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The Frontiers of Reason, 1200-1450 - MST00043M

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  • Department: Centre for Medieval Studies
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Lucy Sackville
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22
    • See module specification for other years: 2022-23

Module summary

From the thirteenth century, academic thought drove contemporary debates as never before. On the shoulders of the pioneering scholars of the twelfth century, later medieval thinkers built a system of study in which reason and enquiry, rather than 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.

This module looks at the impact of this changing attitude to the role of rational intellect and human knowledge. Our focus will be on the Universities of Paris, Bologna, and Oxford, but we will also look at Prague and other northern universities. Through the treatises, polemics, and letters that make up the substance of the intellectual world of the period, 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 Autumn Term 2021-22

Module aims

The module aims 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

After successfully completing this course students should:

  • Have an understanding of the history of the medieval university and its relationship to the contemporary intellectual climate
  • Be familiar with the principal sources for central medieval thought, and their interpretation
  • Understand and be able to critique the key methodological and interpretative approaches to the intellectual history of the central Middle Ages

Module content

Teaching Programme:
Students will attend eight weekly two-hour seminars in weeks 2-9.

The likely seminar programme is as follows:

  1. The schools in 1200
  2. Academic heresy: Speroni, Amalric, David of Dinant
  3. The persistence of error: the condemnation of 1277
  4. Scholars versus the mystics
  5. The invincible doctor: William of Ockham
  6. The scientists: Bradwardine, Buridan, Oresme
  7. Paris theologians and magic
  8. The reformers: Wyclif and Hus


Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students are allowed to submit a draft essay for feedback to the tutor by Week 9 of the term in which this is taught.


Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Module feedback

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required.

Indicative reading

Baldwin, John W. Masters, Princes, and Merchants: the Social Views of Peter the Chanter & his Circle. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.

Cobban, Alan B. The Medieval Universities: their Development and Organization. London: Methuen, 1975.

Fichtenau, Heinrich. Heretics and Scholars in the High Middle Ages, 1100-1200. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.

Leff, Gordon. Heresy in the Later Middle Ages: the Relation of Heterodoxy to Dissent, c. 1250-c.1450. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1967, repr. 1999.

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.