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The Measly Middle Ages? Wretchedness and Relief, 1100-1400

Module Code: HIS00023I

Credits: 30

Tutor: Sethina Watson

Pre-requisites: A History first year module

Exclusions: None

How measly were the middle ages? This module examines the poor, sick and helpless of medieval society and the forms of aid that were made available. We begin by looking at miracle stories to think about those who, diseased and desperate, took to the streets in search of saintly intervention. Who were they, and how did they, and those who recorded their tales, respond to their suffering? We look, too, at medieval ideas of madness and at leprosy, a disease which transfixed and appalled contemporaries, as well as at the relationships between sickness and poverty and at the challenges created by an economy whose poor harvests could produce widespread starvation. Important, too, are the many responses to disease and poverty, by monasteries who gave alms to the poor and treatments for their own sick monks, and by nobles and townsmen who established leper houses and hospitals for the poor, sick and travellers. In so doing, we will think about how contemporaries identified, understood and responded to human suffering and about the political implications of the relationships forged between the powerful and the desperate. We will focus on England 1100-1400, but will look also at France, drawing from miracle stories, charters, chronicles and the customs of monasteries and hospitals (all provided in translation).

Learning Outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully should:

  • Have a general knowledge of the economy, landscape and religion of medieval England 1100-1400;
  • Have an introduction to the social and cultural history of charity, and a critical awareness of ideas such as poverty, disease, exclusion and community;
  • Be familiar with a variety of sources for charity and popular religion in the high middle ages;
  • Have acquired preliminary research skills in the navigation of printed primary sources and gained experience in the use of original source material (making use of a handbook of texts in translation)

Teaching Programme

This 30-credit module is taught through a weekly two-hour seminar run from Weeks 2-10 in the Spring Term and a four-week period of project work undertaken in Weeks 1-4 of the Summer Term. Students will write and submit a procedural essay in Week 7 of the Spring Term. Project work will be completed within the summer period and tutors should arrange to be available for consultation with students twice during that time. There will be no formal seminar teaching during this period.

The seminar programme will deal with the following:

  1. Pilgrimage & Miracle: The Medieval Experience
  2. Pilgrimage & Miracle: Modern Investigations
  3. Medieval ‘madness’
  4. What to do with the leper?
  5. Early Hospitals and their Founders     
  6. Poverty & Monastic Alms
  7. The Monastic Infirmary
  8. Later Hospitals and their Treatments
  9. Charity and Plague in the Fourteenth Century

Project work will deal with the following:
Group projects in which students will investigate charity in a particular city or region.


This module is assessed by:

  • A 24 hour open exam to be taken in the summer assessment period. Single subject students, who take two Explorations modules, will take two 24 hour open exams to be held on consecutive days.
  • A group project for which a piece of written work of no more than or 3,000 words will be submitted at the start of the summer assessment period (Week 5). This piece of written work might take a variety of forms such as a book or website review; a textual commentary, annotated bibliography, project report or a short essay.

The exam carries 67 per cent of assessment and the project element 33 per cent for this module.

Preliminary Reading                                

  • Dyer, Christopher. Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520. London: Yale University Press, 2002.
  • Miller, E. and J. Hatcher, Medieval England: Rural Society and Economic Change 1086-1348. London: Longman, 1978.
  • Finucane, R. C. Miracles and Pilgrims: Popular Beliefs in Medieval England. London: Book Club Associates, 1977.
  • Mollat, Michel. The Poor in the Middle Ages: An Essay in Social History. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. London: Yale University Press, 1986.
  • Harvey, Barbara. Living and Dying in England 1100-1540: The Monastic Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Rawcliffe, Carole. Leprosy in Medieval England. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006