HSTAM 203 A: Introduction to the Middle Ages: Medieval People

Spring 2022
MW 8:30am - 10:20am / ARC 160
Section Type:
Syllabus Description (from Canvas):

This course, stretching the catalogue description somewhat from the medieval to include the early modern period, introduces you to the people of pre-modern European history. Political history, battles, kings, queens, parliaments, and so on are not the subject. The subject is “ordinary” – and extraordinary – people, understood as an aggregate structurally and quantitatively and, sometimes, when sources and a bit of informed imagination permit, as individuals.

The basis for the course is Eileen Power’s 1924 book, Mediaeval People, a path-breaking work by a pioneering female historian. This will be supplemented by Arthur Imhof’s Lost Worlds: How Our European Ancestors Coped with Everyday Life and Why Life Is So Hard Today. Chapters from Power will structure most weeks, exploding the presentist attitude of much historical scholarship (‘If it’s not recent, it’s useless…’) and providing an imaginative window into one interpretation of past experience. Each week may include additional primary sources (historical witnesses), demographic and economic data, and complementary secondary sources (scholarly articles or chapters). You are expected to read each, deepening your understanding of Power’s work and noting points of subsequent historical revision.

Beyond its general focus on environments, cultures, and institutions of daily life, the course is structured around four themes:

  1. In the eighth century, Europe supplied slaves, fur, and amber to the Near East. By the eighteenth century, Europeans had reoriented the medieval Trans-Saharan slave trade, creating a Transatlantic commodity economy supported by human trafficking. Over the millenium covered by this course, shifting slave-trading networksreveal Europe’s transformation from a peripheral provider of raw materials to advanced, core regions to the hegemonic center of the world economy, reorienting existing networks around itself.
  2. Between 800 and 1800, the population of Western Europe grew, fell, and grew again. The period began with sustained demographic growth in a favorable economic and planetary clime and “natural” fertility. It ended with demographic breakout from premodern fertility regimes and reduced mortality that saw Europe’s population grow considerably over the nineteenth century. You will learn about European demographic history and fertility regimes, including the impact of pandemics, between those phases.
  3. The period covered by this course largely overlapps with the appearance and disappearance of open-field farming landscapes, particularly in paradigmatic areas of Northern and Central Europe including a large band of England, in which individual peasant households cultivated strips of unenclosed common fields. This landscape required the communal organization of cultivation and use of common resources. It generated characteristic cultural tendences, albeit with considerable regional and temporal variation. The enclosure of open fields occurred in different regions at different times, but its near completion is a good marker of the end of early modernity in England and, to a degree, elsewhere.
  4. How did individuals construct a self when residence, occupation, gender roles, and much else were largely immune to individual choice? It may be that individuals were freest to explore their individuality in their relationship with God, so one theme will be the institutional and cultural landscape for the formation of religious selves.

The course has four primary goals for you:

  1. To learn to think like a historian by properly framing a historical question, identifying and evaluating sources, and gaining necessary context.
  2. To approach those of the past with humility and without moralizing prejudice, seeking to understand their lives and their feelings in their words and with their concepts as much as in our words and with our concepts.
  3. To gain an acquaintance with the outlines and debates of the economic, social, cultural, and religious (religion more as shared practice than as doctrine) history of pre-modern Europe.
  4. To improve your ability to communicate what you have learned, in writing and in speech, and your capacity to respond positively to constructive criticism.

Materials will be organized into modules on Canvas. Assignments will focus on demonstrating attainment of course goals. Optional readings are provided, for those interested. Reading responses of 2-4 sentences must be submitted before each meeting for 20% of the final grade. Three essays of 750-1000 words will be worth 20% each of the final grade; no additional reading or research will be required for them. The final examination will be 20% of the final grade. Writing credit is optional by arrangement with the instructor.

The course is synchronous.

Catalog Description:
Introduction to the Western Middle Ages through a study of social roles and statuses as seen through documents and imaginative literature. The groups studied are rulers, aristocracy, peasants, townspeople, clergy, outcasts, and outsiders.
GE Requirements Met:
Social Sciences (SSc)
Last updated:
February 26, 2024 - 12:39 am