Ger 312 War, Death, and the Hero in Medieval Literature

Course materials: GER-312

Ger 312: War, Death, and the Hero in Medieval Literature: Beowulf, Nibelungenlied, and El Poema de Mío Cid

All reading materials will be available online free of charge.

This course can count toward the Cultural Minor in German Studies or toward the THEMATIC MINOR IN MEDIEVAL STUDIES. It is also a Gen Ed. refresh course, open to students across campus, for history, English, creative writing, anthropology, etc.

It addresses pan-European heroic epics, including examples from Old English, Old and Middle High German, Old French, Old Spanish, and Old Icelandic. The question we will address concerns the issue of heroism, war, death, and how the individual protagonist handles questions regarding honor, God, respect, happiness, and death.

INSTRUCTOR: Prof. Albrecht Classen, Dept. of German Studies, 301 Learning Services Building, Office 318; tel. 621-1395;;

OFFICE HOURS: Mo and We 11a.m.-12 p.m., and any other time after appointment (but always feel free simply to stop by at my office, email me, call me to make sure that I am in). For the online course, all this has to happen through email:



The course addresses pan-European heroic epics, including examples from Old English, Old and Middle High German, Old French, Old Spanish, and Old Icelandic. The questions we will address concern the issue of heroism, war, death, and how the individual protagonist handles questions regarding honor, God, mutual respect, happiness, and death. This course will introduce students to a humanist perspective, through the example of the European/German genre of the heroic epic and the ways in which these stories deal with war and death. By reading, interpreting, analyzing, and discussing some of the most important epics from the Middle Ages to modern day responses to these texts, students will explore how different cultures have made sense of these core human experiences in different historical moments.

Introduce students to at least four of the most important European/German heroic epics and to challenge them in their thinking about war and death, and the role of the hero with its underlying ideology. We will discuss these epics and probe different perspectives and interpretations. Students will become familiar with major epic poems and understand how much war and death have been with us forever, forming part of human experience and suffering. Moreover, the readings of our epic poems will lead us automatically to a discussion of the role of the hero and heroism. Sometimes the hero emerges as an entirely positive figure, but in some texts, we also discover negative features. A true hero is not simply a superman, god-like, but an individual who grows to the occasion and succeeds in overcoming his/her own weakness.

In specifics:

  1. Students will first encounter literary texts from the Middle Ages (pan-European) and identify specific themes, topics, and concerns expressed in them.
  2. Through the critical discussion of heroic performances, suffering, and death, students will gain an understanding of the wider implications of this topic, the hero and his/her challenges, both beyond the literary realm and the historical past. Heroic epics have always been used for modern-day ideologies, such as nationalism, fascism, and expansionism. Museal objects such as swords and architectural elements (castles), banners, images, now also movies, and video games have contributed to the strong reception of heroic concepts, often abusing them for political ends. In short, students will gain the critical tools from these medieval epic poems to examine rationally modern-day ideologies whenever those are predicated on medieval heroism.
  3. Combining the study of medieval epic poems with the study of modern-day reception history, students will learn to recognize the hidden messages in much of present-day ideologies. While the class will focus on the medieval texts, students will develop presentations on modern-day receptions (video games, card games, movies, etc.).
  4. Students will practice the perspective of the humanist via close readings and critical analysis, and respond to those in short papers throughout the semester.


of a hero and to examine critically epic poems that deal with war and death.

We live in a world deeply determined by our historical past. Politics, social conditions, religions, the arts, and literature derive much inspiration from the Middle Ages, such as heroic epics. Students will learn in this course how to respond to those sources, recognize their impact on our modern ideologies, and offer critical comments through writing. Students will be exposed to writing throughout the course and will have opportunities for revision.

