MPhil in Medieval History

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Bestiary (MS Ii.4.26) Crocodrillus UL collection

Overview

Cambridge University is a uniquely rich place to be a medievalist. The university is over 800 years old, with a wealth of medieval buildings and traditions, as well as countless manuscripts and early printed books held by our many libraries. Across the university, there is a strong concentration in scholars of the middle ages not only in History but also in related faculties, such as Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Archaeology, Art History, Medieval Languages and within the museums and libraries of Cambridge. The MPhil in Medieval History forms an integral part of the teaching and research here at the History Faculty (widely regarded as one of the best in the world). The course provides students with intensive training in concepts and methods of medieval history, as well as skills in Latin and Palaeography, to help them become innovative, cutting-edge scholars.

At a glance

The MPhil in Medieval History is a taught postgraduate course with a substantial research component, which runs for nine months covering the three terms (Michaelmas, Lent and Easter) of the Cambridge academic year. It is designed both for students who want to enhance their understanding of the Middle Ages and for those who want to go on to complete further primary research at PhD level. It provides experience with a broad range of ways to analyse the medieval past as well as intensive research training. Students on the MPhil will join a community of researchers across the field of medieval history, and integrate with the rich research culture of medieval studies across the university.

If you have any questions, drop us a line on medieval@hist.cam.ac.uk

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Paul Aste
Paul Aste
MPhil student in medieval history
Cambridge has a way of enveloping you in academic opportunity that I have never felt anywhere else. I felt like not only a student, but a budding historian in my own right.

The Course

Course Outline and Schedule

The course is designed for those who have completed degrees in which History is the main or at least a substantial component and who want to consolidate their knowledge of medieval history. It is particularly appropriate for those who may wish to continue on to a PhD, at Cambridge or elsewhere. It is also well-suited to those who seek simply to explore medieval history at a deeper level, building independent research skills.

Students will be provided with an in-depth study of some of the key areas of research in medieval history as well as the historiographical knowledge and the analytical and technical skills to support work in their chosen field. All students will have a supervisor who will guide them through the requirements of the course and, most crucially, the dissertation.

In this manner, all students are provided with the historiographical knowledge and analytical skills necessary to understand and evaluate both medieval sources and existing research and to pursue research in their own fields of intellectual interest. Through individual supervisions and classes, students are introduced to the more specialised and intensive nature of research required at a postgraduate level.

The MPhil involves 3 assessed components:

  • two core courses (16 x 2 hour classes each option, 4 hours per week) each course worth 10% of the overall mark;
  • one option course chosen from a list offered by the Faculty (8 x 2 hour classes) worth 10% of the overall mark;
  • a dissertation (15,000 – 20,000 words) worth 70% of the overall mark.

In addition to the above, students will attend the weekly Medieval History research seminars and workshops.

Students may also take optional skills modules in Greek or Latin and may choose to audit additional option courses. These are not assessed elements of the MPhil but will help students develop the skills needed for the MPhil in Medieval History.

Note on Start Dates

Whilst the course will officially start in October, all students will be required to attend an intensive Latin course before the MPhil commences. This will begin in September.

Core Course: Latin & Palaeography

'Pre-Sessional' Intensive Latin

All candidates for the Cambridge MPhil in Medieval History are expected to have a “basic understanding of Latin grammar and the ability to translate straightforward Latin texts” by the start of the course in October. All candidates who have no Latin, or Latin that does not reach this standard, are required to attend the preliminary intensive three week course in Latin immediately before the beginning of the academic year.

Many Cambridge Colleges are able to provide accommodation for students for the duration of this course.

At the end of the three-week course all students will sit an examination to test their Latin skills. Students who have not taken the pre-sessional course for any reason will also be required to sit this test. For students whose test results do not meet the standard of Latin required for the course the Faculty offers additional Latin courses which run alongside the MPhil programme.

Latin Classes

Following on from the pre-sessional Latin course in September, Latin is taught by Dr Neil Wright as a weekly two-hour class in both Michaelmas and Lent Terms. Students will be assigned to either a beginners’ or intermediate group, on the basis of an initial assessment.

