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Barbarians, monsters and other Others: encountering the Other, c.200-1000


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor: Elina Screen
  • Assessment: a 5000-word essay (100%)

Module description

It is through encountering others that people define themselves and construct their concept of ‘the other’. This module will explore the different cultural and gender frameworks that shaped how the people of late Antiquity and the early middle ages engaged with those different to themselves, at a time of enormous political, social, economic and religious change. In 200, the unitary Roman empire with its powerful shared literary culture dominated the Mediterranean world, and Christianity was a minority religion. Waves of migration brought ‘barbarian’ peoples into the Roman world, and combined with internal crises to break up the Western Roman empire in the fifth century. The seventh century saw the rise of Islam and the political and religious transformation of the eastern and southern Mediterranean world. By the end of our period, the monotheistic religions of Christianity and Islam had rewritten religious life and how people understood the divine.

We will use some fascinating texts to access individuals, their experiences of others and the other, to explore how they negotiated their own place in the context of the family and contemporary gender expectations, but also at the level of the state, collective identities and wider societal frameworks. These case studies will also open up the wider social and religious changes of this vibrant period, and allow us to consider areas of continuity, for example the strong survival of concepts of romanitas (Romanness) and of Roman expectations about ‘barbarians’ (and indeed monsters and the monstrous). We will also consider how gender norms operated and changed across the period, as religious, social and economic structures shifted. Lastly, we will explore the permeable boundary between this world and other worlds, to consider how people defined and understood themselves in relation to spiritual forces, and experienced the influence of the divine in the mundane world, at a time of religious change.

All the texts will be accessed in translation and no prior knowledge of the period is required.

Indicative module syllabus

  • Introduction: Thinking about others and accessing ancient identities
  • Other worlds 1: Perpetua (d. 203)
  • Others abroad 1: Priscus of Panium’s embassy to Attila the Hun
  • Others within 1: Sidonius Apollinaris and the Visigoths
  • Others within 2: St Matrona of Perge (d. c. 510-15)
  • Pilgrims and exiles: Anglo-Saxon and Irish missionaries on the continent
  • Other worlds 2: Visions and visionaries in Carolingian world
  • Others abroad 2: Liudprand of Cremona’s Embassy to Constantinople (963)
  • Social exiles: the slave trade