Real and Imagined Animals in Medieval Literature (YHU2330)



Animals, both real and imaginary, are ubiquitous in the art, literature, and material culture of medieval Europe, where they emerge as frequent objects of reflection on the nature of language, the ethics of violence, the organization of society, and the limits of what constitutes the human. This course will explore the medieval fascination with animals and the philosophical questions they raise. Drawing on the “animal turn” in contemporary cultural studies, we will investigate the complex and often ambiguous ways in which animals are represented in a range of genres, including bestiaries, fables, romance, and lyric.

In this course, we will engage in a close reading of several significant works of medieval literature, gaining insight into elements of the intellectual, philosophical, and visual culture of the European Middle Ages that have remained widely influential in Western thought. These works will enable us to explore complex questions about the nature of the human, about the way humanity manipulates the animal world in accordance with its own social imaginings, and about human responsibilities toward the non-human world. We will recognize the historical specificity of these literary encounters with animality, while at the same time considering how they speak to contemporary questions about environmental injustice and moral obligations toward non-human animals.



The first class of this course took place in the Spring Semester of the Academic Year 2022 / 2023 and saw some returning medievalists and many new ones as well, with a sizeable number of sophomores and a small handful of seniors and juniors. Many in the class came from very different backgrounds – history, environmental studies, social sciences, even life sciences. 

Susan Crane’s Animal Encounters set the theoretical grounding for the course right from the start and foregrounded crucial questions that would be explored later – how did people in the Middle Ages draw the line between human and animal? Where does that line end and in what circumstances does it blur? How has that distinction changed over time, and what do these distinctions say, if anything, about the human and how we understand the world around us and ourselves in turn? The class’s encounter with these questions opened with an old Irish poem, “Pangur Bán”, read in two translations by Whitley Stokes & John Strachan and Seamus Heaney. In discussing which interpretation they preferred, the class was guided to appreciate how translations do not necessarily always prioritise preserving grammatical syntax, and while there may be meanings lost through such cases, fidelity to the original language could often also hinder their comprehension of the text. This was further complicated with a brief visual analysis of a manuscript illustration featuring cats (and mice) (Bodleian Library Bodley 764 folio 51r). The line between human and animal can be considered from a visual representational perspective and from a medium perspective as well – for many such poems and illustrations about animals are penned on manuscripts made of animal skins.

The course next took the class through the beautiful pages of medieval bestiaries and the  prominent theological influences on medieval knowledge and perception of animals, most notably Adam’s naming of the animals and Noah’s Ark animal sanctuary from the Book of Genesis. Ideas of taxonomy and moral symbolism were noted to be particularly pronounced in these texts, and the class had a good time being both enthralled and amused by many of the bestiary entries about various animals, as well as their lack of distinction between real and imagined animals – they were often included side-by-side. Sometimes, accounts and illustrations of the real animals could seem even more absurd than the fantastical ones, especially for non-native creatures such as elephants, and it is likely that the scribes and artists would have never encountered these animals at all. Much of the bestiaries’ descriptions can thus seem like chimeras –  products of both imagination and an accretion of what was known (or little known) about the animals in question. 

A number of students in the class went on to produce their own bestiary entries to engage with and reflect on the features and concerns they understood as characteristic of the bestiary form. Below are some highlights:

The Medieval Kingfisher Bestiary

“Whether Man encounters deer in a backyard, or within the peripheries of the Buddhist temples in Nara where they follow humans around, their silent gaze will reinforce Man’s awareness of being watched by the Heavens and of the consequences of his attempt to get away with whatever scheme he plans to do.”


“The panda gives birth to twin pure black cubs and must paint them white. When the mother panda runs out of paint, she leaves them black and white. She is impatient and has no foresight. She disgracefully tries to become what she is not. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).”