Writing Requirements:

3 essays: 15% each = 45%

In-class writing via Top Hat: 15%

Total: 60%

  1. Learning how to analyze literary texts and using the acquired insights for a critical examination of modern-day political ideologies, such as the role of the hero (masculinity, leadership, etc.)
  2. Comprehending a major component of European medieval and early modern literature, the heroic epic poem (in Old English, Old Spanish, and Middle High German), and recognizing its long-term reception history esp. since the late eighteenth century, with its huge impact on modern politics, social conditions, economics, religion, and the arts.

Students will provide extensive written responses to cues given in class and submit critical essays in various genres.

Course Objectives:

1.    Discuss the role of the hero, war, honor, dignity, and the fight against external forces.

2.    Exploring the literary genre of the heroic epic poem.

3.    Defining and describing the hero.

4.    Learning to decipher the messages about a hero both as a seemingly idealized character and as an often rather dubious individual.

5.    Recognizing the huge impact of medieval heroic epics on modern-day ideologies (e.g., Nazi ideology, modern-day nationalis)

6.    Identifying specific elements that make or break a hero in literary, artistic, ideological, and social terms.

7.    Explaining the enormous importance of studying medieval, if not all, literature from a cultural-historical perspective.

8.    Understanding a more global approach to the genre of heroic epic.

Writing attribute:

Students will produce a portfolio demonstrating their ability to think in humanist terms focusing on one heroic epic. To do this, students will trace its role in the Middle Ages and then its reception in the modern world by critically analyzing examples in the visual arts, literature, music, and hence in politics. They will learn how to contextualize the literary works within the contemporary framework and gain an understanding of how to engage with research literature through a critical review of at least one scholarly article as part of the portfolio. They will reflect on the medieval and the modern responses to the central issues expressed in the texts and thus establish a humanist approach to their own culture. Those written reflections will be a central part of the portfolio, which consists of

historical artwork



a review essay

and a critical paper on that specific topic.

COURSE MATERIAL: 1. Old English Beowulf; 2. Middle High German Nibelungenlied; 3. Old Spanish El Poema de Mío Cid. All texts available in solid and affordable paperbacks (Penguin), and available through the UA Bookstore. There are also online text versions, but their quality is not sufficient; they are not reliable, and come in archaic English. For the introduction and throughout, we will read shorter epic poems, such as the Old High German Hildebrandslied, the Wanderer, the Battle of Maldon, etc. These will be made available through D2L.

Signature Attribute: Students will produce a portfolio focusing on one heroic epic, tracing its role in the Middle Ages and then its reception in the modern world in the visual arts, literature, music, and hence in politics. They will learn how to contextualize the literary works within the contemporary framework and gain an understanding of how to engage with research literature through a critical review of at least one scholarly article as part of the portfolio. They will reflect on the medieval and the modern perspectives and thus establish a critical approach to their own culture in response to the medieval texts that continue to be very much alive today in popular culture (e.g.: the notion of the “Dolchstosslegende” used by the Nazis most effectively). Engaging with the Old Spanish Poema de Mio Cid, for instance, they will gain the necessary tools to reflect on honor, exile, slander, and individuality. Those reflections will be part of the portfolio, which consists of historical artwork, architecture, bibliographies, a review essay, and a critical paper on that specific topic.

Accessibility and Accommodations
At the University of Arizona, we strive to make learning experiences as accessible as possible. If you anticipate or experience barriers based on disability or pregnancy, please contact the Disability Resource Center (520-621-3268, to establish reasonable accommodations.


Although it is assumed that you will attend all class sessions, you are informed hereby that excessive absences will have consequences. For details see below in the grading section. If justified circumstances prevent you from attending, please inform me in writing either before or after the event and provide satisfactory documentation (e.g., a doctor’s note). I will call out or post, at random, a group of students’ names to verify your attendance. So be forewarned. You need to come up to me and show me your Catcard at the end of class. Online course: we’ll meet 10 times online in chatrooms or zoom. Attendance: If you attend most of the time (10 (A=10 pts), 9 (B = 9 pts), 8 (C = 8 pts), 7 (D = 7 pts), 6- (F = you failed this class; I understand that this is a big jump, but attendance is a requirement).

