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Option Courses

Option Courses

Students are required to select one option in Lent Term. All options are taught as two-hour weekly discussion seminars over eight weeks and attendance is compulsory.

For the option module, students will be required to write a 3–4,000 words essay which will count towards 10% of the overall mark.

Please note that this list of options changes from year to year and options may not run depending on demand and staff availability.  

At the discretion of the MPhil Director and Course Convener, students may be able to take options from the Faculty's other MPhil courses in place of an option on their home MPhil, or they may be able to audit additional classes.

Options for 2018-19

Medieval Manuscript Studies (Prof Tessa Webber)

From ILLUMINATED: Manuscripts in the making;
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.)

The Byzantine Empire (Dr Peter Sarris)

Heraclius in 629-632 with his son Constantine (
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 (Prof John Arnold)

 © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
From Novella in Decretales, © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
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.

Religion and Power (Dr Carl Watkins)

The Cathedral of Reims by Domenico Quaglio
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.

This information is provided for illustrative purposes only.