Introductory Matter—2017/18

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 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 certain ‘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) classes of source which you are likely to encounter 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 manuscript according to its codicological features and script—in a broad sense;
  • 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-to-two-and-a-half hours, the seminar will have two strands: the session will begin with a review of that week’s palaeography exercise (see the section on assessment below); the final two thirds will then consider representative examples of the type of source with which that week’s class is concerned. Pdf files containing these examples and images of relevant manuscripts can be found on the Hist424 sister-site on MOODLE. 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. The course focuses on British sources, but if participants would like to tackle Continental materials do let the convenor know so that that can be arranged. You are expected to come along having studied the texts and researched the questions for discussion. Specific items and tasks will sometimes 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 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.

4. Assessment

The assessment will consist of three components:

(a) Nine weekly palaeography/codicology exercises—that is, at the seminar each week you will be given a reproduction 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 categorise the script in which the text is written; and (d) to state where and when, broadly speaking (that is, to the nearest twenty-five years or so), the text was written—that is, the provenance of the present component of the book. Each exercise will be due the following Monday, giving you the weekend to work on it and the convenor time to mark it before the class on Thursday. The mark for this component—worth twenty per cent of your grade for the course as a whole—will comprise an average of your three best results. The marking criteria are as follows:

  • the accuracy of your transcript—that is, whether you have correctly identified each letter form and expanded each abbreviation (75%);
  • the layout and presentation of your transcript, in keeping with the usual conventions (5%);
  • your success in identifying the text (5%);
  • your success in categorising the script in which it is written (5%); and
  • your success in suggesting when and where the text was written (10%).

(b) A 1,000-word description of a manuscript. To be submitted online by 12 noon on Friday 23 February (week 16), this short piece of work is 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 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 adherence to 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.

(c) A long essay of 2,500 to 3,000 words, excluding footnotes and bibliography, 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’, (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 are the same as those for conventional coursework: see the department’s MA in History Student Handbook, pp. 13–15.

Items (b) and (c) must be submitted in .pdf format via the sister-site on moodle. The nine palaeography exercises should be submitted as email attachments, also in .pdf format. You will receive your feedback and grade by email. Please ensure that you give your work sensible file-names, e.g. ‘Hist424_Pal-Exercise1_BloggsJoe’.

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