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Blood and Faith: Violence, Religion and Heresy in Medieval and Early Modern Europe


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Convenor and tutor: to be confirmed
  • Assessment: two 2500-word essays (25% each) and a three-hour examination (50%)

Module description

Who is a heretic? What does a heretic believe? And most importantly, what should be done about it?

Across medieval and early modern Europe, these questions divided states, cities, communities and families, and frequently generated brutal violence. Whether it was Bernard of Clairvaux recruiting for the Second Crusade, the Inquisition in thirteenth-century France, the Hussite wars in late medieval Bohemia, or the Council of Troubles in the sixteenth-century Low Countries, efforts were repeatedly made to control beliefs and eradicate ‘heretical’ ideas. Nevertheless, medieval and early modern Europe was continually beset by ‘heretical’ ideas and movements. Waldensianism and Catharism flourished in medieval France and Italy, Lollardism took root in late medieval England, and the Reformation saw ‘heretical’ ideas spread across Europe.

In this module we examine medieval and early modern violence, religion and heresy through primary sources such as trial records, chronicles, sermons, treatises, letters, songs, images and material artefacts. Taken together, these will illuminate:

  • who heretics were
  • why heretical ideas became popular
  • how paradigms of violence governed the ways individuals and communities fostered religious devotion.

We will chart how definitions and beliefs about heresy were neither fixed nor universal but were culturally embedded across time and space. Furthermore, we will examine violence and belief through the lens of the emotions and the senses, and how memories of violence and heresy could be preserved and passed on through stories, songs and objects. Finally, we will investigate religious co-existence and strategies for tolerating religious difference.

Indicative syllabus

  • Introduction to medieval and early modern heresy, faith and violence
  • Refuting heretics, recruiting crusaders: Bernard of Clairvaux
  • Waldensians and Catharism
  • Bogomils, Wyclifites, Lollards, Hussites
  • Medieval inquisition
  • Sensing faith, feeling pain: blood piety, devotion and the emotions
  • Heresy, belief and migration in the late Middle Ages
  • Protest, resistance and revolutions
  • Heretics and heresy in the Reformation: Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists
  • Seeing heresy: medieval and early modern iconoclasm
  • Religious violence in early modern England
  • Small Armageddons
  • Dehumanising violence
  • Anabaptism, violence and migration
  • Early modern inquisition
  • Propaganda, violence and song
  • Burning books and remembering heretics: censorship and the battle over collective memory of heresy
  • Crusaders then and now, from Constantinople to the ISIS caliphate?
  • Pacifism, amiable enmity and tolerating difference

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will:

  • understand theories and frameworks of violence and heresy current in the Middle Ages and early modern period
  • be familiar with theoretical literature on violence generated by scholars across the disciplines of history, religion and anthropology
  • be able to analyse change and continuity in the history of violence and heresy over the period 1100-1700
  • be able to situate the history of religion and belief within wider debates about the history of violence, political action, the emotions, the body and subjectivity.