~ JODY LIM (’25)

We, the Pigeons of Singapore, pledge to be fully-fledged, unabashed citizens of this country. We are rightful occupants of all spaces under the sun, and there is no corner of this land that any pitiful human can crawl into to avoid us or seek refuge. We move in masses–a marvellous and colourful flurry of vibrant feathers–and by the hundreds, we gradually flock to, and overtake the very spaces people seek to exclude us from.


“The Sea Amphisbaena represents the anxious layman. He knows nothing but to ease his pain with drink, self-pity, and masturbation. Who can blame him?”

~ SUN WOO YOON (’23)

Moving into murkier zones of the human-animal boundary, the class began to focus on specific animals/creatures of particular interest in the medieval imagination. This included wolves (and werewolves) as well as birds and their song. Texts such as Marie de France’s “Bisclavret” examined how the idea of “humanness” seemed defined largely by external (courtly and chivalric) behaviour and name, and her Fables blur this boundary further with the use of anthropomorphised animals for moral instruction and social critique. The class also delved into Troubadour poetry and Chaucer’s many bird-inspired texts like Parliament of Fowls and “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” (also known as “Chanticleer and the Fox”), where even the human language – which has been considered as a prime demonstration of the possession of reason that distinguishes human from animal – seems to mimic avian song, especially in poetry. The class reached an understanding that even without knowing the literal meaning of what is said or sung, whether by man or animal, there appears to still be some kind of meaning that transcends this barrier and is communicated on a purely sonic level. 

It was on this note that the class began engaging with longer literary texts and Middle English translation exercises, ranging from Chaucer to Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, to Bevis of Hampton. Bevis of Hampton was regarded to be especially difficult by the class.

The turn to these chivalric tales invited discussion about the knights’ animal companions, who seem spiritually bonded with their masters with whom they move together as one. The prominent image of the knight as a figure of man and horse combined not only evokes interesting parallels with the mythical centaur, but also further unsettles that already fragile boundary between human and animal. The class noted how this understanding of the knight both contrasted with and echoed with the common trope of the Wild Man (in Yvain) or the titular Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. During a creative activity, the class took to the whiteboards and visualised the Herdsman from Yvain, yielding many rather grotesque and amusing drawings that reflected perhaps some of the absurdity behind these descriptions in the text:

“I saw sitting upon a stump, with a great club in his hand, a rustic lout, as black as a mulberry, indescribably big and hideous; indeed, so passing ugly was the creature that no word of mouth could do him justice. On drawing near to this fellow, I saw that his head was bigger than that of a horse or of any other beast; that his hair was in tufts, leaving his forehead bare for a width of more than two spans; that his ears were big and mossy, just like those of an elephant; his eyebrows were heavy and his face was flat; his eyes were those of an owl, and his nose was like a cat’s; his jowls were split like a wolf, and his teeth were sharp and yellow like a wild boar’s; his beard was black and his whiskers twisted; his chin merged into his chest and his backbone was long, but twisted and hunched. There he stood, leaning upon his club and accoutred in a strange garb, consisting not of cotton or wool, but rather of the hides recently flayed from two bulls or two beeves: these he wore hanging from his neck.”

Chrétien De Troyes, Yvain, 288–2931

There was certainly no shortage of such opportunities to visualise these texts over the course, and Sir Gawain remains – for both new and returning medievalists here in the college alike – one of the most intriguing and vivid poems that lends itself to discussions and reimagination across many different themes and concerns. To visualise the sense of place and the rich world portrayed in this text, as well as its attempts to mark out human and non-human temporalities, the course expanded beyond the classroom one afternoon late in the semester. Photographs were taken of spaces or occurrences that the class felt resonated with certain lines which they had read:

“Then the world’s weather wages war on winter:
cold shrinks earthwards and the clouds climb;
sun-warmed, shimmering rain comes showering
onto meadows and fields where flowers unfurl;”

“And yesterday on yesterday the year dies away,
and winter returns, as is the way of the world
through time.”

