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Level 5

5AAH1037 The Sociology of the Middle Ages

Credit value: 15
Module convenor/tutor: Dr Simon Parsons
Teaching pattern: 10 x 2-hour seminar (weekly)
Availability: Please see module list for relevant year
Assessment: 1 x 1,500 word formative essay, 1 x 3,000 word essay

Students are reassessed in the failed elements of assessment and by the same methods as the first attempt.

Assessment pre 2019/20: 2 x essay of 2,500 words (50% each)

The modules offered in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand: there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary between years

Much sociological theory has developed in a bid to understand the modern – what is is, and how it came about. For this reason, it has tended to focus on a rather narrow range of societies. But sociological theory can be at its most useful when applied to societies that are very different from ours, by making them understandable according to the same analytical frameworks. This course will use these frameworks to understand the Middle Ages (arguably the period where European history seems at its most alien). It will explore issues central to social and political relations, such as: what makes people think well or badly of someone else? Why are some people listened to and not others? How is popular opinion shaped? How is it decided who will be at the top of a hierarchy and who at the bottom, and what purposes do these hierarchies serve? How far is social mobility possible, and on what basis? What makes certain groups of people more violent than others? Why is being in someone else’s symbolic debt sometimes so difficult to bear for the beneficiary? Why are social norms and rules of behaviour so mysterious and so difficult to master, and what makes some people better at them than others? By asking these same fundamental questions both in past and present tenses, this course will exploit the power of both sociology and history to make our own world suddenly look strange and unfamiliar.

Provisional teaching plan

  1. Vengeance, feud and crime
  2. Gift-giving and symbolic violence
  3. Gossip and reputation
  4. Emotions, friendship and hatred
  5. Ritual and symbolic communication
  6. Family, filiation, and kin
  7. Gender and sexuality
  8. Purity and danger
  9. Coarseness and refinement
  10. Public and private

Suggested introductory reading

This is suggested reading and purchase of these books is not mandatory.

Core reading will be set each week but students may wish to familarise themselves with any of:

N. Elias, The Civilizing Process, tr. E. Jephcott, revised edition (2000)

W. Miller, Humiliation, and Other Essays on Honor, Social Discomfort, and Violence (1993)

P. Buc, The Dangers of Ritual: Between Early Medieval Texts and Social Scientific Theory (2001)

P. Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984)

M. Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, tr. W.D. Halls (1990)

M. Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966)


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