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All the City's a Stage? Performance and Ritual in Late Medieval Europe - HIS00178M

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

Module summary

In an age before television, radio, or print, cities were the main sites of storytelling. Late medieval towns hosted Robin Hood plays, Biblical re-enactments, royal entries, oath-taking ceremonies, and public punishments: all events that combined popular entertainment with more serious messages about power, morality, and sin.

Western Europe saw a surge in urban performance in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with plays and processions often staged at particular times of year and following a set script. Why did post-Black Death urban society invest so much money in putting on a show? How did participants and audiences feel about these performances? Did rituals and pageantry always bolster the power of existing elites, or could they subvert social and political hierarchies?

Ranging across England, Ireland, France, the Low Countries, and Iberia, this module considers the ways in which performance was used to articulate and contest social values within urban communities. We adopt a ‘bottom-up’ approach, using surviving play texts, chronicles, financial accounts, legal records, and the urban built environment itself to imagine how individuals experienced the sights and sounds of civic ritual. More broadly, we shall also use late medieval sources to engage with debates in the humanities and social sciences about the relationship between performance, identity, and social order.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2024-25

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. The City as a Holy Body? The York Corpus Christi Plays
  2. Playing Around: Theatre, Games, and Ritual Inversion
  3. Whose Show is this, Anyway? Royal Pageantry in Urban Settings
  4. Making Promises: Oath-Taking, Inauguration Rituals, and Rites of Passage
  5. Setting Boundaries: Riding the Franchise
  6. Shame on You! Rituals of Penance and Punishment
  7. Disrupting the Routine: Rebellion, Resistance, and Ritual
  8. What’s Missing? Confining Performance to Text


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.


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

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:

  • Abigail Agresta, The Keys to Bread and Wine: Faith, Nature, and Infrastructure in Late Medieval Valencia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2022)
  • Sarah Beckwith, ‘Ritual, Theatre and Social Space in York’s Play of Corpus Christi’, in Barbara Hanawalt and David Wallace (eds), Bodies and Disciplines: Intersections of Literature and History in Fifteenth-Century England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995)
  • Barbara A. Hanawalt, Ceremony and Civility: Civic Culture in Late Medieval London (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)

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.