Participating in the course and attending lectures and other course events are vital to the learning process. As such, attendance is required at all lectures and discussion section meetings. Absences may affect a student’s final course grade. If you anticipate being absent, are unexpectedly absent, or are unable to participate in class online activities, please contact me as soon as possible. To request a disability-related accommodation to this attendance policy, please contact the Disability Resource Center at (520) 621-3268 or If you are experiencing unexpected barriers to your success in your courses, the Dean of Students Office is a central support resource for all students and may be helpful. The Dean of Students Office is located in the Robert L. Nugent Building, room 100, or call 520-621-7057.


Please treat each other with respect and tolerance. People do have different views and opinions, but all these can only contribute to the rich learning experience I hope you all will have in this class. You are strongly encouraged to participate in class as much as possible. The two class meetings per week will only be of profit for you if you respond to my questions and those of your classmates.

For information on the University of Arizona Policy on Threatening Behavior by Students, click on this link:

CELL PHONES and all other electronic gadgets: You are not allowed to have your cell phones, smart phones, etc. on during class because a ringing will disturb everyone strongly. Either turn them off or mute them. All other electronic gadgets not pertinent to this class, such as iphone, ipads, etc., must also be off. They must all be put away. No playing around with texting, etc., openly or secretly. I need your full attention, and you are in class in order to learn and study, not to communicate with people on the outside. BTW, I will not have any of those gadget with me either and will be totally focused on you.

HONORS CONTRACTS: “Students who enter The Honors College as freshmen may fulfill up to 12 units (maximum 6 lower-division) through contracts. Students who enter the Honors College as sophomores may fulfill up to 9 units (maximum 3 lower-division) through contracts.  Students who enter The Honors College as juniors may fulfill six Honors credits through contracts.”  See also: “The work assigned as a result of the Contract should not determine the student’s final grade. That is, the fact that the student is working for Honors credit does not guarantee a high grade. Final grades should reflect the quality and content of all of the student’s work in the course.” ( The honors experience should involve not quantity but quality of further research, allowing a student in the Honors College taking this class to gain deeper and broader understanding of the class material. This might entail the study of some relevant research papers, which should result in an extra paper or oral presentation, or the study of additional material expanding the horizon as aimed for in this course.


SPECIAL NEEDS: Students with disabilities who require reasonable accommodations to participate fully in course activities or meet course requirements must register with the Disability Resource Center. Students need to submit appropriate documentation to the instructor if they are requesting reasonable accommodations.


If you use secondary material for your papers, make sure that you indicate clearly where you took it from. Plagiarism and cheating violate the Code of Academic Integrity. For further information, see:



Do not ever copy from the work produced by published authors, by your classmates, by other students who might have taken this course in previous semesters, or by yourself in a previous or parallel class. If you receive help in writing your papers, make sure that the final outcome still represents your own work. You can discuss your papers with your fellow students, but at the end they need to consist of your own ideas and words! Be advised that the Web is a great search tool, but never, never copy from there without identifying very clearly what you used (and then only sparingly). At this point the scholarly value of web-based material still is not totally reliable, and the chances that you might stumble upon a most dubious webpage with untrustworthy information are very high. When you quote from a secondary source, clearly identify the quote and tell the reader in a footnote where you quoted it from. Every year more than 800 students at the UA are caught having committed the crime of plagiarism, resulting in penalties that could be as severe as expulsion from the University! You are smart enough not to copy from other people.

If there is any doubt in your mind whether you might commit plagiarism, see:

Plagiarism and the Web

If you commit plagiarism, you could either receive a 0 on your specific assignment, or an F for the entire course. Depending on the gravity of the case, you might even be expelled from the University. Every plagiarism case must be reported to the head of my dept., to the head of your dept., and to the Dean of Students.

