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Lessons from the Medieval Body


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor and tutorIsabel Davis
  • Assessment: a 5000-word research essay (100%)

Module description

What lessons can be learned from the medieval body? How can our assumptions and ideas about the body be shaken up by looking at materials from a culture which is very different from our own? What new vistas on the historical body are opened up by looking at historical evidence alongside cultural and critical theory?

This module gives you space and time to develop your own research angle on these questions, enabling fresh explorations of the history of the body in relation to, for example, medicine, identity politics (race, sexuality, gender, disability and age), psychology, environment and religious practice. Topics you might study include: the lives of the saints with their strange, resistant bodies; the chromatic fantasies that are illuminated uroscopy manuals; Romances about magical transformation and hybrid identities; court records about sexual transgression or bodily violence; the struggles with the earth-boundness of body in the work of the mystics. We will prise their meanings open with key theoretical texts, both medieval (with, for example, Aristotle, Avicenna and Augustine) and modern (including feminist and race theory, and other cultural theory on materiality and embodiment).

Indicative module syllabus

  • Introduction: humorology and the body as microcosm
  • Skin colour before America: crusading romances and race theory
  • Reproductive politics: inside the female body (medieval accounts of the foetus in utero and modern discussions of foetal imaging)
  • Metamorphosis and monstrosity: theories of bodily transformation and hybridity medieval and modern
  • Body and mind: comparing medieval and modern understandings of the relation between body and mind
  • Violence and death: saints’ lives and anatomy
  • Body parts: votive offerings, relics and theorising material culture
  • Diagnosing (in) the past: uroscopy manuals and case histories
  • Labour and disability, the politics of welfare
  • Sexuality and queer bodies: Romances and court records

Learning objectives

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

  • demonstrate a knowledge of key texts and topics reflecting the body in history (especially the Middle Ages)
  • recognise the intellectual, social, religious, political and cultural contexts in which these ideas developed
  • engage with and evaluate secondary criticism and other forms of evidence
  • demonstrate an understanding of current theoretical perspectives on the body in history
  • read critically and deconstruct primary evidence and theoretical frameworks
  • construct an argument based upon textual evidence.