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Punishing the Body - MST00079M

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  • Department: Centre for Medieval Studies
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Sethina Watson
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2022-23

Module summary

Dr Christine Williamson will be convening this module Spring term 2022/23.

From the barbarism in faux-medieval ‘The Game of Thrones’ to media descriptions of ISIS violence as ‘medieval’, popular modern culture often associates the idea of bodily punishment, blood and gore with the medieval period. However, ‘the body’ is both a corporeal form and a cultural construct whose meaning changed over time, location and social context. Punishment visited on the body was therefore both personal and political, individual as well as social. This module will use a range of theoretical approaches and interdisciplinary sources to unpick the various strands of meaning encoded in the image of the punished body throughout the medieval period in both its physical and metaphorical forms.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Spring Term 2022-23

Module aims

“Images of medieval punishment are commonly understood with reference to what Umberto Eco has dubbed ‘shaggy medievalism’, the idea of the Middle Ages as a barbaric epoch. In a culture ravaged by violence, death, pain and disease, the story goes, it was entirely natural that [the medieval world] should exhibit a profound fascination with flowing blood, torn flesh, fragmented body parts.” (Mills, 2005, p. 8)

In popular modern cultural perceptions ‘the medieval’ often stands as a proxy for violence and pain visited on the human body. Certain legal penalties did indeed stipulate bodily mutilation as a punishment that literally inscribed the laws of the land onto the physical body in order to dishonour and impair the criminal. Yet a Christian could chastise the body in order to enhance their chance of salvation in the next life. To define what ‘the body’ meant to the medieval world is far from simple, for linked to the notion of the physical body are a myriad of further ideas including metaphorical concepts such as the body politic or the body of the Church. Add gender into the picture and matters become even more complex. Actual female bodies were often viewed as weaker, more impure and more easily tempted into sin than their male counterparts. At the same time, however, the Church itself was frequently viewed (and indeed celebrated) as a female entity in its role as the bride of Christ. From these few examples alone, it becomes clear that ‘the body’ is both a physical and a cultural construct whose meaning changed over time, location and social context.

This module focuses on one particular aspect of the body: punishment. ‘Punishment’ is also a term that requires further definition, for there are many different forms that it can take and many different meanings to be gleaned from its use; indeed, punishment of the body could be voluntary or involuntary, brief or long lasting, longed for or feared. In a political situation, bodily punishment could be an important element within power mechanisms that guaranteed social order and stability; however, from a religious perspective, divine punishment that purified the mortal body could empower the individual. In this module, we will explore the different ways in which punishment of the human body was part of an ordered human experience in different parts and periods of the medieval world.

Module learning outcomes

After completing this module students should have:

a) An understanding of a range of theoretical approaches to medieval punishment

b) An awareness of the variety of source material available to study the topic and an understanding of some of the problems involved in the use of these sources

c) The ability to use and reflect critically upon a range of relevant interdisciplinary primary and secondary material

d) An understanding of comparative approaches to interdisciplinary questions

Module content

Possible seminar topics may include

1. Approaches to Punishment and the Body

2. Anglo-Saxon Law Codes

3. Depictions in Early Medieval Art

4. The Punished Bodies of the Martyrs

5. Leprosy

6. The Blood Libel

7. Depictions in Later Medieval Art

8. Reflections on Punishment and the Body

Indicative assessment

Task Length % of module mark
3500-4000 word essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Indicative reassessment

Task Length % of module mark
3500-4000 word essay
N/A 100

Module 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.

Indicative reading

J.P. Gates and N. Marafioti (ed.), Capital and Corporal Punishment in Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2014)

M.B. Merback, The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (Reaktion Books, 2001)

R. Mills, Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure and Punishment in Medieval Culture (London: Reaktion, 2005)

L. Tracy, Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature: Negotiations of National Identity (Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2015)

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University constantly explores 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. In some instances it may be appropriate for the University to notify and consult with affected students about module changes in accordance with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.