Help with writing: The Writing Skills Improvement Program offers a number of valuable workshops at 1201 E. Helen Street. Please consult with them if you have a need to improve your writing skills (no walk-ins). For perhaps more immediate help, see the Writing Center: (walk-ins allowed). Tel.: 621-5849

Writing Center: The Writing Center is a free resource for UA undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty and staff. At the Writing Center, a trained peer consultant will work individually with you on anything you’re writing (in or out of class), at any point in the writing process from brainstorming to editing. Appointments are recommended, but not required. For more information or to make an appointment, visit their website at, stop by at 1201 E Helen St., main level, or call (520) 626-0530.?

GRADING: (100 percent total):

1. Attendance: 10%your attendance is a given; you will lose points, however, for excessive unexcused absences: 10-12 (A), 8-9 (B = – 3%), 6-7 (C = – 6%), 4-5 (D = – 8%), 2-3 (F = you failed this class; I understand that this is a big jump, but attendance is a requirement) = 10%. For the online course, there will be some flexibility as to the total meeting times.

2. 3 papers: 20%, 20%, 20% = 60%

3. 1 essay-based final exam: 30%= 30%

Each paper will be graded as follows (different in the winter course, when I’ll give you essay questions)

Must be typed, with at least 1″ margin on all sides, at least 12 points letter size. Bring the print-out to class when paper is due. Submit also in electronic form to the Assigment box in D2L, though only the paper copy will count. Keep in mind that each paper will be automatically examined as to the degree of similarities with other papers (turnitin software!). When there is suspicion of plagiarism, I will call you in for a conference, and the consequences for plagiarism might be very harsh. Do not write your paper together with a classmate, though you can, of course, discuss the topics with him/her. If you copy from another paper/chapter/article in print or online, without acknowledging the author and without indicating the extent to which you have copied by means of quotation marks and references, you commit plagiarism.

For the online course, only Assignment submission! And I will give you essay questions, so ignore the section below.

Thesis: Concisely developed, clear concept, well formulated (avoid paraphrase!). Always provide a title that captures your thesis. 20 pts

Argument: Good use of original text to illustrate the thesis; complex argument based on a solid knowledge of the text; convincing organization. 50 pts. If you do not engage with at least one critical secondary source, loss of 15 points, if only fleetingly or superficially, loss of 10 points.

Conclusion: Convincing connection with the thesis, good summary of the argument, final comment on the outside source (negatively or positively), concise formulation; 20 pts.

Outside Sources: You must engage with at least one pertinent outside source for each paper, i.e., a critical study of recent vintage (preferably not from prior to 1970!). Bring in the author’s opinion and use it either to support your own argument or demonstrate why you believe that the other opinion misreads the text. [does not apply to our online course]

Format: Write down your first last name, SI, class, instructor, term, year on the top of your paper. Next follows the title. Next the thesis in bold.

At the end of your paper write a statement and sign it that this is your own piece of work and that you did not receive outside help.

Stylistics: 10 pts: Correct use of grammar and diction, sophisticated use of vocabulary, complex sentence structure.

LENGTH: Each paper should consist of ca. 800-1000 words.

Always submit a hard copy and upload a version to the assignment file on D2L! You must do both (for the online course, only electronic copy)!

Bibliography: See, for instance, my Handbook of Medieval Studies, ed. A. C. (Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 2010; online in the library). Familiarize yourself with the various research sources in our library (MLA, JSTOr, etc.). Your outside sources ought to focus on the specific topic that you are addressing. The studies that you will consult cannot be from prior to 1960 (the older ones are not necessarily bad, but for learning experiences it is necessary for you to consult the latest research).

How to cite your secondary source/s :

Trumpener, Katie. “Memories Carved in Granite: Great War Memorials and Everyday Life.” PMLA 115 (2000): 1096-103. – this is a journal article

Hanks, Patrick. “Do Word Meanings Exist?” Computers and the Humanities 34 (2000): 205-15. – this is a journal article

Kurlansky, Mark. Salt. A World (New York: Scribner’s, 2001). – this is a monograph!

