Introductory Matter—2016/17

1. Rationale and Learning Outcomes

This module is designed for students who are attempting medieval topics for their dissertations as part of the MA in History. It is founded on the principle that you cannot grasp the significance of an historical source if you do not first understand (a) the history of the ‘genre’ to which it belongs and (b) the mechanics of its transmission and preservation – on the principle that all students of medieval history must grasp the issues addressed by disciplines of codicology and palaeography even if they do not themselves work directly with manuscript evidence.

This means, for example, that for dissertations that make heavy use of charters it is necessary to understand how the charter has evolved as a document from its Roman origins down to the end of the Middle Ages and how use of various media to preserve charters (single sheets, papyrus, vellum, cartularies, and printed books) helped to shape their contents and form. There was, to be sure, a definite continuity of practice, but charters differ in their rhetoric and format according to the time, region and institution in which they were produced, and many were ‘edited’ in the process of being re-copied from the original sheets on which they were first issued. Since many charters are known only from the later copies found in ‘cartularies’, it is crucial, if you are attempting to use this sort of document, to grasp the processes of reproduction operating in the relevant milieu in order to be able to assess properly the data that they contain. Moreover, these processes are themselves significant for what they have to say about the attitudes and culture of the persons and communities who produced them. Indeed, the rhetoric and the history of a document often tells us more about the world in which it was produced than the factoids which it supposedly contains.

Needless to say, it will not be possible to cover all the complexities in the ten sessions available for this course. The famous series Typologie des Sources du Moyen Âge Occidental, published by the Institut d’études médiévales (Belgium), runs to over eighty-five volumes, each concerned with a different ‘type’ of source or manuscript. Since we cannot hope to cover anything like that much ground, the course will confine itself to introducing you to ten common types of source which you might well encounter in your work, and to the problems which they raise.

By the end of the module, students should have grasped:

  1. the general principles involved in solving source- and manuscript-related problems;
  2. how to identify and categorise a wide range of medieval primary sources;
  3. how to approach the dating and provenance of a manuscript according to its codicological features and script—in a broad sense;
  4. the strengths and weaknesses of different types of primary source for answering the questions which modern historians bring to the medieval period; and
  5. the ways in which transmission of texts on hand-made books, documents and objects can affect and distort their content. Note: manu-scriptus means ‘written by hand’.

2. Teaching and Learning

fire beastThe course will be taught by means of ten two-hour seminars during Lent Term—on Mondays at 10am–12noon in County Main Seminar Room 4. Each seminar will proceed by considering representative examples of the type of source with which it is concerned. Pdf files containing these texts and reproductions from the relevant manuscripts can be derived from the Hist424 sister-site on Moodle. The texts are presented in their original languages (usually Latin) along with translations into modern English and images of the manuscripts in which they are preserved. (The emphasis is on English sources, but if participants would like to consider Celtic or Continental documents that can be arranged.) You are expected to attend having studied the texts and researched the questions for discussion. Where necessary specific items and tasks will be allocated to different members of the group in advance of each session.

3. Strongly Recommended Texts

There exist many excellent introductions to the study of medieval sources and manuscripts, but the following are strongly recommended—indeed, item one should be considered essential:

  1. Clemens, R., and T. Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Ithaca, NY, 2007). Oversize VSR.B.
  2. Clanchy, M. T., From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066–1307 (3rd edn, Oxford, 2013). The library has the second edition at MVE.I.
  3. Rosenthal, J. T. (ed.), Understanding Medieval Primary Sources: Using Historical Sources to Discover Medieval Europe, Routledge Guides to Using Historical Sources (London, 2012). MB.

4. Assessment

The assessment will consist of three components:

  1. A short 1,000-word description of a manuscript relevant to your dissertation project. To be submitted online by 12 noon on Friday 23 February (week 16), this short piece of work will be worth twenty per cent of your of mark for this course. The set question is: ‘Describe your manuscript. What are its distinctive features, and how have these features affected the material that it contains?’ It is expected that students will make use of a ‘facsimile’ version of a relevant manuscript: the library has a small stock of these books, but others are available online. For a guide to writing a manuscript description and the range of topics it might cover, see Clemens and Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies, chp. 9 (pp. 129–34).
  2. A set of nine weekly, but brief palaeography/codicology exercises—that is, on Monday of each week you will be given a electronic reproduction of photograph of a page (or part of a page) from a medieval manuscript. The challenge is: (a) to accurately transcribe the text; (b) to identify the text; (c) to correctly name the type of script in which the text is written; and (d) to say when and where, broadly speaking (i.e. to the nearest century and region), the manuscript was produced. Each exercise will be due the following Friday (weeks 11–19), and the final mark will comprise an average of your three best results. The mark will be worth twenty per cent of your final mark for the course.
  3. A long essay of up to 3,000 words on the characteristics of a particular genre or type of historical source. To be submitted online by 12 noon on Friday 27 April (week 21), this essay will be worth sixty per cent of your of final mark for this course. The set question is: ‘Choose a type of primary source and explain its strengths and weaknesses for the study of a particular issue in medieval history.’ The course convenor (and perhaps your thesis supervisor) will provide help in choosing your topic. The essay will be double-marked internally, and then sent for moderation to the external examiner.

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