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Public Intellectuals: Authority and the Medieval University - HIS00167M

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Lucy Sackville
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24
    • See module specification for other years: 2024-25

Module summary

On the shoulders of the pioneering scholars of the twelfth century, later medieval thinkers built a system of study in which reason and enquiry, as well as authority, formed the basis of academic research. In its ascendancy, the scholastic project explored the scope, and reach, of human understanding, but inherent in this approach was a capacity for radical and even heterodox thought that generated debates whose implications resonated far beyond the confines of the universities. Over the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, discussion within and around the newly formed universities produced innovative and sophisticated ideas about the world and its workings. But that discussion also provoked deep disquiet about the potential for these ideas to cause disruption and dissent beyond the walls of the classroom.

This module looks at the impact of this changing attitude to the role of human knowledge. Through the treatises, polemics, and letters that make up the substance of that intellectual world, we will examine the major debates and controversies that lie at heart of shifts in the cultural and religious climate of the later Middle Ages. We will look at the ways in which discussions about how the world should be understood and ordered led inevitably to discussions about the source of spiritual, and by implication secular, authority. The role of scepticism and heterodoxy in the formation of orthodoxy will be considered, as well as the relationship of universities to dissent, a recurring theme in contemporary discourse as well as in modern historiography.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2023-24

Module aims

The aims of this module are to:

  • Develop skills of source analysis and interpretation
  • Assess a range of source material and relevant secondary works; and
  • Develop students’ powers of evidence-based historical argument, both orally and in writing.

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Demonstrate a knowledge of a specialist historiographical literature;
  • Present findings in an analytical framework derived from a specialist field;
  • Solve a well-defined historiographical problem using insights drawn from secondary and, where appropriate, primary sources.
  • Set out written findings using a professional scholarly apparatus.

Module content

Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1. Students will then attend a 2-hour seminar in weeks 2-4, 6-8 and 10-11. Weeks 5 & 9 are Reading and Writing (RAW) weeks during which there are no seminars, and during which students research and write a formative essay, consulting with the module tutor. Students prepare for eight seminars in all.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

  1. Reason and authority
  2. This is censure: Amaury of Bène and David of Dinant
  3. Two contrary truths: the condemnation of 1277
  4. The case of Thomas Aquinas
  5. Magicians
  6. Scholars vs the mystics
  7. Political heresy: Ockham takes on the Pope
  8. Reform and radical belief: Wyclif and Hus


Task Length % of module mark
Long Essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students submit a 2,000-word formative essay in week 9.
A 4,000-word summative essay will be due in the assessment period.



Module feedback

Students will typically receive written feedback on their formative essay within 10 working days of submission.

Work will be returned to students in their seminars and may be supplemented by the tutor giving some oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their formative essay during their tutor’s student hours—especially during week 11, before, that is, they finalise their plans for the Summative Essay.

For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 25 working days of the submission deadline. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For reading during the module, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

  • Bird, Jessalynn, “The Wheat and the Tares: Peter the Chanter's Circle and the Fama-based Inquest Against Heresy and Criminal Sins, c.1198-c.1235”. In Proceedings of the Twelfth International Congress of Medieval Canon Law, 763-856. (Vatican City: BAV, 2008.)
  • Denery II, Dallas G., Kantik Ghosh, and Nicolette Zeeman, ed. Uncertain Knowledge: Scepticism, Relativism, and Doubt in the Middle Ages. Turnhout, (Brepols, 2014.)
  • Wei, Ian P. Intellectual Culture in Medieval Paris: Theologians and the University, c.1100-1330. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.