Niiranen, Susanna. “At the Crossroads of Religion, Magic, Science and Written Culture.” Mental Health, Spirituality, and Religion in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age, ed. Albrecht Classen. Fundamentals of Medieval and Early Modern Culture, 15. Berlin and Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2014. 290-313. – this is an article in an edited volume

“Selected Seventeenth-Century Events,” Romantic Chronology. Ed. Laura Mandell and Alan Liu. 1999. U of California, Santa Barbara. 12 November 2003 <;. (last accessed on Month, date, year) – this is an online source

You must use this format! Otherwise loss of points.

Reading list (all online links at the D2L site for our course):




El poema de mio Cid


2 papers, 1 exam; I’ll provide you with questions for each.


Paper 1: 30%

Paper 2: 30%

Paper 3: 30 %

Attendance/chatrooms: 10%


You must attend at least 10 chatroom meetings, otherwise loss of points.

Week one (starts on Dec. 20): historical background: Chatroom meeting 1, 8 p.m. Read the introduction by Amt. I’ll provide you with specific questions.

Read the article by Emily Amt and A. Classen (online)

Week 1, July 10: Chatroom or zoom meeting 1: July 10, 8 p.m. (subsequent meeting times still need to be updated). We read the historical article, then turn to Beowulf

Chat: July 12

Chat: July 14

Week 2: July 17-23: Continue with Beowulf, and turn to the Nibelungenlied, halfway through

Chat : July 17

Chat: July 19

Chat: July 21

1st paper due July 22, 8 p.m.

Week 3: July 24-30: finishing the Nibelungenlied

Chat: July 25

Chat: July 28

2nd paper due July 30, 8 p.m.

Week 4: July 31-August 6: El Poema de Mio Cid

Chat: July 31

Chat: Aug. 3

Chat: Aug. 6

Week 5: Aug. 7-13: Song of Waltharius

Chat: Aug. 8

Chat: Aug. 11

3rd paper is due Aug. 11, 8 p.m.

Chat: Aug. 13

Aug. 14: Last day of class

Reading pace is only approximate; it’s up to you how fast you can/want to read, but be prepared to have finished the relevant sections when we meet.

Dec. 22: finish reading Amt; Beowulf: ch. 1-8

Dec. 23: Beowulf, ch. 9-16

Chatroom meeting 2: Dec. 23, 8 p.m.

Dec. 24: Beowulf, ch. 17-25

Dec. 25: Beowulf, ch. 26-32

Dec. 26: Beowulf, ch. 33-40

Chatroom meeting 3: Dec. 26, 8 p.m.

Sun., Dec. 23: 1st paper is due, 5 p.m.: I’ll provide you with questions reg. the early, high, and late Middle Ages, based on the article, and reg. Beowulf  (early part only)

Dec. 27: NL 1-8

Dec. 28: NL 9-14

Chatroom meeting 4: Dec. 28,  8 p.m.: We begin with the Nibelungenlied

Dec. 29: 15-20

Dec. 30: 21-24

Chatroom meeting 5: Dec. 30, 8 p.m.

Dec. 31: 24-29

Jan. 1: 30-33

Chatroom meeting 6: Jan. 1, 8 p.m.

Jan. 2: 34-39

Chatroom meeting 7: Jan. 4, 8 p.m.: Concluding the Nibelungenlied ; I’ll provide questions for your 2nd paper

2nd paper is due Jan. 1, 5 p.m.: Beowulf and NL

Chatroom meeting 8: Jan. 4, 8 p.m.: El Poema de Mio Cid (we read the first half):

Chatroom meeting 9: Jan. 4, 8 p.m., El Poema (second half)

Chatroom meeting 10: Jan. 6, 8 p.m.: Chanson de Roland (first half)

Chatroom meeting 11: Jan. 9, 12 p.m. (in preparation for the exam)

Final exam due, Jan. 11, at 8 p.m. (essay questions; I’ll post them a few days early)

Last day of class: Jan. 12, individual meetings, as needed.

