Help me with a course on Medieval Europe

Next year I’ll be co-teaching a module on ‘The Making of Modern Christianity: Medieval and Reformation Europe.’ I’ll be taking the medieval section of the module (I can’t tell you how glad I am not to have to teach Luther). I want to use the module to look at a number of important themes from that period: changing forms of empire; the emergence of race; the role of Islam and Judaism in forming European Christian identity; transformations around gender, sexuality and the body; struggles for control over knowledge, power and property that made possible the later emergence of industrialisation, colonialism, and capitalism; and, crucially, the role of Christianity in all of the above. I’m trying to figure out how best to do that around some of the key events of the period: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the trials of witches and heretics, the emergence of monasticism and then the universities, the Investiture Controversy, popular piety including pilgrimages, cults of the saints and relics, that kind of thing.

So, help me out! What has gone well or badly when you’ve taught in this area before? Which primary texts are great for reading with small groups and which are horrible? What are the best and most interesting books on the period (500-1500ish)? I’d especially appreciate recommendations of primary or secondary texts that are written by people of colour, texts on the relationship between Christianity, Islam and Judaism in that period, interesting accounts of the role of the emerging university and any discussions of ideas of empire in the Middle Ages written with an eye to the development of European colonialism.

9 thoughts on “Help me with a course on Medieval Europe

  1. Jacques Le Goff’s Your Money or Your Life is a short (93 small pages) and extremely entertaining read on the development of the doctrine of purgatory and its role in the emergence of capitalism.

  2. Definitely teach them about Al-Andalus. This blows my students’ minds. Maria Rose Menocal’s Ornament of the World is good to give as an initial read, as it really illuminates the way that this time period is “rediscovered” and infused with a new kind of pluralist hope and sensibility (it’s also an easy read, as it’s a popular text). Olivia Remie Constable’s Medieval Iberia is a great set of translations of original source documents including treaties, law codes, etc… These reveal a lot more about what the day-to-day reality of life was probably like, on the ground.

  3. primary text: Ibn Fadlan’s Risala, including Account of the Rus (a Muslim describing Viking dress, religion and behaviour – fun to look at from the opposite side)

    Some saints lives are cracking laughs – I remember someone got smitten by God on the toilet but can’t remember the details. Etheldreda’s life is an interesting depiction of women with power, using the church to get out of difficult marriages and with-holding sex as a way to get power. St. Euphrosyne lived as a man in a monastery for thirty-eight years and converted her father to the ‘good and moral life.’ Some scholars believe this area of female sainthood is a Christianized form of homage to Aphrodite and Hermaphrodite.

    The Welsh lawcodes on marriage before the full impact of Canon Law also fun – women paid the cowyll a maiden fee or gift paid at her request by a husband to his wife on the morning following their marriage.

  4. If you can stretch it by another 50 years or so and fancy some fiction then Luther Blissett’s Q would be a good text (though it’s very long). Catholic church and empire, the peasant’s revolt, Luther as moderate sellout, anabaptist millenarian proto-anarcho-communism and lots of sex.

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