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with classical and medieval texts as well as gaining close reading skills

  3. Evaluate key debates within the relevant critical fields dealing with the idea of nature and its relationship to different forms of literary expression.

  4. Produce independent arguments and ideas which demonstrate an advanced proficiency in critical thinking, research, and writing skills.


Task Length % of module mark
3000-word essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

You will be given the opportunity to submit a 1000-word formative essay for the module, which can feed into the 3000-word summative essay submitted at the end of the module.

Your essay will be annotated and returned to you by your tutor within two weeks.

You will submit your summative essay via the VLE during the revision and assessment weeks at the end of the teaching semester (weeks 13-15). Feedback on your summative essay will be uploaded to e:Vision to meet the University’s marking deadlines


Task Length % of module mark
3000-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 tutor or your supervisor, during their Open Office Hours

  • For more information about the feedback you will receive for your work, see the department's Guide to Assessment

Indicative reading

Texts may include:

  • Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogony;
  • Plato’s Timaeus; Heraclitus’ On Nature;
  • Ovid’s Metamorphoses,
  • Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things;
  • selected writings of the Brethren of Purity;
  • selected writings from Al-Kindi’s philosophical works;
  • excerpts from Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine; Bernardus Silvestris’ Cosmography;
  • Hildegard of Bingen’s selected writings;
  • Alan of Lille’s The Plaint of Nature;
  • Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules;
  • selected passages from Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah.

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.