HST6079: Early Medieval Clerical Exemption in a Digital Age

HST6079 Image

15 credits (Semester 2018-19: Spring)

Module Leader: Dr Charles West

Please note that this module is subject to approval.

Module Summary

'The way that clerics claimed, and were sometimes granted, immunity from secular justice is a key characteristic of the medieval Latin West. This course explores this question from its Roman origins through to its explosion in the twelfth century. But there's a twist: we'll also use this specific issue to think about how digital technology is changing how historians do research, and how they disseminate it. What's exciting about this course is how the Middle Ages meet the 21st century.' Dr Charles West

The attempt by clerics to win exemption from public or royal law courts is perhaps most often associated today with Archbishop Thomas Becket, martyred in 1170. But by that date the issue already had a long history behind it, reaching back to the Roman Empire. This course tracks that history, from the age of Constantine the Great to Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral. In doing so, it revisits a topic beloved by 19th-century historians, the supposed ‘clash’ between Church and State in the Middle Ages – and sheds fresh light on the dynamics that were really at work.

It’s not only the approach that’s fresh, though. This course situates early medieval history in a global public humanities context, because the assessment for this course revolves around editing, and improving, Wikipedia’s coverage of this scholarly topic, as well as reflecting on how resources like Wikipedia are rapidly changing how historians communicate with each other and with a global public. In the seminars, we’ll discuss questions and problems of society between the fourth and twelfth century, but we’ll also think about the 21st century. What does Wikipedia mean for the historian, and for the study of the human past – including the early Middle Ages?

Module aims

This module aims to:

  1. Introduce students to a key issue in early medieval history, the relation of clerics to public and royal courts;
  2. Explore and critically evaluate the historiography and sources for clerical claims for exemption in the early Middle Ages;
  3. Introduce students to practical and intellectual issues surrounding the dissemination of historical knowledge in general, and knowledge about early medieval clerical exemption in particular, through the free and editable online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, you should be able to:

  1. Describe the changes in clerical exemption between c. 400 and c. 1200 (Aim 1);
  2. Demonstrate a critical awareness of the historiography about and sources for developments in clerical exemption in the early Middle Ages (A2);
  3. Demonstrate a practical ability to edit Wikipedia pages (A3);
  4. Explain the knowledge politics around and implications for scholarly study of open access digital public humanities such as Wikipedia (A3).


Learning hours
Seminar hours Tutorial hours Independent Learning
10 1 139

This module will be taught in five two-hour seminars. Each of these seminars will address an aspect of early medieval clerical exemption (Learning Outcome 1) that together address how the issue evolved (LO2), alongside an aspect of digital public humanities (LO4), with particular reference to Wikipedia, including a practical demonstration in seminar 3 (LO3). You will, in addition, have individual tutorial contact with the module leader to discuss your written work for this module.

Provisional seminar topics are:

  1. The Christian Clergy under late Roman Law/The Rise of Wikipedia
  2. Clerical Exemption in Late Antiquity/Why edit Wikipedia?
  3. Clerical Exemption in Carolingian Francia/How to edit Wikipedia
  4. Eleventh-century Europe/Problematising Wikipedia
  5. Becket and Beyond/Wikipedia and the Future of History



Assessment methods
Assessment % of final mark Length
Coursework 100% 1500 words

A 1500 word essay, reflecting on your personal Wikipedia editing process. 

The essay will address the following points:

  1. What changes you have made to Wikipedia in relation to clerical exemption (with reference to screen shots included as an appendix) (LO1, LO3)
  2. Why the student made these changes to these pages: i.e., how the changes made have improved the online encylopedia’s presentation of the theme in relation to the current historiographical interpretation of the sources (LO2)
  3. The way the free-to-access and user-edited character of Wikipedia, alongside its stress on ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’, shapes the presentation of historical research in the specific cases of these pages (LO4)


Selected reading

  • L. Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism (London, 2014)
  • P. Thoneman, ‘The all-conquering Wikipedia?’, Times Literary Supplement, May 2016 (free access)



*The content of our courses is reviewed annually to make sure it's up-to-date and relevant. Individual modules are occasionally updated or withdrawn. This is in response to discoveries through our world-leading research; funding changes; professional accreditation requirements; student or employer feedback; outcomes of reviews; and variations in staff or student numbers. In the event of any change we'll consult and inform students in good time and take reasonable steps to minimise disruption.