Palaeography

For palaeography, students take one of the following: Palaeography I (covering the period c. 500-1150 AD) or Palaeography II (covering the period c. 1000-1500 AD). Each is taught by a weekly one-hour lecture followed by a one-hour transcription class. Students attend the strand (I or II) that best fits the chronological focus of their dissertation topic.

The lectures will provide students with a historically contextualised survey of script and scribal conventions in western European books and documents of the earlier and later middle ages, respectively, and an introduction to the methodological issues involved in analysing handwriting and dating and localising written artefacts on the basis of their script.

The classes focus upon the practical skills of transcription: identifying the letter-forms and scribal conventions of punctuation and abbreviation in books and documents, and transcribing according to modern scholarly conventions. Additional practice in transcription will be provided each week as homework.

Core Course: Concepts and Methods

This course involves discussion and analysis of different approaches, sources, debates and ideas in the study of Medieval History. The course aims to provide all students with key higher-level skills, and to prompt the exploration of a wider historiographical area pertaining to a student’s chosen dissertation topic.

Seminar topics for 2019-20

  • Introduction: Sources and the Challenges of Medieval History
  • Critical Editions and Textual Criticism 
  • Social Structures
  • Memory and History
  • Ritual and Symbolic Communication
  • Material Worlds
  • State and Nation in the Middle Ages
  • Writing Medieval History

Option Courses for 2019-20

This unit provides an introduction to the use of medieval manuscript evidence, drawing upon the rich manuscript collections of the Cambridge colleges, University Library and Fitzwilliam Museum. Modern editions are an incomplete and sometimes misleading lens through which to examine the texts that were composed, copied, handled, read and heard during the Middle Ages. First-hand analysis of medieval manuscripts brings us closer to the ways in which their contents were encountered by medieval audiences, and contributes to our understanding of both the significance of those texts to those by whom and for whom they were produced as well as the practical means by which literature, knowledge and ideas were transmitted. This unit will provide instruction in the analysis of the physical structure of manuscripts, the identification of their contents and the forms of evidence for their place of origin and history of ownership and use, and the scholarly conventions of manuscript description. The manuscripts studied will range in date from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries but there will be a particular focus upon those containing texts that record or were used to mark the passage of time: from chronicles and historical narratives to saints’ lives, sermon collections and liturgical calendars.

(N.B. This option may also be attended by MPhil in Medieval History students who have not chosen it as their assessed option but who wish to gain additional manuscript skills, and by MPhil and PhD students from both the History Faculty and other Departments and Faculties who require training in medieval codicology.)

Byzantium was an empire whose rulers prided themselves on the ideological, cultural and religious continuity of the East Roman state and on Constantinople’s direct legacy from the Roman Empire of antiquity.

Beneath the rhetoric of imperial continuity, however, it was also a world which underwent profound crisis in the seventh and eighth centuries caused by escalating warfare with the Sasanian empire of Persia and the nascent power of Islam.

This option provides students with the opportunity to study how the medieval empire of Byzantium both preserved and re-cast its late antique political, cultural and religious heritage. At the same time, it aims to introduce students to the key auxiliary skills necessary for advanced work in Byzantine studies by studying the transition from late antiquity to the age of the Macedonian emperors through the specific types of evidence on which the Byzantinist must rely.

The classes will deal in turn, therefore, with processes of continuity and crisis as revealed by the evolution of Byzantine historiography, hagiography, numismatics, sigillography, epigraphy and archaeology, legal sources, and Byzantine art and architecture. In addition to studying Latin, those without Greek should consult the option leader for advice about language instruction.

