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Heresy and Dissent, 1000-1450 - 30 credits (HS1710)

Module Tutor: Helen Nicholson

Course Description

From 1000 onwards religious dissent became more prominent in Europe. Some religious movements were seen as such a threat to social stability that the authorities went to great lengths to crush them, resorting to crusades, inquisitions and burning those who refused to recant their beliefs. This course will seek to contextualise these movements within the society from which they came and to examine the impact that they made on that society. It will also examine who became involved in such movements and explore reasons for their involvement. Why were so many women attracted to heresy? Why did religious dissent become such a problem for the ecclesiastical and lay authorities and why were those authorities unable to counter that problem effectively? The course will focus on certain large-scale movements such as the Cathars of S. France and the Albigensian Crusade which set out to crush them; the Rhineland mystics; the Lollards of England; the Hussites of Bohemia and the disastrously unsuccessful crusades launched against them. It concludes by looking forward to the Reformation and asks how far the European heresies before 1450 contributed to the religious and philosophical revolution of the sixteenth century.

Credits: 30

Availability of module:  Every year


Necessary for

Teaching methods

A range of teaching methods will be used in each of the sessions of the course, comprising a combination of lectures and seminar discussion of major issues. The syllabus is divided into a series of major course themes, then sub-divided into principal topics for the study of each theme.

The aim of the lectures is to provide a brief introduction to a particular topic, establishing the salient features of major course themes, identifying key issues and providing historiographical guidance. The lectures aim to provide a basic framework for understanding and should be thought of as useful starting points for further discussion and individual study. Where appropriate, handouts and other materials may be distributed to reinforce the material discussed.

The primary aim of seminars will be to generate debate and discussion amongst course participants. Seminars for each of the course topics will provide an opportunity for students to analyse and further discuss key issues and topics relating to lectures.


Students will be assessed by means of a combination of one 1000 word assessed essay [15%], one 2000 word assessed essay [35%] and one two-hour unseen written examination paper in which the student will answer two questions [50%].

Course assignments:

Assessed Essay 1 will contribute 15% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 1,000 words (excluding empirical appendices and references).

Assessed Essay 2 will contribute 35% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 2,000 words (excluding empirical appendices and references).

The Examination will take place during the second assessment period [May/June] and will consist of an unseen two hour paper that will contribute the remaining 50% of the final mark for this module. Students must write 2 answers in total.

Summary of course content

What is heresy?
The attraction of heresy
Why did heresy arise?
Reactions to heresy.
The repression of heresy.
Why did the Church and the State persecute heresy? How effective was repression of dissidents?
Evangelical heresy 1000–1200: hermits, Waldensians and Universities
Dualism: The Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade
New Directions: Joachimites and Spiritual Franciscans; and heresy in the British Isles
The heresy of the Free Spirit: Marguerite Porete and Sister Catherine
Was the heresy of the Free Spirit dangerous?
The troubled 14th century, English intellectuals, John Wycliffe and the Lollards
Bohemia, the Hussites and Hussite Crusades
Medieval heresy, witchcraft and magic
Heresy and the Reformation

Learning outcomes

  • demonstrate a detailed knowledge of the development and change in heresy and dissent in the middle ages and an understanding of the historical context and historiography of the subject
  • analyse key themes and issues, such as the causes of heresy, in the light of these contexts;
  • identify strengths, weaknesses, problems, and/or particularities of alternative historical/historiographical interpretations, such as the involvement of women in heresy;
  • compare the relative merits and demerits of alternative views and interpretations and evaluate their significance
  • demonstrate an understanding of some of the primary sources and an appreciation of how historians have approached them

Skills that will be practised and developed

  • communicate ideas and arguments effectively, whether in class discussion or in written form, in an accurate, succinct and lucid manner.
  • formulate and justify arguments and conclusions about a range of issues, and present appropriate supporting evidence
  • an ability to modify as well as to defend their own position.
  • an  ability to think critically and challenge assumptions
  • an ability to use a range of information technology resources to assist with information retrieval and assignment presentation.
  • time management skills and an ability to independently organise their own study methods and workload.
  • work effectively with others as part of a team or group in seminar or tutorial discussions.    

Suggested book purchases

Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation (Blackwells, 2002), BT1319.L2. The third edition is best, but you may also use the first and second edition

Suggested preparatory reading

R. I. Moore, The Origins of European Dissent (1977: reprinted University of Toronto Press, 1994). BT1315.M6. Covers the earlier part of the course.
Gordon Leff, Heresy in the Later Middle Ages: the Relation of Heterodoxy to Dissent, c.1250–1400, 2 vols (Manchester: Manchester U.P., 1967) BT1315.L3. Covers the later part of the course.
Andrew P. Roach, The Devil’s World: Heresy and Society, 1100–1300 (Harlow, 2005), BT 1319.R6
Schism, Heresy and Religious Protest: Papers read at the tenth summer meeting and the eleventh winter meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, ed. Derek Baker, Studies in Church History, 9 (1972). An Humanities periodical, shelved under ‘Studies in Church History’.

To find out more about this module, the module handbook can be downloaded from: