Postgraduate MA Medieval History optional modules

You may choose to study one of the core modules from the other pathways as one of your options. Other modules available typically include:

Archaeological Theory, Method and Interpretation

This module delivers a generic disciplinary introduction to how archaeologists investigate and interpret past cultural worlds and social life. It focuses on key areas of theory, method and interpretation, embracing a range of cultural archaeology, landscape archaeology, heritage and environmental archaeology themes. It is also designed to develop and enhance key practical and research skills, especially in oral presentation, teamwork and essay-writing.

Assessment: Written assignment and presentation

Archaeology of Greece

This module presents a critical review of theoretical approaches and interpretative themes in contemporary funerary archaeology, and examines the central significance of this field of study in current debates in world archaeology. The extraordinarily rich and diverse character of mortuary evidence is highlighted, with particular focus on how this kind of evidence is used to explore the relationships between cultural ideals, values, social agency and symbolic representation. Key interpretative themes that are considered from several perspectives include social interpretation, cultural identity and personhood, ritual practice, and past belief systems. The module draws widely on cross-cultural and inter-disciplinary case studies in archaeology and cognate disciplines such as anthropology and history.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

Aspects of Byzantine History 

Topics covered vary from year-to-year.

Previous modules have included: 

  • Byzantine Society
    This module takes a broad perspective on Byzantine society, concentrating on the middle Byzantine period (7th-11th centuries). We work our way from the top – the emperor, the court, the bureaucracy – to the bottom of the social ladder, i.e. the peasants and the unfree. We approach the social structures of Byzantium from a variety of angles, looking at the court, family structures, provincial society, merchants etc. We use a range of sources, from the court hierarchies defined in the Taktika to legal sources on land ownership, and from historiography to first-hand accounts of captivity, and apply a comparative approach when useful.
  • Narrative and the Material
    This module focuses on the narrative account of Nicholas Mesarites, an eyewitness to the failed usurpation attempt of a member of the aristocracy, John Komnenos 'the Fat' (1200). One of five contemporary accounts, Mesarites' report is distinguished by its great attention to detail, expressed not only in descriptions of the buildings of the palace and the relics kept there but also by attention to the physical, the body, the sounds and sights of the 24-hour coup. The module studies the way that Mesarites constructs his narrative but also the way modern historians construct their narratives of this event.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

Byzantine Archaeology and Material Culture

The module surveys the history of archaeological practice as it concerns the post-Roman East, and explores key aspects of the Late Roman and Transitional (‘Dark-Age’) archaeological record, different archaeological strategies, and how archaeological literature can be used to understand some of the major long-term changes that characterise the period AD 300-800. It focuses in particular on interpretative themes such as Christianisation, invasions, demographic changes, the transformation of urban culture, and changes in rural settlement, agriculture and artisanal production.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

Byzantine Art and Architecture

This module ensures a thorough grounding in the monuments of Byzantium, and an understanding of the methodological issues and problems confronting modern scholars. Lectures provide a chronological survey of the monuments from the foundation of Constantinople in 324 until the end of the Byzantine empire (1453).

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

Egyptian Language 1

This module is devoted to the classic phase of ancient Egyptian, the language of the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000 BC), known as Middle Egyptian. You will be introduced both to the hieroglyphic script and to the Egyptian language through the analysis of grammar, the acquisition of vocabulary and regular translation exercises, all of these being reviewed in class.

Assessment: Three-hour class test

Egyptian Language 2

The knowledge acquired in Egyptian Language 1 will be supplemented by study of the verbal system. This forms the basis for the reading of a sample of literary, religious or historical texts from the Middle Kingdom onwards.

Assessment: Three-hour examination

Empire and Identity

The module is in two parts, linked by questions of how contact with the Roman Empire changedpeoples’ perceptions of themselves and how this was represented in particular through their material culture. The first part considers the ‘Romanisation’ debate of the last hundred years, from the ‘top-down’ view of Haverfield and his successors, who brought to bear their own experiences of European colonialism and imperialism, through to more recent ‘bottom-up’ analyses employing post-colonial and related analyses, to the current position where the term can be seen as counter-productive. The second part looks at the construction of ‘barbarian’ identities in the later Roman period (mainly the 4th and 5th centuries). It considers the construction of ‘ethnicity’ in the 20th century, from Kossinna on, and its relationship to material culture (if there is any). The recent discussions of the construction of ‘identity’ rather than just ‘ethnicity’ are considered. Particular use is made of the rich textual and archaeological evidence for the (Visi-)Goths.

