Introductory Matter—2018/19

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 if you wish to make extensive use of diplomas it is necessary to under-stand 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 history of a document and the genre to which it belongs often tells us more about the world in which it was produced than the facts 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 series Typologie des Sources du Moyen Âge Occidental, published by the Institut d’Études Médiévales (Belgium), runs to over eighty-five volumes, each covering a ‘type’ of source or manuscript. Since we cannot hope to cover anything like that much ground, the course will confine itself to nine common (and broad) categories of source—to some of the sources which you are most likely to en-counter in your work, and to the problems which they raise.

On successful completion of the course, students should have grasped:

  • the general principles involved in solving source- and manuscript-related problems;
  • how to identify and categorise a wide range of medieval primary sources;
  • how to approach the dating and provenance of a source;
  • the strengths and weaknesses of different types of primary source for answering the questions which modern historians bring to the medieval period; and
  • 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 seminars across Lent Term. Running for two hours, the seminar will onwards have two parts: at the end of each session, the convenor will introduce the type of source that is to be discussed in the following week, before allocating preparatory tasks for the coming week; from the second week onwards the first two thirds of the session will comprise general discussion, centred on representative examples of the type of source with which that week’s class is concerned. Pdf files containing the texts for discussion and images of the relevant manuscripts can be found on the Hist424 sister-site on MOODLE. You are expected to come along having studied the texts and researched the questions for discussion. In these files the texts are presented in both their original languages (usually Latin) and in translation, along with images of the manuscripts in which they are preserved. For obvious reasons, the first and final sessions will depart slightly from this model. Inevitably, the course focuses on British sources, but if participants would like to tackle Continental materials do let the convenor know so that that can also be arranged.

3. The Palaeography Seminar—An Informal, Auxiliary Offering

As part of an experiment aimed at improving the departmentís provision for postgraduates in medieval and early-modern history, we will be also offering a series of optional classes in palaeography—that is, in decoding the scripts and abbreviations of medieval and also Early Modern manuscripts. Subject to possible revision, the plan is that these classes will take place at or close to Lunch time. The learning process will involve informal quizzes and the preparation of transcripts from digital images. For the purpose of broadening participation, the sessions will also be open to students in other departments and we will be joined by Dr Clare Egan, who teaches later medieval and early modern literature in the English Department. Participants will be encouraged to bring along images of manuscripts on which they are working. There will be no grade for the work undertaken for this seminar—your transcripts will be informally (and generously) evaluated in class by the group as a whole; but the skills taught here should help you to achieve better results with your thesis as well as the assessment for Hist424. Further information about when and where the class will meet will be distributed towards the end of Michaelmas Term.

4. Strongly Recommended Texts

There exist several excellent introductions to the study of medieval sources and manuscripts, but the following are recommended, especially Clemens and Graham—a book which all serious students of medieval history ought to own:

  1. Clemens, R., and T. Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Ithaca, NY, 2007). Oversize VSR.B — 2 copies.
  2. Clanchy, M. T., From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066–1307 (3rd edn, Oxford, 2013). Also available online at Ebook Central, and the library has the second edition, from 1993, in hardcopy 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.

5. Assessment

The assessment will consist of two components:

(a) A 1,250- to 1,500-word description of a manuscript. To be submitted online, via Moodle, by 12 noon on Friday 22 February (week 16), this short piece of work is 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 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 as the Electronic Resources section of the present website shows, many more are now available on online. The marking criteria are as follows:

  • the accuracy of your description—e.g. the precision with which the incipits and explicits have been transcribed, whether each individual text is correctly distinguished and identified, whether the dimensions and foliation of the manuscript and its text area(s) are rightly noted, and so on;
  • the level of good sense and utility shown in your selection of what to include and what to omit,
  • your choices as to what to include in the bibliographical section of the description, and
  • your use of the usual conventions for the presentation of a manuscript description.

Please note that your grade will be moderated according to the relative difficulty of your chosen manuscript: that is, for the sake of fairness greater leniency will be shown to those who attempt harder manuscripts. (But rather than attempt a hard manuscript for its own sake, you should choose a manuscript that is relevant to your dissertation project and one that you will be able to describe without too much difficulty!) For a guide to the various features of a manuscript that a description should or could cover, see Clemens and Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies, chp. 9 (pp. 129–34). These pages can be downloaded from the first section of the Hist424 sister-site on MOODLE.

(b) A long essay of 3,000 to 3,500 words, excluding footnotes and bibliography, on the characteristics of a particular genre or type of historical source. To be submitted online, via Moodle, by 12 noon on Friday 26 April (at the end of the Easter Break), this essay is 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’, (e.g. ‘What are the strengths and weaknesses of canon law collections for the study of gender relations in twelfth-century England?’, or ‘What are the strengths and weaknesses of annalistic chronicles for the recon-struction of Scottish political history?’). The course convenor (and perhaps also your dissertation supervisor) is happy to provide help with choosing and refining your topic.

The marking process and criteria for the essay will be the same as those for conventional coursework, as set out in the department’s MA in History Student Handbook, pp. 13–15 (which can be downloaded from your My-History folder on Moodle). It is essential, therefore, that you should answer the question with a coherent argument that (1) responds precisely to the question, that (2) treats the main issues that it raises, and that (3) is supported with cogent reasoning and reliable evidence.

To ensure that part or all of your work is not inadvertently deleted, please submit it in .pdf format and give it a sensible file-name, e.g. ‘Hist424_Essay_BloggsJoe’. You will receive your feedback and grade by email.

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