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Level 5

5AAH2021 Aristocratic Society and Culture in Medieval Europe 900-1300

Credit value: 30
Module convenor/tutor 2019/20: Dr Simon Parsons
Teaching pattern: 20 x 2-hour seminars (weekly)
Availability: Please see module list for relevant year
Assessment: 1 x 3-hour examination (60%) & 2 x 2,000 word essays (15% each) & 1 x oral presentation (10%)

Students are reassessed in the failed elements of assessment by the following methods: 1 x 3 hour examination (60%); 2 x 2,000 word essays (15% each); 1 x 1,500 word essay (10%)

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.

This module examines the nature of aristocratic society and culture in Western Europe between 900 and 1300.  During this period, the aristocracy (from Greek, meaning ‘rule of the best’) is thought to have undergone significant change in ideals of behaviour, self-representation, entertainment, and the conduct of high-status warfare.  From being a small-scale warrior, the knight and concept of knighthood became the badge of manhood, a prerequisite for anyone seeking elite status. Moreover, it has been argued that this period saw not only the development of chivalry into a coherent and understood code which governed behaviour but also the transformation of the aristocracy into a nobility, defined by legal privileges and social exclusivity.  Gender roles arguably became more fixed, particularly within the genre of courtly romance, and the beginning of the crusading movement also affected elite behaviours. The power exercised by the aristocracy also changed: from lords exercising independent and arbitrary powers over their lands and dependents to being incorporated into developing state forms, states that, in places, are believed to be the predecessors of modern European states.  None of these are uncontroversial narratives, however, and time will be spent examining them during the seminars. The course will introduce students to some written primary sources, available in translation, but also look at other types of evidence, particularly material culture, including seals, heraldry, effigies and tombs. The emphasis throughout will be comparative, although most attention will be paid to the British Isles, France and the German Empire.

Provisional teaching plan

Semester 1

1. Introduction: the Song of Roland
2. The Feudal Revolution 1: The French School
3. The Feudal Revolution 2: The Franco-American School
4. Women, power and family transformations
5. The Rise of Knighthood
6. Ways in: fealty, homage and dubbing
7. Chivalry 1: Court and Conduct
8. Chivalry 2: War and Conduct
9. The crisis of knighthood in the thirteenth century?
10. From an aristocracy into a nobility?

Semester 2

11. Disparagement, sodomy and gender norms
12. Court and LIterature
13. Playing at war: the rise of the tournament
14. William Marshal: the best knight in the world?
15. On the edge of civilisation: the Roman de Fergus
16. Self-representation: Genealogy and Seals
17. Self-representation 2: Genealogy and Death
18. Different options 1: Violence and Vengeance
19. Different options 2: the German ministeriales
20. Different options 3: Sagas and the heroic

Suggested introductory reading

This is suggested reading and purchase of these texts is not mandatory. All core reading will be available online.

Thomas N. Bisson, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship and the Origins of European Government (Princeton, 2009)

David Crouch, The Birth of Nobility: Constructing Aristocracy in England and France 900–1300 (Harlow, 2005)

Anne J. Duggan ed., Nobles and Nobility in Medieval Europe: Concepts, Origins, Transformations (Woodbridge, 2000)

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