The primary aim of this module is to encourage students to think about the issues involved in using legal records to explore medieval social practices, structures, beliefs and norms. It also engages with the concept of ‘legal culture’ as used by medievalists, by exploring expectations of the law held by those who used and shaped it. A particular focus involves tracing the development and character of ‘legal culture’ among non-elites. The category ‘legal records’ is defined fairly broadly but the classes focus primarily on law codes, legislation, records of trials, and litigation. In the module we will consider some well-known attempts by previous social and cultural historians to ‘read’ this kind of material, and also debate the techniques and challenges involved via encounters with the primary sources themselves. The classes do not aim to give a comprehensive introduction to medieval law and legal records, and the consideration of legal technicalities is relevant only in so far as it helps elucidate the bigger themes of the module. Nor can the classes consider every area of society subject to legal control in the medieval period. Instead the focus is on problematizing the simple notion of employing legal evidence as a ‘window’ onto practices and mentalities. In doing so students will have an opportunity to look at material from a variety of courts and jurisdictions, and to range widely across time and space.

Once thought of as the ‘Age of Faith’, recent work on the middle ages has demonstrated how complex and variegated belief could be. The exploration of the intersection of ‘religion’ – being bound by the law of faith – and power highlights crucial aspects of medieval society. This course will explore a number of conjunctions of religion and power, spanning from the highest to the lowest in medieval society. The terrain covered will fall mainly within the central and later middle ages, and will focus mostly on Catholic Europe, whilst also including Christian relations with and understandings of Judaism and Islam. The primary aim of this module is to encourage students to explore the different ways in which medieval religion intersected with aspects of social, political and cultural power in the period. Through these explorations, we will engage with the fundamental nature of ‘religion’ in the medieval past - its boundaries, its core functions, its claims upon groups and individuals – and the various different ways in which medievalists have approached, practically and conceptually, medieval Christendom and its discontents. There will be a deliberate bias toward ‘religion’ as experienced by the laity rather than only the ecclesiastical or spiritual elite.

 

Each week will focus on a particular area of analysis, using this to explore both interpretive arguments and different bodies of primary source material. The module as a whole does not (and could not) aim to cover ‘all’ of medieval religion: the point rather is to focus on particular areas that will illuminate wider issues methodologically, and which introduce students to a variety of perspectives and types of sources.

 

Medieval History: Concepts and Methods

  • Teaching: weekly seminars
  • Assessment: essay (c. 4,000 words)

Palaeography

  • Teaching: weekly lecture & transcription class
  • Assessment: examination

Latin

  • Teaching: weekly classes
  • Assessment: examined jointly with Palaeography

Assessment & Dissertation

Thesis

The dissertation is Part II of the MPhil in Medieval History.

All students will submit a dissertation of 15,000-20,000 words, worth 70% of the overall mark.

At the discretion of the Examiners the examination may include an oral examination on the thesis and on the general field of knowledge within which it falls.

Essays

For the core module Medieval History: Concepts and Methods students will prepare a historiographical and bibliographical essay preparatory to the dissertation. Students will meet with their supervisor to discuss the essay and get feedback in preparation for the dissertation.

For the optional module students will submit a 3,000-4,000 words essay (or equivalent).

Each will count toward 10% of the final degree mark, for a total of 20%.  Taken together with the written examination in Latin and Palaeography, these are Part I, and students must achieve pass marks in order to move to Part II.

Written examination

Students will sit one exam in Latin and Palaeography Transcription worth 10% of the overall mark for the MPhil.

Practical assessment

All students will present their work at least once during the academic year and will receive feedback from academics and peers on their work-in-progress. This is not an assessed element of the course but is a valuable feedback tool for the dissertation.

The Dissertation, or thesis, is the largest element of the course.

Students are admitted to the University on the basis of the research proposal, and each student will be assigned a Supervisor who will support the preparation of a piece of original academic research. Candidates must demonstrate that they can present a coherent historical argument based upon a secure knowledge and understanding of primary sources, and they will be expected to place their research findings within the existing historiography of the field within which their subject lies.

All students should be warned that thesis supervisors are concerned to advise students in their studies, not to direct them. Students must accept responsibility for their own research activity and candidacy for a degree. Postgraduate work demands a high degree of self-discipline and organisation. Students are expected to take full responsibility for producing the required course work and thesis to the deadlines specified under the timetable for submission.

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