“The most commanding castle a knight ever kept,
positioned in a site of sweeping parkland
with a palisade of pikes pitched in the earth
in the midst of tall trees for two miles or more.
He stopped and stared at one side of that stronghold
as it sparkled and shone within shimmering oaks,”

The class observed how the medieval perception of animals and humans had gradually shifted across centuries of unrest and death – especially with the Crusades, which underpinned some of the aforementioned texts – from one leaning towards clear separation and hierarchy to one more inclined towards co-existence, co-habitation, and kinship. In particular, Gerald of Wales’ writings on Wales and Ireland, as well as Thomas of Celano’s writings on St. Francis were discussed. A keen curiosity and love for the natural world, the extension of grace to non-human life, and a seemingly intuitive, affective means of communicating with animals both in the real world and in texts, such that they are no mere metaphors but beings with their own subjectivity… the class closed with ruminations about how it is together with animals that humans may better know themselves and the world they live in, and these animals deserve as much kindness as we would show other fellow human beings.


Aside from the aforementioned bestiary entries, the class also produced many other creative projects over the semester in response to one or more texts that they had encountered, as well as the broader theoretical and thematic concerns discussed during the course:




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Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)



This course explores encounters with death and dying in medieval literature, which seeks to understand how we might make sense of our own mortality and that of others, and how we translate loss into practices of recollection and mourning. How should we orient ourselves toward death, an event absolutely certain yet fundamentally unknowable? How can we bridge the gap between the living and the dead, and how do the dead continue to shape the social and spiritual world of the living? What is literature saying when it speaks about death, and what particular possibilities does literature offer in structuring our experience of mortality and loss?

We examine such questions through a close reading of works of medieval European literature, considering shifting beliefs about death and afterlife; ancestors, revenants, cultural memory; and the devastation of the Black Plague, the fourteenth-century epidemic which decimated Europe’s population. Recognising these texts’ historical and cultural specificity, we will also consider how they speak to contemporary concerns about the creation of human community, the politics of dead bodies, and the ethics of care, particularly in times of crisis.



The first class of this course took place in the Spring Semester of the Academic Year 2020 / 2021. As per the Medieval Romance class, this course drew students from all cohorts. Aptly taking place on Mondays and Thursdays evenings at 6pm within the former Elm Common Lounge, the course and its ambience seemed particularly apt and relevant given that the bulk of its historical context centres on the Black Death during the Middle Ages, a deadly pandemic situation that has come to characterise our time in the present as well. 

The opening readings on the Old English elegies “The Seafarer” and “The Wanderer”, along with Robert Harrison’s writing on “The Earth and Its Dead” seemed to attract interpretations across disciplines such as urban studies, archaeology, eco-criticism, and naturally, literature. Prominent ideas that came up include anthropocentrism, the dissolution of meaning, literature as a posthumous voice, questions about religious consolation, and so on.

The class then turned to examine the medieval dream vision motif and genre in texts such as Pearl (which some found themselves relating to the speaker, who is unable to truly understand the death of his late daughter, who appears and explains the afterlife in a register that is difficult to grasp) and the highly intertextual work, The Book of Duchess. Considerable time was devoted to understanding significance of dreams in the Middle Ages (notably through Macrobius’ medieval dream theory), before the poignant and hallowing motif of memento mori was explored in Audelay’s Three Dead Kings and The Pardoner’s Tale (another work by Chaucer). For the latter text, the class even had a fun time reciting the prologue of The Canterbury Tales collection in its original Middle English.

