MSt in Medieval Studies

Course Structure

The programme comprises the following elements:

Compulsory language classes

These are chosen from a variety of possibilities normally including:

  • (Medieval) Latin;
  • Old English;
  • Old Norse;
  • Old French;
  • Old Occitan;
  • Old High German;
  • Middle High German;
  • Old Irish;
  • Middle Welsh;
  • Greek;
  • Hebrew;
  • Arabic.

Palaeography / codicology classes

These are in the linguistic cultural contexts of the above languages.

Training in the use of original documents depends on students' familiarity with the languages in which the documents to be studied were written. The course concentrates on documents in Latin, the language of most widespread medieval use.

Reading Medieval Documents (12 classes) aims to introduce students to the study of original documents and of enrolled copies from the late eleventh century to the fifteenth century. Documents are studied in batches that illustrate a particular point about the making or use of records. Acquiring a facility in reading the documents, including the abbreviations and contractions in regular use, is the main aim of the course. The examples used, however, are selected to illustrate the principal forms of document, both official and private, in use in England during the period. This course is offered at the beginning of the Michaelmas term so that those who need to pursue their research in archives can make a start early in the year.

Overview of the history of writing 450-1500 (8 lectures). This course is an outline introduction to the potential of palaeography for dating and locating books and documents from their style of writing. It cannot cover the whole medieval period in sufficient detail to represent a training in palaeography, but it lays a foundation for students to acquire higher palaeographical skill in their particular areas of interest, and it enables them to understand palaeographical reasoning when they encounter it in secondary literature relating to manuscripts and texts.

Principles of Diplomatic (8 lectures). This course outlines the methods of diplomatic both in working out the implicit meaning of a class of documents and in testing the authenticity of individual documents. It considers how documents were produced and what influenced the forms in use. The historic unity of the European diplomatic tradition is illustrated, though the course is conducted at the general level rather than considering the special features of particular diplomatic forms. How to date undated documents and the range of chronological systems used in medieval Europe are also covered. The last lecture includes examples of the testing of documents to unmask forgery in the middle ages as well as the application of diplomatic criticism by modern scholars.

English Royal Diplomatic 990-1216 (8 two-hour lectures). A course in special diplomatic, focused on a period when the documents under review are particularly important as historical sources and when changing habits in documentary practice make the period an especially rich subject for diplomatic study. The course traces the last generations of the Anglo-Saxon royal diploma, the emergence of the Old English writ and its adoption in Latin by Anglo-Norman kings, the evolution from it of the writ-charter during the period 1070 to 1170, and its gradual eclipse by the charter generally addressed, which was the dominant form of royal grant from Henry II's time until the fourteenth century. The influence of Norman tradition in England and the extent of beneficiary diplomatic are dealt with. The course also covers the growth of central offices of government, the Exchequer and its records, in particular the twelfth-century pipe rolls, and the Chancery through the period when Chancery enrolments begin and diversify, until their temporary suspension on the death of King John. 

Option Papers

These are courses on short periods or specific themes (assessed by extended essay). Please note that not all options may be available in every year, and that they are subject to change:

his 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. 

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.

Options can also be chosen from the following programmes:

English Language and Literature

Medieval and Modern Languages


Interdisciplinary seminar and research activities

Students will attend interdisciplinary seminar in Trinity (Summer) Term, and will present work in progress on their dissertations.

In connection with the interdisciplinary seminar, a special week of additional research activities takes place each year. A particular expert in interdisciplinary medieval studies is invited to give a plenary lecture and seminar and to conduct a workshop for graduate students. This is an exciting opportunity for current students to discuss their work with a distinguished visiting scholar. Recent guest lecturers have included Caroline Walker-Bynum, Barbara Newman, Christopher Page, Jeffrey Hamburger, and William Miller.

Students will also attend a research methods workshop

The core courses for this programme consist of a research methods workshop in Michaelmas and Hilary terms, that is, a series of classes designed to address issues encountered by researchers in medieval studies at master's level, but also intended to be responsive to and shaped by student concerns. This includes a compulsory Interdisciplinary seminar to be held in Hilary Term on a theme to be chosen by the convenor. This seminar will be scheduled as part of the long-established Medieval Church and Culture seminar series. The seminar will stress the different but complementary approaches to medieval sources offered by different disciplines.

Finally, all candidates participate in a day conference to be held in Trinity Term. Students will present work in progress on their dissertations to each other and to tutors.

Candidates are also expected to participate in compulsory language classes in each of the three terms, chosen from a variety of possibilities normally including (Medieval) Latin; Old English; Old Norse; Old French; Old Occitan; Old High German; Middle High German; Old Irish; Middle Welsh; Greek; Hebrew; Arabic. The language selected should normally be closely related to the student’s work.

Candidates are required to attend Paleography/Codicology classes in one of the participating Faculties [English, or History (Medieval Latin), or Medieval and Modern Languages, or Byzantine Greek]. Depending on the language chosen this subject will be studied either in Michaelmas or in Hilary terms, or in some cases over both terms, and the assessment method and submission deadlines will be those of the chosen course.


A dissertation of no more than 12,000 words to be submitted by the end of Trinity (Summer) Term. Students will normally have two supervisors from different Faculties.
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