Medieval History

This strand offers a unique balance of breadth and depth in the study of the medieval history of Britain and Europe.  It can be taken either as a free-standing degree course or as the first step towards doctoral study.  Its emphasis is on historical skills and knowledge; applicants interested in a developing their knowledge of medieval languages or acquiring a greater level of expertise in medieval palaeography and manuscript studies are advised also to consider applying for the separate MSt programme in Medieval Studies or the MSt/MPhil programme in Late Antique and Byzantine Studies, both of which are also proven routes to a doctorate in Medieval History.

Oxford is home to probably the largest community of medieval historians historians in the world, including scholars whose research interests range from the fourth to the sixteenth century, and from Ireland to Iran.  The resources for study are equally exceptional, including the largest university library collection of medieval manuscripts, college collections of manuscripts and archives, and the fine holdings of the Ashmolean Museum.  Many of these are available digitally.  The MSt is not prescriptive about what topics you choose to study, but instead insists on intellectual rigour and excitement, whatever your choices.  You will also attend seminars given by leading experts, and have the opportunity to meet medievalists from all over the world.

Course Organisation

Alongside the Theory and Methods course, students spend their first term studying Sources and Historiography.  As well as training you to work with medieval sources in their original format, this course addresses the distinctive interpretive challenges they pose.  It also invites you to reflect on how historians’ approaches to medieval history have changed over the past two generations or so, influencing the questions, techniques and source bases used to study the Middle Ages, and how the study of the Middle Ages is situated with respect to scholars’ own times.  In Trinity Term, students will be asked to make a presentation about their own dissertation, explaining their choice of approach and how it  responds to wider questions within the historiographical landscape.

 

Skills Provision:

You are expected to take Latin (at beginners, intermediate or advanced level, depending on previous experience) and will be introduced to the study of medieval handwriting, books and documents (Palaeography and Diplomatic).  You will not be formally examined on these skills, but will be helped to take them seriously, and will have plenty of opportunity to practise them.  You will be encouraged to put them to use in an assessed essay and/or your dissertation, and will also have the opportunity to work on original manuscript books and documents from Oxford’s many collections, and elsewhere, if you wish.  In consultation with your supervisor and depending on your choice of topic, instruction in Old English and other medieval languages is available, and also in modern languages such as French, German or Italian.

 

Typical Options include:

 

Saints, alive and dead, played a central role in medieval society. This course examines the emergence of the cult of the saint in late Antiquity, and its remarkable spread over subsequent centuries. Live saints reinforced the Christian message and helped the faithful with the travails of daily life, but also represented a challenge to the authority of the established Church. Dead, their cults and their relics spread through the Christian world, encouraging, in a few notable cases, a steady stream of visitors to their graves.

This course is centred around the rich, diverse, and often beautifully written hagiography of the fourth to ninth centuries, both from the Mediterranean region and from northern Europe. It offers an opportunity to examine, across several centuries, a wide range of themes: the fascination with martyrdom; different types of sanctity (such as those available only to bishops, or to women); the role of the saint within society and within the Church; the emergence of different styles of asceticism and spirituality, from Byzantium to Ireland; how a saint was acclaimed and accepted in a period without formal processes of canonization; the extraordinary power of relics, and the attraction of pilgrimage; the often underhand ‘translation’ of holy bodies; and, finally, even the existence of doubters.

 

 

The Twelfth-Century Renaissance is an interdisciplinary paper in intellectual history designed to give students a broad overview of the content and applications of learning in the twelfth century. It therefore covers a wide range of different curricular subjects from the perspective both of their sources (the classical textual tradition of ninth-century learning; the impact of newly translated texts; the consequences of personal contact with Muslim and Jewish scholars in Sicily and the Iberian peninsula; the influence of empirical discovery) and of their application through cathedral schools and royal courts to society at large. The course comprises eight classes, organised around the seven liberal arts (the trivium and the quadrivium) and the three higher faculties of the medieval schools.

 

 

This course is structured around two key questions: what can the study of global history bring to our understanding of the Middle Ages, and what can the study of medieval history bring to the evolving field of global history? Those taking the paper will be able to enhance their understanding of medieval history by thinking more about the history and culture of regions beyond Europe during medieval centuries, about parallels and contrasts between the approaches and evidence bases used by scholars of extra-European and European history in the centuries between 500 and 1500, and about the most productive ways to conceptualise that thousand-year period in global terms.  