Both parts of the module seek to deconstruct traditional views and show how new thinking is necessitating profound review of previously accepted categories of ‘ethnicity’ in favour of considerations such as age, gender and status.

Assessment: Written assignment

Fantastic Beasts and Where They Came From

Long before fieldwork determined which species appeared in scientific texts, cunning foxes and resourceful hedgehogs were placed alongside fierce unicorns and formidable dragons. Ancient and medieval bestiaries and natural histories attributed whales with a diabolical desire to trick sailors and drag them to their doom. They depicted panthers as the friendliest animals to walk the earth. They saw in spiders the devil himself. Examining a range of real and imagined creatures, this module will explore the representation of animals and their behaviours in collections from the classical and medieval periods to the heyday of evolutionary theory. This long history will also provide context for revivals of the bestiary tradition in 20th-/21st-century American and British poetry and prose, documentaries and popular culture.

The following thematic interests will shape the module’s discussion of the long tradition of animal- and nature-writing: perceptions of human superiority and animal alterity; boundaries between real and imaginary creatures; the relationship between literature, science and religion; visual and literary intersections; and symbolism. Classical and medieval texts will be studied in translation; prior knowledge of the original languages is not required.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

Fantasy and Fandom: Writing Back to the Medieval in Modern Fantasy

From heroes and quests to magic and hidden identities, modern fantasy has looked to the literature of the medieval period for inspiration. Yet it has also consistently transformed and reshaped its source material, rewriting the significance of key motifs and ideas in order to address the issues of its own time and place of production.

This module will examine the ways in which modern fantasy writing both adopts and adapts the culture, language, characters and narratives of medieval texts, and in so doing identifies its authors as an (albeit diverse) fandom. Although not fanfiction in the strictest terms, modern fantasy writing often shares with it the desire to extend and appropriate the plots and protagonists of earlier texts, and to challenge or re-examine them by writing in an avatar who explores the textual world in a metaphorical representation of the author’s own discovery of the original work.

This module will look at forerunners for this in the medieval period too, and will encourage you to analyse the communally-driven nature of textual production and circulation in the Middle Ages, as well as the communities of interest which have written fantasy in response, from the late nineteenth century to the present.  The module will provide the opportunity to examine a range of fantasy writing, which may include texts from George MacDonald and William Morris through C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien to contemporary writers such as Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, J. K. Rowling and Ursula LeGuin.

Assessment: Written assignment

Field Survey

This module introduces you to the theory and practice of recording the archaeological and environmental elements of ancient landscapes, from a scale of individual structures and monuments to integrated surveys of past cultural and natural landscapes. The module includes an introduction to the fundamentals of geodetic survey and students will receive practical training in basic measured survey using a variety of equipment and learn to work with survey data in both conventional and digital formats. The module will also explore the potential of survey data for analysis through assessment by a group project using data through work generated through the course Field School. The Field School will take place at an appropriate site or landscape selected by the staff.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

Funerary Archaeology

This module presents a critical review of interpretative themes and theoretical approaches in contemporary funerary archaeology and explores its significance for social and cultural interpretation in world archaeology, anthropology and history. The evidence-rich character of this field of study allows for in-depth analysis of relationships between religious beliefs, cultural ideals, values, social agency and symbolic representation. The module focuses on a range of interpretative themes, including social interpretation, cultural identity and personhood, body treatment and individuality, ritual practice, political power, and past belief systems, drawing widely on cross-cultural and inter-disciplinary case studies from all parts of the world and ranging in time from the Palaeolithic to the 21st century AD.

