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Premodern Race and Gender

Key information

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Module description

This module traces the premodern histories of contemporary constructions of ‘Race’ and ‘Gender’, exploring the figuration of these concepts in (mainly) non-dramatic texts from Old English to the seventeenth-century. Together we will read works including Old English texts scrutinizing the practices of slavery, early modern women’s conduct books, the diplomatic correspondence between Elizabeth I and the Ottoman “Sultana” Safiye, travel writings by Leo Africanus and Al-Hasan al-Wazzan, and Zadie Smith’s reimagining of Chaucer, The Wife of Willesden. We will draw upon important recent scholarship in Premodern Critical Race Theory, Post-Colonial Theory, Gender Studies, Trans Studies and Queer Temporalities, in order to trace how premodern texts helped to construct, perpetuate, challenge, critique or explore ideas of race and gender, and how this has shaped our field and our world today. Spanning Medieval and Early Modern literature, the module will be co-taught by specialists in these fields. As such, we will also address the role periodization – the construct by which we define and segregate fields of literary study according to time period - has played in establishing power structures that have fostered inequality. We ask how we can work to dismantle such structures in our classrooms today. 

Assessment details

 Portfolio [3 x 1000 word essays or commentaries on creative tasks] (100%)

Educational aims & objectives

This module aims to:

  • Provide a pre-history for the study of Race and Gender on other modules at King's
  • Offer a new focus on Race and Gender in non-dramatic texts from Old English to c.1600, complementing existing modules
  • Offer a more welcoming and equitable classroom by teaching in more accessible ways (including an assessment designed to give all students chance to show their different strengths)
  • Place each of the terms in the module title under critical scrutiny, learning from the students as well as them learning from us
  • Foster collaboration across time periods/fields by involving co-teaching from Medieval and Early Modern colleagues and placing periodization itself under scrutiny
  • Fulfil level 5 band 1 requirement (all students in English are required to take at least four modules at level 5 designated 'band 1' - these are modules focused on pre-1800 texts)

Learning outcomes

On successful completion of this module, students will be able to demonstrate their ability to:

  • Think critically about constructs of ‘Race’ and ‘Gender’ drawing upon a range of theoretical models, modern and premodern
  • Rethink our contemporary understanding of ‘Race’ and ‘Gender’ in the light of their studies of premodernity, showing awareness of the ways these constructs – and critique of them - have developed over time and are not solely modern
  • Consider the role periodization has played in the development of these constructs
  • Analyse texts in a way that attends to the power structures implicit within them, recognizing the impact of such constructs upon the texts but also of the texts upon shaping and furthering these inequalities in turn
  • Show greater sensitivity to language and the way it contains and perpetuates implicit racial and gender inequalities; consider how we can redress this
  • Write in a way attuned to such issues and discuss them with sensitivity and maturity; reflect upon their own critical language

Teaching pattern

 1 x one-hour lecture and 1 x 1-hour seminar, weekly

Suggested reading list

Anon., Beowulf, trans. Maria Dahvana Headley (Macmillan, 2020)

Leo Africanus, Selected Writings

Al-Hasan al-Wazzan, Selected Writings

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

Chaucer, The Knight’s Tale from The Canterbury Tales (c.1400)

Lady Anne Clifford, excerpts from The Memoir of 1603 and Diaries of 1616-19, ed. Katherine O. Acheson (2006)

Elizabeth I, Collected Works, ed. Leah S. Marcus, Janel Mueller and Mary Beth Rose (Chicago, 2000)

Mihri Hatun, Selected Poems

Dorothy Leigh, The Mother’s Blessing (1616)

Elizabeth Jocelyn, The Mother’s Legacy to Her Unborn Child (1624)

Three Letters from the Ottoman “Sultana” Safiye to Queen Elizabeth I

William Shakespeare, Sonnets (1609); The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613)

Rachel Speght, A Mouzell for Melastomus (1617), Esther Sowenam, Ester Hath Hang’d Haman (1617

Isabella Whitney’s ‘Will and Testament’ in A Sweet Nosegay (1573)

Zadie Smith, The Wife of Willesden (2021)

Subject areas


Module description disclaimer

King’s College London reviews the modules offered on a regular basis to provide up-to-date, innovative and relevant programmes of study. Therefore, modules offered may change. We suggest you keep an eye on the course finder on our website for updates.

Please note that modules with a practical component will be capped due to educational requirements, which may mean that we cannot guarantee a place to all students who elect to study this module.

Please note that the module descriptions above are related to the current academic year and are subject to change.