Regular semester syllabus:

Week 1: early and high Middle Ages (internal and external challenges), growth of medieval society, development of literature, the role of the Church

Week 2: late Middle Ages, transition to the Renaissance (epidemics, technological revolutions, discoveries, decline of the Church, reform)

Weeks 3: The hero, heroic poetry, oral poetry versus literacy (I’ll provide excerpts of theoretical material); research material specifically for Beowulf will be identified. This will provide the basis for the rest of the class: what characterizes heroic epics, when and where were they composed, in what language, how do we approach them today from a scholarly perspective (again, oral poetry, modern performances of Beowulf, for instance)

We also will start with Beowulf, chapters 1-8

Week 4: Beowulf: chapters 9-20

Week 5: Beowulf, chapters 21-43; paper one (20%) due by the end of week 5

Week 6: Nibelungenlied, chapters 1-10 (each chapter consists of ca. 4-8 pp.

Week 7: Nibelungenlied, chapters 11-28 (then we skip chapters 29-33)

Midterm exam: end of week 7 (20%): This will test your understanding of the historical-cultural background and your concepts about these two major heroic epics.

Grader will review your paper a second time only within 7 days after the original has been returned to you. Re-grading, of course, does not guarantee a better grade, although that is the goal based on improved quality. The second grade will be the only one that will count.

Week 8: Nibelungenlied, chapters 34-39

Week 9: Old French Roland: This consists of ca. 300 laisses, ca. 10 line stanzas. We will read laisses 1-110, exploring how the shining hero Roland is challenged by his father-in-law Genelon, and then faces his own hubris in fighting against the Muslims.

Week 10: Roland, laisses 111-200: Fall of the Paladins, calling back of Charlemagne

Week 11: Roland, laisses 201-298; paper two (20%) due by the end of week 11 (you can write either on Roland or on the Nibelungenlied)

Paper two can be rewritten after it has been graded; rewrite paper will be due one week after the first version has been returned. When you turn in your rewrite, you must include the following items or it will not be considered for a revised grade:

1. The original hard copy you submitted with the grader’s comments.

2. Your “new”/revised copy: Any and all revisions/edits MUST SHOW IN BOLD FONT. Yes, you need to staple your paper and include a proper heading (your name, student ID #, class name, Dr. Classen’s name, date and word count)

3.  Both items must be put in a folder and turned in at the start of class.

4. Revision must go beyond a few cosmetic changes and must reveal a thorough rewriting based on a critical re-evaluation of your thesis or arguments.

So, to review: In a folder, you submit 1) the original hard copy 2) your new, revised version with all revisions and edits in BOLD FONT.   New version is stapled and has proper heading.  Due date: tba

Week 12: El Poema de Mío Cid: Old Spanish heroic epic, 152 stanzas altogether, we will begin with a discussion of El Cid’s expulsion, exile, and early struggles for his honor: stanzas 1-60

Week 13: El Poema de Mío Cid: stanzas 61-100: success, victories, his daughters’ marriage, and the failure of the sons-in-law

Week 14: El Poema de Mío Cid: defeat of the opponents, public triumph, recognition by the king; paper three (20%) due by the end of week 14

Week 15: Brief excerpt from the Njal’s Saga (Old Icelandic saga): review of the concept of heroism and heroic literature, cumulative discussion of the course concepts: war, death, and the hero.

Third and final exam (20%; this will be comprehensive), date tba

Possible Changes: The information contained in the course syllabus, other than the grade and absence policies, may be subject to change with reasonable advance notice, as deemed appropriate by the instructor.

Final Grade Review: If there might be a problem with your grade, you can ask me for a review until: date to be determined (shortly before finals week is over). Beyond that, there will not be any opportunity to revisit your grade.