Assessment: Written assignment

GIS and Spatial Analysis

This module aims to develop your knowledge and understanding of the theory and practice of landscape analysis using Geographical Information Science (GIS). It introduces you to GIS history, theory and implementation, including aspects such as data models and modelling, data structures and different GIS paradigms and software. There is intensive training in ArcGIS software, and the module covers the application of GIS to landscape studies, including the practical creation of GIS databases and models for landscape archaeology and history research. This module is designed to develop practical skills in GIS and there are plenty of opportunities to apply these in both class and independent study contexts.
Assessment: Written assignment

Greek/Latin (Beginner)

These modules provide an intensive introduction to Greek or Latin. They aim to provide you with the basic linguistic skills needed to acquire a reading knowledge of Greek or Latin for the purposes of research.

Assessment: Class test or examination 

Greek/Latin (Advanced)

These modules consolidate linguistic skills to enable you to work independently on Greek or Latin texts in the original language, building upon existing knowledge. They develop analytical and critical skills by means of advanced grammar and reading classes focusing in detail on a text or texts. Texts chosen will generally reflect the interests of students in the group.

Assessment: Take-home paper or examination 

History Advanced Option

Topics covered vary from year to year. Previous modules have included:

  • After the Mongols: Political Authority in Islamic Lands, 1000-1600
    How do ruling elites cope when they are conquered by people whose world views are so different from their own? This module examines the bases of political authority in Islamic lands between the 13th and 16th centuries to try to answer this question. The Mongol elimination of the Abbasid Caliphate in the 13th century posed fundamental challenges to Islamic notions of rule. For the first time in its history sedentary Islamic society was faced with the reality of non-Muslim rule and the pre-eminence of Turko-Mongol political culture with its emphasis on a pastoralist ethos. Over the course of the next three centuries Muslim scholars and rulers struggled to develop new ideas of political authority which could address the shifting political realities of their day. Such ideas ranged from resistance to accommodation and, over the centuries, they resulted in new ways of doing things. A consideration of these changes allows us to understand the ideological foundations of the early modern empires which dominated West and South Asia into the modern era.
  • The Black Death in Medieval Europe: Disaster, Change and Recovery
    This module introduces the historiography of different aspects of the Black Death and the short, medium and long term effects of the arrival of the disease on a myriad of aspects of society. This is done by drawing on a wide range of primary and secondary sources, which are examined critically in depth.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay

History Special Subject (double module)

Topics covered vary from year to year. Previous modules have included:

  • 1066: Epic Tales of Saints, Swordsman and Scribes
    This module explores one of the most colourful and formative periods of English history both as a subject of historical enquiry and a product of historiographical invention. The century after Duke William’s famous conquest of England saw an explosion of historical writing - largely in the cultural context of monastic-centred religious reform - aimed at interpreting and inventing new accounts of the past to make sense of the startlingly dramatic developments of the present. Warriors and warfare, sex and marriage, saints and miracles, honour and humiliation, violence, insurgency and subjection were all subjects in the narration of a new Anglo-Norman history of England that grappled with the consequences of a small alien force of Normans and French that completely subdued and supplanted the English ruling elite. Such a wholesale regime change was rare even in medieval history, and seems to have shocked the native culture into stunned silence for at least a generation.  When English and mixed birth scribes finally broke that silence, they unleashed a torrent of narrative designed to make sense of events set in train by 1066. Their answers to questions of continuity and change have shaped the way subsequent English history has been written and read to this day.

  • Bearers of the Cross: Devotion and Violence in the Crusading World

    From its origins in 1095, through its zenith in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, crusading was an act of devotional violence that was defined by a central concern with the recovery, possession and transformation of sacred spaces and objects that were believed to be threatened or polluted by religious ‘others’, whether Muslims, pagans, or heretics. This module examines the religious ideas and devotional practices associated with crusading and Latin frontier settlement in the central Middle Ages through a wide-ranging study of texts, images and objects.

