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Making the Medieval Human


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Convenors: Mike Bintley, Isabel Davis
  • Assessment: a 1000-word commentary (10%) and two 2500-word essays (45% each)

Module description

What makes us human? How do our concepts of the human emerge or differ from those in the past? Looking at the ways in which new technologies altered the idea and boundaries of the human in the past gives us fresh understandings of similar transformations today.

This module reflects on the ways in which the human being was imagined in the European Middle Ages. Drawing on a broad range of texts in Middle English, Old English, and other languages (the latter two in translation), this module investigates the way in which questions about humans and their relationships with other beings were represented and discussed in the Middle Ages. It considers topics such as creation, supernatural beings, animal-human relations and metamorphosis, ideas about human identity markers (such as gender, age and ‘race’), as well as monstrosity, the agency of objects, and the formation and transgression of boundaries between these various categories. You will encounter a range of enjoyable and extraordinary writing from the period, and have a chance to consider how medieval thinking about the human challenges or supports our own today.

The first half of the module will focus on texts written in English before the Norman Conquest, all of which will be studied in Modern English translation. We will use these to think about how early medieval people understood their relationship with the world around them - how it was constituted, how it operated, and how it could be encountered and manipulated - as well as how humans defined themselves in terms of space and place, gender, monstrosity, and in relation to the supernatural. Our reading will include works of gnomic wisdom (Maxims I and Maxims II); an early retelling of the biblical Genesis; Beowulf, which recounts the exploits of a Swedish monster-slayer in Iron Age Denmark; the Riddles of the Exeter Book, in which creatures and objects animate and inanimate articulate a complex and sometimes precarious existence; accounts of the lives of saints Euphrosyne and Eugenia, both gendered female, who lived as male monastics; and ‘magical’ and medical texts in the metrical charms and Bald’s Leechbook.  

The second half of the module will consider late medieval texts in Middle English (using modern translations and other aids alongside), and be organised around the ideas of body, soul and mind. This will bring us into contact with a rich disciplinary range, including mystical writing, literary work, and medical books. How did medieval writers think about the human? How was a person constituted? How did a person relate to the world around them: other people, animals and the natural environment, and God? This module offers a chance to look into some of the most intriguing texts and books ever made, to see the colour and sophistication of a culture that understood human life differently from the way we do today. We will look at romances, like Sir Gowther, to explore human-animal or human-demon transformation; read mystical writing, like the beautiful Revelations of Julian of Norwich, and its descriptions of the soul and the geography of the afterlife; see inside the books that taught physicians how to use colour and light to understand their patients' bodies; and appreciate Thomas Hoccleve's affecting account of looking in the mirror to understand his mental illness.

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • demonstrate a knowledge of key texts and topics from the Middle Ages reflecting understanding of ‘the human’ from a variety of perspectives
  • recognise the intellectual, social, religious, political and cultural contexts in which these ideas developed
  • engage with secondary criticism and other forms of evidence including historical texts and material culture
  • understand current approaches to key issues in medieval studies.