 

From early in the fourteenth century, the English vernacular became an increasingly important medium of public expression. It was richly, if variously, conceptualised – as the vehicle of national identity, as the rough language of ‘lewed folk’, or as the ‘common vois’ of the realm – and it was growing in vocabulary, in uniformity and in the range of written and spoken forms in which it could be used. By the end of the century, a supple literary English had been developed to rival Italian and French, ways of using English to express religious teaching had been found and exploited, and a formalised Chancery English, for use in the communications of government, was about to emerge. Skills of reading and writing were becoming more widespread in society, consciousness of the power of public writing was almost universal and awareness of the rhetorical possibilities and socio-political implications of the new vernacular was spreading. These developments were full of importance for the public aspects of contemporary life. While Habermas’ notion of a ‘public sphere’ raises a cloud of problems for medieval historians, most of us would accept that in these centuries, some kind of ‘public’ existed, and that the English vernacular rapidly became one of its most important and legitimate media. This course aims to explore the implications of that central cultural, social and political development. Although its importance has long been recognised by scholars of Middle English literature, it is a relatively new area of concern for the mainstream historians of the period, and one which opens up new possibilities for the understanding of later medieval political culture, religion and social interaction. Among the issues to be explored in the seminars for this course will be:

  • The meaning and measuring of literacy
  • The ‘public’ as concept and reality
  • The conceptualisation of the vernacular and its significance
  • Literary English and social English (perhaps involving some thinking about the relationship between historical and literary approaches to the ‘rise of English’)
  • The use of French and Latin in a vernacular age 
  • The circulation of written materials (manuscripts and the book trade)
  • ‘Lollardy and Literacy’: religious instruction in the vernacular
  • Bills, libels and pamphlets: vernacular politics
  • The vernacular transmission of notions of society
  • A new paradigm: problems of methodology and integration with mainstream understanding.

 

Throughout the degree, students work towards a dissertation.  Recent topics have included: 

  • Pagans and Christians in late Roman North Africa
  • From Roman-Briton to Anglo-Saxon: changing conceptions of fourth- to sixth-century identity
  • Marriage and family in Gregory of Tours
  • Saxon monastic life and Carolingian politics
  • The Apocalypse in eighth and ninth century Iberia
  • Virginity and female sanctity in late Anglo-Saxon England
  • Lordship and the evidence of charter diplomatic in twelfth-century Normandy
  • Jews, blood, Christians, and privies in medieval England
  • Gendering the common voice in later medieval England
  • Marriage as resolution in Rape Cases
  • The translation of saints' relics as political ritual
  • The Order of St John and the problem of sovereignty in Outremer
  • Images of self and others in medieval Serb, Ragusan and Bosnian sources
  • The logic of political conflict in late medieval Tournai
  • Images of community and the question of urban estate in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Poznan
  • Material culture and the creation of meaning in late medieval wills

Faculty and Research Culture

Oxford’s medieval history community is led by Professor Julia Smith, a specialist in the early medieval west.  There are particular concentrations of expertise in late antique and early medieval history; Byzantine history; medieval political cultures, especially Britain and France; intellectual history; material culture; religious and cultural history; women and gender.  Thinking about the global dimensions of medieval history has been a growing focus of interest in recent years.

Faculty postholders in these fields include:

More information on our academics and their subjects, please search within our people section.

In addition to our own research, graduate students come together with teaching and research staff in research seminars to hear speakers including doctoral students, external and internal to the university.  The weekly Medieval History research seminar is enhanced by a dozen other seminars or workshops in Medieval History and/or Medieval Studies (for example, there are seminars in Medieval Church and Culture, Late Antique and Byzantine Art and Archaeology, Medieval English).  A termly booklet provides a convenient roundup of the many seminars, workshops and conferences within Oxford.

Major research projects further enhance Oxfords research culture, including:

Admissions Questions

We normally take about c.12 MSt students and one or two MPhil students in this area, but numbers vary from year to year and we are able to be flexible.  If you have any questions about our admissions procedure, please check the University admissions pages and/or contact Graduate Admissions. If you have any questions about studying this topic at Oxford, please contact the Convener.

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