  • The World's Largest Empire: The Mongols and China 
    The Mongols ran the largest land-based empire ever known in history. The drama of the initial conquests by Chinggis Qan (whom you may know better as Genghis Khan) is matched by the ambitions of his successors, not least Qubilai Qa’an (Khubilai Khan), who completed the conquest of China and founded the Yuan (1260-1368) dynasty there. Although the Mongol empire extended out from Inner Asia to the limits of Persia in the west and to China in the east, the attention of Europeans was riveted by the Mongol invasions of Eastern Europe in 1240-2, and subsequently by the extraordinary travelogue recounting Marco Polo’s twenty-year sojourn (1271-92) at Qubilai’s court in China and journeys to neighbouring countries. Thanks to Marco Polo, the Mongols in China have remained on Europeans’ radar ever since. We work with some of the many primary materials accessible to those with no knowledge of the original languages, including Marco Polo, Rashid al-Din and the Secret History of the Mongols, and we investigate where the Mongols came from and the different ways in which their expansion was received. We examine relations between the Mongols and the conquered peoples, and address issues such as collaboration and assimilation. The module gives you the opportunity to develop a deep appreciation of what many regard as the first truly global empire.

  • Village Life in Later Medieval England

    Peasants made up the vast majority of the population and very much defined later medieval society. Therefore the roots of the great social and economic changes which occurred in the later medieval period are to be found in village communities. Peasants therefore matter, and this module examines a number of aspects of peasant life from ca. 1200 to 1500. We explore themes such as peasant revolts, including the rising of 1381, daily struggles against lordship as well as conflict within peasant communities. Peasants were not all the same, some were free, some unfree, and some were well off and others were extremely poor, so we look at such divisions within peasant societies, including the division arising from gender. We have a wealth of primary sources available, including local court records, poems and chronicles, and archaeological sources. We explore such themes and topics in the context of long term social and economic changes, such as the agricultural expansion in the 13th century, followed by the upheavals in the 14th century, the developments of which were in no small part wrought by the peasantry themselves.

Assessment: Written assignment

Individuals in History

This module explores the theory and practice of historiography in the Roman world, with particular emphasis on the author as an individual. The module is centred on a series of texts from the late Republic and early Empire which will enable you to develop strategies for reading and understanding the sources (biographic, literary, historical) through which the role of the individual is accessed, and the relationship between individuals and their cultures is understood.

This module will investigate issues such as: the impact of biographical tropes and the importance of particular topoi for understanding characterisation; theories of the individual, character-development and biographical criticism; how individuals project themselves into history, versus the impact of historiographic/cultural imperatives on the representation of individuals within history.

Assessment: 4,000-word essay 

Landscape Archaeology

This module introduces the theoretical foundations of landscape archaeology, key interpretative approaches, current trends in landscape studies and the fundamental investigative and recording techniques used in landscape archaeology, including topics such as landscape characterisation, documentary source materials, and remote sensing of landscapes. You also receive a broad introduction to diverse landscape types and their study (e.g. riverine, wetland, littoral, island, and urban), and interpretative themes such as landscapes of belief. The module includes a one-day field trip with linked seminar classes.

Assessment: Written assignment

Magic, Monsters and Marvels in the Medieval World

Be captivated by the magic of medieval literature: devils and demons; fairy kings and queens; ghosts and ghouls; magical powers, miracles and marvellous objects; prophecies and potions; witches and wizards.

Familiar to us from childhood fairy tales and modern fantasy literature, this collection of the uncanny and supernatural is a constant presence in the world of medieval romance and related literature - as well, perhaps more surprisingly, in the world of medieval religion. Join us in strange adventures and otherworldly encounters as we examine some of the Middle Ages’ most tantalising and gripping literature. In exploring the exotic, often improbable worlds created by our texts we’ll examine their relationship to the very real realm of the possible and consider how various varieties of magic were used to shed light on wider issues of contemporary - and modern - interest, including science, religion, medicine, gender and psychology. Alongside the works of authors such as Chaucer, Gower, the Gawain-poet and Henryson, we’ll study a host of fascinating medieval romances from across the British Isles and also examine collections of miracles and prophecies, hosts of magical objects and buildings, and sequence of spells and charms. Throughout, we’ll ask what role magic and the supernatural played in our texts and in the world in which they were read and produced.

