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Masculinities & Femininities in Late Medieval Europe - MST00070M

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  • Department: Centre for Medieval Studies
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Rachel Delman
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2019-20

Module summary

In the popular imagination the medieval period has long been associated with knights on horseback and maidens in towers, yet what did it really mean to be male or female in the middle ages? This module will examine the multiple and often conflicting ideas about masculinity and femininity in late medieval Europe (c.1350-1550), and how these translated into reality. Since Joan Scott published her seminal article, ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Analysis’ in the late 1980s, medievalists have increasingly used gender as a lens for understanding social relations and identities. While historians were initially interested in the differences between men and women, these discussions have since given way to more nuanced explorations of the ways in which gender intersected with a range of factors, including geographical location, social standing, marital status and point in the life course. Critical attention has also been paid to the longstanding assumption that women were the ‘marked’ gender through the relatively recent rise of masculinity studies. This interdisciplinary module will explore the ideologies and institutions shaping late medieval masculinities and femininities in their various forms, including church and home, town and countryside and court and community. In so doing, it will draw on an array of different source types, including court records, literary evidence, material culture and the built environment (including buildings and artefacts in the City of York), so as to invite critical evaluation of the ways in which contemporary gender norms were constructed, reinforced and defied through language, objects and space. By covering a broad spectrum of medieval society — from clerics and kings to female mystics and cross-dressing prostitutes — this course will provide an in-depth overview of masculine and feminine behaviours in late medieval Europe. 

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2019-20

Module aims

In the later twelfth century the mission of the church was transformed: instead of counselling flight from the world and its vices, it aimed, with renewed vigour, to engage the world and offer a fully Christian life to those within. To a church that had most confidently fostered salvation through monastic life this presented a pressing challenge: what did it mean to be a Christian in the world?

Bishops, theologians, lawyers and laity all played a part in asking and answering this question. This module will explore how they identified workable ideals for lay life and new regulations, rituals, and systems of care for their support. It will place the great Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 in the context of the movement of reform (c.1160-1260) and its challenge of implementing grand ideals on a local level. We will use examples from England and Northern France to illustrate how the pastoral church engaged the laity and, in particular, gain a familiarity the major sources available for the later medieval church. This century of reform created the structures of the later medieval church; its problems (and solutions) illuminate the rationales that underpinned them.

Module learning outcomes

After completing this module students should have:

  • An awareness of key topics and historiographical debates defining women’s and gender history since the late 20th century, including masculinity studies. 

  • The ability to identify and critically evaluate a wide range of textual and non-textual sources relevant to the module topic.

  • The ability to confidently discuss how gendered ideals and realities played out in a wide range of settings and contexts across late medieval Europe. 

Module content

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

The provisional outline for the module is as follows:

Week 1: Sex, Gender and the Body

Week 2: Church and Court: Masculinities, Femininities and the Law 

Week 3: Maidens and Widows

Week 4: Christ as Mother: Mysticism and Male Maternity

Week 5: Manly Women? Debates about Women and Power 

Week 6: Fatherhood and Motherhood: Gender Roles at Home (and Beyond)

Week 7: Polar Opposites? Clerical and Warrior Masculinities 

Week 8: Men and Women on the Margins: Cross-Dressing and Same-Sex desires


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 4000 words
N/A 100

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
Essay 4000 words
N/A 100

Module feedback

You will be able to find out your marks for the taught part of your programme via e:vision no later than six weeks after the deadline or assessment. To access e:vision, visit: Agreed marks and the internal examiners reports for assessed essays are normally released on e:vision within six weeks of the submission date of the assessment, after the internal marking has been completed, and the marks are subsequently reviewed by the External Examiner. These marks remain provisional until they have been confirmed by the Graduate Examinations Board in November. Dissertation marks and examiners reports, together with the final results of the degree, are available shortly after the Final Examinations Board in November.

Indicative reading

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

Bynum, Caroline Walker, Holy Feast, Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley; London: University of California Press, 1987. Available online through the library catalogue. 

Lees, Clare A.; Fenster, Thelma S.; and McNamara, Jo Ann (eds.), Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994. Available online through the library catalogue. 

Bennett, Judith M., and Karras, Ruth Mazo (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Available online through the library catalogue. 

Phillips, Kim, Medieval Maidens: Young Women and Gender in England, 1270-1540. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2003.

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.