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Option Courses

Students will study two core modules in Michaelmas and will chose one from a number of option modules in Lent. The option modules offered each year may vary.

Typical options offered may include:

  • Medieval Manuscript Studies
  • The Byzantine Empire
  • Religion and Power
  • Law and Society

Medieval Manuscript Studies

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.

(note: 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.)

The Byzantine Empire

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.

Law and Society

Law and legal ideas penetrated medieval society in a multitude of ways; medieval people became if anything increasingly ‘law-minded’ as the era progressed. Focusing mostly on the period between the 12th and the 14th centuries, this 8-week course will give students the opportunity to explore the variety of legal systems and jurisdictions in existence in medieval Europe, their intellectual underpinnings and their use by a wide range of ‘consumers’. Laws and courts operating under secular authority will be considered alongside those of the church, as well as the often disputed boundaries between the two. The option will also address legal education and learning, and the role of lawyers and other legal professionals in society. There is also likely to be a particular focus on popular legal culture, and on the distinctions between legal and extra-legal modes of dispute resolution. By the end of the course students will have become familiar with primary sources including foundational legal texts and codes, records of lawsuits, and materials which reveal social attitudes to law and lawyers. They also will have grasped key historiographical trends in the study of the interactions between medieval law and society.

Religion and Power

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 8-week 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. We will engage with a variety of source material and historiographical debates to consider areas such as the Peace of God movement, the authority of the papacy, the powers of medieval inquisitors and bishops, the sanctity and virtus of saints, the regulation of religious minorities, uses of the afterlife, pious practices as well as theological ideas, and the gendered experience of faith in the middle ages.