“Thys letter be y-taken to ye lord Hungerford”: an English letter from c.1415

Common Knowledge: Publics, Power and Information in Fifteenth-Century England

Tutor: Tom Johnson

Module type: MA Option

Module code: HIS00090M

Late-medieval England was awash with information, from gossip and rumours to sermons and songs, to pamphlets, bills, and letters. Vernacular English was gaining ground as a language of literature, government, political discussion, and more controversially, religious debates; a broader base of society – from gentry families like the Pastons of Norfolk to ordinary townsmen gathering in taverns – attempted to keep abreast of the latest news and political developments; and more and more people used, collected, and circulated written material.

This module will explore these developments as part of a developing information culture in fifteenth-century England. What were people expected to know and what did they actually know? How did they go about finding something out, and what could they do with this knowledge? Who, or what controlled the circulation of information? Answering these questions will help us to understand the complexities of late-medieval English society and culture, the concept of a ‘public sphere’, and introduce us to an array of primary sources.

Each week we will look at a different genre or media of information exchange in the context of a wider historiographical theme. Working closely with sources such as literary texts, letter collections, bills, commonplace books, petitions, and sermons (among others) will help us to understand the diversity of available material from this period, and the range of critical interpretations that go with them. It will also direct our discussions towards broader debates about heresy and dissent, New Historicism, and political culture.

The provisional outline for the module is as follows:

  • Introduction: Reading, Writing, and Literacy
  • Letters: Work, Home, and Communication
  • Writing English: Vernaculars and Texts
  • Books: Miscellanies, Collection, and Circulation
  • Speech: News, Noise, and Rumour
  • Bills and Petitions: Writing and Popular Politics
  • Preaching, Piety, and Heresy
  • Political Culture and the Public


Preliminary reading  

  • Clanchy, Michael T. From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993
  • Justice, Stephen. Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996
  • Bahr, Arthur. Fragments and Assemblages: Forming Compilations of Medieval London. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013


For more information, please visit the module catalogue.