After the break from the auspicious Chinese New Year, the class came back together (ironically but with much amusement) for a deep dive into the underworld of Dante’s Inferno. Dante’s text evoked responses on both extremes, and often they oscillated across the different Cantos, with some feeling admiration for Dante’s vivid imagination at one point, and then annoyance and disbelief at some of the poet’s more controversial imagery and distinctly political assaults on his contemporaries. A good half of the class eventually produced creative projects inspired by different Cantos and elements from the text, which can be explored further below:

The Inferno Collection

Come mid-March, the class emerged from the dark woods of the Commedia to confront the Black Death proper as a significant historical event that was accompanied by a collective struggle to comprehend, articulate, and remember the collapse of the world as people knew it. The issue of social hierarchy and its collapse in the face of death, dealt with by motifs such as the danse macabre and carnivalesque, came back into the spotlight as the class continued with William Langland’s extremely allegorical poem, Piers Plowman

Mapping the various texts from the Death, Mourning, and Memory class.

Remembering, grieving, and mourning takes a noticeable turn to interiority with Montaigne’s Essais, which transitioned seamlessly into Hamlet, the final text of the semester. At which point, the ideas of death, mourning, and memory came full circle with discussions about the shifts in perception of death across the Middle Ages, different agents of death, the possibility / impossibility of human agency over death, the plurality of death and its ethical concerns (relating back to Dante’s idea of contrapasso), the individual and personal journey towards death (and understanding it), and finally, literature and storytelling in memorialising and coping with the uncertainty of mortality.


Over the semester, the class had abundant opportunities for creative responses to find unique perspectives and angles to engage with the medieval texts studied on a primary basis. Aside from ones on Inferno, the class had also produced creative projects that go beyond the usual visual format to include plays, animations, choral recordings, sculptures, and more! 


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Medieval Romance: Magic and the Supernatural (YHU2309)



This course will explore the rich world of medieval romance through the strange and often beguiling encounters with the supernatural that pervade these texts. Considering shape-shifters, marvellous objects, and experiences of the miraculous or uncanny, we will investigate how romances fashion exotic, escapist worlds that at the same time reflect contemporary values and anxieties. We will ponder what magic reveals about human motivations, especially in situations of moral ambiguity. We will pay special attention to the historical and intellectual contexts in which medieval magic was understood, and to its intersections with other spheres of knowledge such as science and theology.




The first class of this course took place in the Spring Semester of the Academic Year 2019 / 2020. The course evidently drew students from various disciplines, all with different expectations based on the course title alone. Many joined the class with a keen interest in Arthurian mythology, their impressions formed largely by the renowned BBC television series Merlin. Some were more focused on the idea of the magical and the supernatural. There were different interpretations and understandings of “romance” and how it intertwines with the magical.

The opening reading on the Lais of Marie de France easily made a great impression on the class with its playfulness and narratives with surprising developments. So did the even stranger Welsh text, The Mabinogion, capture particular interest especially with its lengthy attention on names of various warriors and figures (reception towards this piece was evidently polarised). The class had certainly spent a considerable amount of time comparing the Arthurian romances of Cligès by Chrétien de Troyes and the renowned Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg.

Some interesting class activities included students writing a snippet of their own lais, attempting to read a few lines of The Middle English Breton Lays in their original tongue, and coming up with key terms about love with short explanations. For Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the class was introduced to possible geometric forms of the poem and also had lots of good fun filming movie trailers for the text! The exercise of filming trailers turns out to be particularly suited for this text because like the text, the trailers set expectations for where the narrative will go and withhold certain information at the same time. Not to mention, critics have mentioned that the poem does have a cinematic quality to it!

An example of one of the trailers filmed for the class by YAP JIA YI (’21)NIKKI YEO YING YING (’22), & TOH HONG JIN (’23).
Envisioning the medieval motifs and tropes as a card game.

The final months of the semester was marked by the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the class quickly transitioned from needing to socially distance, to wearing masks, and finally, moving lessons online altogether. Le Morte D’Arthur served as the final stop in this journey through the medieval romance tradition. The class shared their thoughts over Zoom and connected prior texts and concepts together in their own unique ways, before the semester came to a close.


As part of their final project, some students produced creative responses to the texts read throughout the course, and a few of them even took it further, pursuing independent research into an area of the medieval literary tradition that has intrigued them over the semester.


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