Assessment: Written assignment

Mapping the Middle Ages: Cultural Encounters in the Medieval East and West

This module explores perceptions of place, power, and belonging in texts produced in medieval Europe between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. It will introduce you to medieval perceptions of peoples and places, and strategies of alienation and marginalisation which to our modern eyes are at once culturally distinct and eerily familiar.

We will consider how medieval authors conceptualised travel across the known – and the unknown – regions of the world, and the ideological assumptions implicit in these imaginings. We will explore the relationship of these verbal (and on occasion visual) maps to the early development of ethnography (writings about other peoples); and consider the place of these imaginings in both medieval colonisation projects and the resistance strategies of colonised peoples. Major themes include perceptions of race, gender, monstrosity, and the body; the limits of community; marginalisation and margins; the fantastic; the relationship between visual and literary cultures; and travel, both real and imagined.

The module is organised geographically, moving from early orientalist conceptualisations of the far-East to similarly imaginative and fraught constructions of the far-West. Alongside our key texts, we will be looking at medieval maps, and exploring digital mapping technologies to chart the mental worlds, and physical journeys, of our medieval travellers.

Assessment: Written assignment

Material Culture

This module provides an introduction to material culture studies in Archaeology, drawing on the wider range of approaches to materiality in related disciplines such as Anthropology and History. It establishes a foundation in material culture theory, analysis and interpretation that underpins current approaches to investigation, as well as providing a basis for your individual study. Key themes include classification, technology, functionalism, symbolism, agency theory and signification, production, exchange and consumption, and the materialities of gender, ethnicity and status. The module comprises a mix of lectures, seminar classes, and hands-on study of material culture, with case studies drawn especially from prehistoric Europe, the classical world, medieval Europe, numerous ethnographic sources, and present-day western societies.

Assessment: Written assignment

Numismatics for Research and in Museums

In this module you will be working directly with the coins held at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Of the ten two-hour sessions over the course of the semester, six will be devoted to numismatics as a discipline within historical studies, and the remaining four will be devoted to coins in museum collections. As part of the museology section you will be asked to conceive, propose and design a museum display case relating to any aspect of numismatics but within the constraints of the Barber’s coin collection.

Assessment: 3,000-word essay and 1,500-word exhibition plan 

Reading French, German, Italian, Russian or Spanish for Researchers

You will only focus on one of these languages.

These modules offer you the opportunity to acquire a good reading knowledge of Russian, French, German, Italian or Spanish in order to help you pursue your studies. The aim is to ensure that you gain the ability to read academic texts representative of the research literature in your area of specialism, with the aid of a dictionary. Module content will include instruction on the grammatical and lexical features of the language and undertaking language exercises, including translation of texts into English.

Assessment: Class test

The Economies of the Late Roman, Byzantine and Frankish East

This module surveys the economic history of the post-Roman East (4th – 15th c.) Lectures first review critically a range of approaches to pre-modern economies and explore their value for historical enquiries. Subsequent topics include: the study of parameters of long- and short-term changes; key trajectories; evolving forms of land tenure and taxation; the state’s involvement in the economy; the roles of the Church and the law; and the impact of the Italian mercantile republics.

Assessment: Written assignment

Understanding Medieval Literature

This module offers the opportunity to explore a diverse range of medieval literary texts from the pre-conquest period through to the early Tudor period. Its aim is to facilitate confident engagement with the texts in their original language, awareness of the range and variety of English literature in the period, and understanding of the cultural contexts in which that literature was originally produced, ‘published’ and read. Guided by a team of specialist staff you will read a number of texts that rank among the greatest achievements across all English literature and will acquire a solid appreciation of some of the major trends and debates in current scholarship. Texts studied may vary from year to year but will include some of the following: the Old English epic Beowulf (taught by means of en face edition); early Middle English romance and devotional literature; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the finest Arthurian romance of the period; Troilus and Criseyde, arguably Chaucer’s greatest work; late medieval and Tudor drama. There will also be plenty of room for you to explore and to develop your own reading programme in relation to the key texts.

Assessment: Textual analysis exercise and 3,000-word essay

Please note that the optional module information listed here is intended to be indicative, and the availability of optional modules may vary from year to year. Where a module is no longer available we will let you know as soon as we can and help you to make other choices.