Introductory Matter, 2021–2022

1. Rationale and Learning Outcomes

This module is chiefly 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 understand how the charter has evolved as a document from its Roman origins down to the end of the Middle Ages and how the 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 sometimes 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 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 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 beast decorationIn 2021–2022 this course will be taught by means of ten seminars that will take place in the Roundhouse (B07) on Tuesdays at 4pm in Lent Term. Running for two hours, most of these seminars will have two parts: at the end of each session, the convenor will introduce the type of source which is to be covered in the following week and allocate tasks to each member of the class. From the second week onwards these contributions and the discussion which flows from them will comprise the first two thirds of each seminar. The first part of each seminar will focus, moreover, 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. The minimumn expectation is that you will attend class 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 prefer to tackle Continental materials this can be arranged.

Before enrolling students should note well that ‘heritage materials’ play a part in the present course: an ability to read images of hand-written medieval documents is not an essential requirement, but constant reference will be made to materials of this kind. It is important to recognise, therefore, that these documents cannot be converted into machine-readable, ‘accessible’ text files. If you are visually impaired or dyslexic, it may limit your ability to cope with this aspect of the course.

3. 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:

  1. Clemens, R., and T. Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Ithaca, NY, 2007). Oversize VSR.B. There are two copies in the library, but this is a book which all serious students of medieval history ought to own.
  2. Clanchy, M. T., From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066–1307 (3rd edn, Oxford, 2013). Available at Ebook Central. The library also 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. Coulson, F., and R. Babcock (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Latin Palaeography (Oxford, 2020). Available at Ebook Central. An important new guide.
  5. Kwakkel, E. and R. Thomson (eds), The European Book in the Twelfth Century, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature (Cambridge, 2018). Available at Ebook Central. Focused on the twelfth century, but provides an excellent introduction to the codicological side of the course.

4. Assessment

In 2021–2022 the assessment will comprise a 4,500-to-5,500-word essay on the characteristics of a particular genre or type of historical source. The set question for the essay is: ‘Choose a type of primary source and explain its strengths and weaknesses for the study of a significant 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 reconstruction of Scottish political history?’). The convenor of the course is happy to provide help with choosing and refining your topic.

To be submitted online by 12 noon on Friday 29 April 2022 (at the end of Week 21), this essay will be worth one hundred per cent of your of final mark for this course. Note: the word-limits include the footnotes, but exclude the bibliography and any appendices. The marking process and assessment 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 (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 responds precisely to the question, that treats the main issues that it raises, and that is supported with cogent reasoning and reliable evidence.

The essay should be submitted in .pdf format via the Moodle site for this course. You will receive your feedback and grade by email. To ensure that your file is not inadvertently deleted, please give your work a sensible file-name, e.g. ‘Hist424_Essay_YourName’.

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