HST2511: Power and Protest in Late Medieval England

20 credits (semester 2)

Module Leader: Dr Eliza Hartrich


Module Summary

How do elites exercise power, and why do ‘ordinary people’ obey them? These questions are important throughout history, but took on particular significance in the later medieval period. The years between 1348 and 1509 were ones of great tumult in England, featuring demographic decline, dramatic economic fluctuations, and increased social and geographic mobility. They also witnessed one of the largest popular rebellions in history (the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381) and the forced removal of no fewer than five kings from the English throne. This module will examine the ways in which people attempted to maintain power in a period of great social change, and evaluate how successfully subaltern groups (such as women, peasants, and labourers) were able to resist it. In doing so, we will look beyond the traditional definition of power as the exercise of legitimate military force, and also examine the ways in which rituals, visual culture, personal charisma, law, economic structures, and gender norms fortified the ability of kings, aristocrats, churchmen, and males to control those subject to them. We will also evaluate the extent to which elites could impose unwanted economic exactions, social regulations, or policies on an unwilling populace, and reflect on the role that peasants and artisans played in maintaining existing power structures. Students will address some of these issues by consulting primary sources produced in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England, including rebel manifestos, political treatises, and manor court records.


This unit aims to:

  1. Provide students with an overview of political, social, economic, and cultural trends occurring in England in the 160 years after the Black Death
  2. Introduce students to different types of power (e.g., charisma, patriarchy, etc.)
  3. Familiarise students with written and visual sources produced in late medieval England
  4. Acquaint students with the historiography of the period, and encourage them to evaluate arguments made by other historians
  5. Equip students with the skills to express their ideas through clear and polished prose and verbal fluency

Teaching and Assessment

The unit will be delivered through weekly 1-hour lectures and weekly 1-hour seminars. The lectures will serve as a guide to the basic content and theories associated with the module. They will outline major developments in politics, society, economy, and culture in England between 1348 and 1509; show the different ways in which historians have approached the study of late medieval England; and introduce students to some more theoretical approaches to power and resistance (such as Weber on charisma or Scott on ‘weak’ forms of resistance). During seminars, students will debate the merits of the historiographical models presented to them during lectures, and they will also be introduced to select written and visual sources from the period. In some seminars, students will also be asked to assess the applicability of theories of power to later medieval England. 

The assessed essay will provide an opportunity for students to demonstrate their ability to engage with and evaluate historiographical models, to use primary sources to support an argument where appropriate, and to write clearly. The exam will require students to demonstrate a wide-ranging knowledge of political, economic, social, and cultural developments in late medieval England, and some questions will ask students to apply particular models of power to events, trends, and structures present in English society between the mid fourteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

Information on assessment can be found at: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/history/current_students/undergraduate/assessment/level2

 Selected reading:

J.M. Bennett, ‘England: Women and Gender’, in S.H. Rigby (ed.), A Companion to Britain in the Later Middle Ages (Oxford, 2003)
G.L. Harriss, Shaping the Nation: England 1360-1461 (Oxford, 2005)
R. Horrox and W.M. Ormrod (eds.), A Social History of England, 1200-1500 (Cambridge, 2006)
Z. Razi and R.M. Smith (eds.), Medieval Society and the Manor Court (Oxford, 1996)
J. Watts, ‘Ideas, Principles and Politics’, in A.J. Pollard (ed.), The Wars of the Roses (Basingstoke, 1995)

Intended Learning Outcomes
Plus Icon