Introductory Matter—2012/13

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. Students should, at the end of the module, know how to:

  1. Identify and categorise a wide range of medieval primary sources.
  2. Define the strengths and weaknesses of different types of primary source (and especially the sources on which they will be working for their dissertations) for answering the questions which modern historians bring to the medieval period.
  3. Understand the ways in which transmission by a process of copying by hand affects the information and data found in medieval sources.
  4. Understand the ways in which manuscripts themselves can be made to yield important information for the study of the medieval past.

2. Teaching and Learning

fire beastThe course will be taught by means of two-hour seminars across Lent Term. Each seminar will proceed by discussing examples of the sources in question. Handouts containing these texts will be distributed before the relevant session. The texts will be presented in their original languages (usually Latin) along with translations into English and, where possible, images of the manuscripts in which they are preserved. The accent is on types of sources that flourished in English contexts, but comparisons are also made to Continental materials. You will be expected to study these items in advance of the sessions and to attend having researched the topics and questions for discussion. Hopefully everyone will contribute to the progress of the group, but where necessary different texts and tasks will be allocated to different members of the group in advance of each session.

3. Recommended Textbooks

There exist many excellent introductions to the study of medieval sources and manuscripts, but the following are strongly recommended, chiefly as background reading:

  1. Clemens, R., and T. Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Ithaca, NY, 2007). 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.

4. Assessment

All work for the present course will be double-marked internally, and then sent for moderation to the external examiner. The assessment will consist of two items:

  1. A short essay of 1,500 words on a manuscript (or group of manuscripts) relevant to your research to be submitted by 3.00pm on Thursday 28 February (week 17). This essay will be worth thirty 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 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 on the world wide web. (On the subject of manuscript descriptions, see Clemens and Graham, chp. 9 (pp. 129–34)).
  2. A long essay of up to 3,500 words on the characteristics of a particular genre or type of historical source to be submitted by 3.00pm on Thursday 25 April (week 21). This essay will be worth seventy 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.

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