MSt in Medieval History

Course Structure

The course comprises the following elements:

Core Seminars (Michaelmas Term)

Students will attend a core seminar, meeting weekly in Michaelmas (Autumn) Term, which will concentrate on the various approaches to medieval history of historians in the last fifty years, and will be assessed by a 3000 to 5000 word essay.

This paper is designed as an introduction to the ways historians have discussed the middle ages since 1945. It focusses on the methods historians use and the issues they think are most important; and on how these have changed in cutting-edge history-writing in the last fifty years. The time frame will cover writing on the whole of the middle ages, and into the sixteenth century in some cases; the focus in every case will, however, be on the historians, not the period those historians were or are studying. Historians tend not to be very explicit about their theoretical approaches, for both good and bad reasons, so this seminar concentrates for the most part on the empirical work of leading historians; what their underlying assumptions are, and the success of their methods, will be discussed and critiqued in the seminar sessions. Topics discussed will include the Annales school, British Marxist historiography, prosopography, historical anthropology, cultural and gender history, and the linguistic turn.

Daily Classes (Michaelmas Term)

Students will also attend daily classes for the first four weeks of Michaelmas Term on:

  • the history of script in the middle ages
  • reading medieval documents.

Optional Paper (Hilary Term)

This class will meet weekly during Hilary (Spring) term, and will allow the exploration of a specific period and/or theme of medieval history of the student's choice. Students will be expected to submit one essay of between 8,000 and 10,000 words based on this course. Please note that options are subject to change from year to year, depending on the availability of expert tuition:

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. 

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

Weekly Seminar (Trinity Term)

Students will attend a weekly seminar in Trinity (Summer) Term in which they will each be expected to make a presentation.


A dissertation of up to 15,000 words on the candidate’s own research topic must be submitted in August.

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