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Chaucer, Arabic Learning, & the East - ENG00125M

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  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Shazia Jagot
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2022-23

Module summary

Geoffrey Chaucer’s expansive literary imaginative can take a reader from Persian Babylonia to Muslim Syria and Mongol Sarai, and across crusading arenas that stretch from the Baltic to North Africa and Southern Spain via England, France, Italy. In addition to such places, we also encounter Persian polymaths, Arab philosophers and North African translators, all of whom became the standard bearers of knowledge in Latin Christendom and whose writings, which developed within and across Islamic world(s), had a profound influence on western medieval learning and culture, including Chaucer’s poetry and prose. This module will introduce students to the multiple and variegated connections between late medieval England and the medieval Islamic world(s) with a focus on Arabic learning and Chaucer’s literature. It will explore how, and in what ways, medieval English literature used, adapted and transformed scientific and philosophical ideas translated and developed in the Islamic world(s).

Each week, we will explore a different facet of Arabic scientific and philosophical learning (medicine, astronomy/astrology, natural philosophy, alchemy, mathematics and optics) paired with a text by Chaucer. In putting medieval scientific and philosophical texts by Arabic and Latin scholars (read in English translation) in dialogue with Middle English poetry, we will endeavour to ask how did writers from different geographical, religious and cultural perspectives conceive the physical body and mind?  How did they represent disease and cures? In what ways was this influenced by conceptions of the natural world and the cosmos? How, where, and why does Chaucer use such ‘Arabic science’ in his poetry and how might it influence his depiction of love, loss and the cosmos? We will also turn to theoretical considerations of the representation of Islam, the ‘East’ and medieval orientalism. While focused on Chaucer, in some seminars we will extend discussion to Arabic literature, including the 1001 Nights; other canonical poets interested and influenced by the ‘East’ including Boccaccio and Dante, and poets writing in the age of Chaucer, such as John Gower and William Langland.  

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Autumn Term 2022-23

Module aims

The aim of the module is to introduce students to cultural and intellectual connections between England and the Islamic world(s) in the medieval period; to develop knowledge of the role of Arabic, Islam and translation in the history of medieval science; to develop understanding of Chaucer’s poetry through the perspective of the history of science and philosophy; and to examine critical and theoretical considerations of the representations of the ‘East’ in medieval writings, both literary and scientific. 

Module learning outcomes

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

  1. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with Chaucer’s literature, both poetry and prose and a range of medieval scientific and philosophical texts.
  2. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with interdisciplinary content and methodologies.
  3. Evaluate key debates within the relevant critical fields dealing with the history of science and literature, medieval orientalism, Chaucer’s scientific imagination, and Chaucer and Islam.
  4. Produce independent arguments and ideas which demonstrate an advanced proficiency in critical thinking, research, and writing skills.

Module content

The module aims to place a western, canonical poet in dialogue with non-western writings, ideas and concepts. In doing so, the primary material will include texts originally written in Arabic (read in modern English translation) by figures who are Arab, Persian, North African, Muslim, Christian and Jewish.

Indicative assessment

Task Length % of module mark
Essay 4500 words
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Indicative reassessment

Task Length % of module mark
Essay 4500 words
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 module tutor, the MA Convenor or your supervisor, during their Open Office Hours  

Indicative reading

Texts will include Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Troilus and Criseyde, The House of Fame, and Treatise on the Astrolabe. We will also read excerpts from a range of Arabic scientific and philosophical texts (all read in modern English translation) including Ibn al-Sina (Avicenna) Canon of Medicine, Mash’Allah (Messahallah) On the Construction and Use of an Astrolabe; Ibn al-Tamimi al-Sheikh (Senior) Letter to the Sun and the Moon; Ibn al-Haytham (Alhacen) Book on Optics.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University constantly explores 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. In some instances it may be appropriate for the University to notify and consult with affected students about module changes in accordance with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.