HST6601: Approaching the Middle Ages

HST6601 Image - Codex Amiatinus

30 credits (Semester: Autumn)

Module Leader 2019-20: Professor Martial Staub

Module Summary

'Life in the Middle Ages was 'nasty, brutish, and short': Thomas Hobbes' famously reductive comment will be challenged throughout this module as we encounter a broad range of sources to reveal a sophisticated and inter-connected world during a dynamic period of change and development.' Dr Máirín MacCarron

This core module provides you with a grounding in key themes and debates in current medieval research. Classes will focus on historiographical developments and new methodological approaches to familiar problems, covering topics such as the problems of studying pre-industrial societies, the interpretation of material culture, methods for studying the medieval economy, and the examination of power structures and political culture. You will also be introduced to technical and methodological problems associated with the effective use and interpretation of pre-modern sources, such as court records, tax records and accounts, chronicles and pamphlets, paintings, drawings and artefacts.

Module aims

This module aims to introduce students intending to specialise in the history of the middle ages to key themes and debates in current medieval research and to provide you with the technical skills you need in order to do such research yourself.

The core module therefore aims to equip you with the historiographical grounding and methodological understanding with which to underpin your own independent research. Seminar classes will be used to address historiographical developments in the field and introduce you to broad range of themes and key issues in medieval history. Alongside this focus on interpretations of the Middle Ages in modern scholarship, you will be introduced to the technical and methodological problems involved in using the source materials that survive from this period. Some seminars will therefore focus on a specific type of source, introducing you to issues of authentication, contextualisation and the analysis of discourse and genre. The module will therefore equip you with the confidence and technical vocabulary to talk and write about a diverse range of written, visual and material sources intelligently and to use them confidently in support of independent scholarly argument.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, you will be able to demonstrate an ability to:

  1. Understand current historiographical and methodological debates in medieval history;
  2. Communicate and defend an argument about the medieval period to fellow members of the seminar group, situating it within the literature and deploying technical language when necessary and appropriate;
  3. Distinguish between and critically evaluate contrasting approaches to the study of medieval history, exhibiting a sense of their development over time, and of the most recent trends in the discipline;
  4. Present your conclusions in a fluent written form, demonstrating a mastery of the appropriate bibliographical materials (including use of electronic resources such as the International Medieval Bibliography);
  5. Evaluate and use a range of primary sources from the medieval period, with a critical understanding of genre, and of basic forms of textual analysis;
  6. Apply advanced analytical techniques and theoretical approaches to a specific historical source for the medieval period, drawing on those developed within other disciplinary contexts (such as archaeology or linguistics) where required;
  7. Contextualise and account for changes and continuities across the history of the medieval period, from late Antiquity to the Renaissance.


Learning hours
Seminar hours Tutorial hours Independent Learning
20 3 277

The principal mode of contact will be ten two-hour seminar classes. Within this standard format, students will be offered

  • A series of content-specific seminars, looking at a range of historical topics, issues, and problems that take you through a particular historical period (in this case, the medieval period), providing both an introduction to the advanced study of the period and the historical and historiographical context from which to undertake practice-based research.
  • A series of source-criticism seminars, each of which will concentrate on a specific type or genre of source material and will both examine particular examples and discuss general interpretative problems.

You will be set preparatory reading in advance for all seminars. You will be expected to share your knowledge of historiographical developments, debate controversial topics and listen and respond to the views of others in a structured environment. You will, in addition, have individual tutorials in which to identify topics for written papers, develop your reading around these topics, and discuss the structure and content of your written work.



Assessment methods
Assessment Type % of final mark Length
Coursework Formative n/a 2000 words
Coursework Summative 100% 6000 words

You will complete one written paper of 6,000 words. The work should engage with one or more of the concepts or themes of the module through a case-study/case-studies. It should demonstrate an advanced understanding of and critical engagement with current historiography, and advanced skills in the use of sources

There will be a formative assessment in which you are invited to submit up to 2,000 words of a draft / plan / piece of exploratory writing in advance of the final essay.


Selected reading

  • Robert Bartlett, The Making of Europe: conquest, colonization and cultural change, 950 – 1350 (London 1993)
  • Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, AD 150–750 (London 1971)
  • Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: triumph and diversity, AD 200–1000 (Oxford 2003) 2nd edition
  • R.H.C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe: from Constantine to St Louis (London 1957)
  • Richard Fletcher, The Conversion of Europe: from paganism to Christianity, 371–1386 AD (London 1998)
  • Maurice Keen, The Pelican History of Medieval Europe (Harmondsworth 1969)
  • Peter Linehan and Janet L. Nelson (eds), The Medieval World (London 2001)
  • R.I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: authority and deviance in Western Europe, 950–1250 (Oxford 2006) 2nd edition
  • R.W. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages (London 1953)
  • Julia M.H. Smith, Europe After Rome: a new cultural history 500–1000 (Oxford 2005)
  • Charles West, Reframing the Feudal Revolution: political and social transformation between Marne and Moselle, c. 800 to c. 1100 (Cambridge 2013)
  • Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: a history of Europe from 400 to 1000 (London 2009)



*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.