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Level 5

5AANCF01 Women Thinkers in Antiquity and the Middle Ages



Credit value: 15
Module tutor: Professor Peter Adamson


  • Summative assessment: 1 x 2,500 word essay (100%)
  • Formative assessment: 1 x 2,000 word essay


  • Summative assessment: 2 x 2,000 word essays (50% each)
  • Formative assessment: 1 x 2,000 word essay

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

IMPOTANT - Teaching pattern: one one-hour weekly pre-recorded video lecture and one one-hour weekly seminar over ten weeks
Pre-requisites: none

Intellectual history of antiquity and the Middle Ages is typically conducted with sparse attention to women authors, and women thinkers whose works are not preserved. This module will challenge that approach, by focusing on the achievements and contributions of female thinkers spanning a period from classical antiquity, with figures like Aspasia and Diotima, down to Christine de Pizan at the dawn of the European Renaissance. Some attention will also be paid to other cultural traditions, especially India and the Islamic world, though the richest materials are to be found in the Greek and Latin textual traditions. Many of the figures covered are, in a broad sense of the term, “philosophers,” but figures more usually described as “mystics,” such as Rabia and Hildegard of Bingen will also be included.

At the same time, it will be asked what limits and pitfalls may confront the project of recovering the thought of women from these past ages. How should deal with texts and reports that are of dubious authenticity (as with a set of letters ascribed to female Pythagoreans), with figures who may be simply fictional (Plato’s Diotima, for instance), or historically genuine figures who are presented only in works by men (for instance Augustine’s mother Monica).

An unusual feature of the module is that students will be asked to listen to the relevant episodes of the History of Philosophy podcast, which is hosted by the instructor, and bring information from that podcast series to bear on classroom discussion.

Further information

Module aims

  • To introduce students to a range of female thinkers in the societies of ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, ancient India, and also the Islamic and Latin Christian Middle Ages.

  • To encourage students to reflect on the historical and intellectual contexts in which female thinkers worked, including ideas about the intellectual capacities of women, which determined their opportunities for participation in elite discourses.

  • To encourage students to use the source materials critically, in particular with reference to questions of authenticity and the motives of male authors in reporting the ideas of female thinkers (both real and fictional).

Learning outcomes

By the end of this module, a successful student is expected to be able to:

  • Demonstrate critical engagement with and understanding of ancient and medieval texts by, and about, female thinkers, drawing on both primary literature in translation and on secondary material.
  • Analyze the ideas of historical figures within a wider historical context.
  • Communicate ideas and findings clearly and persuasively in writing.
  • Format assignments and reference material appropriately.

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

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