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Sexuality and the Social Order in Medieval Europe - 30 credits (HS1804)

Module Tutor: Dr Bronach Kane

Course Description

This module explores key themes of sexuality and gender in European history between c.1200 and 1550. It examines the Church's attempts to govern marriage, shape family life and control sexualities, and also how secular authorities influenced sexual practices. The plague of the mid-fourteenth century not only claimed many lives but changed the social and economic position of men and women: how did gender shape the way that people married, worked and had families in towns and the countryside before and after this devastating epidemic? The module also investigates the influence of the Reformations of the sixteenth century on the gender order in society. Through the study of lesbianism, homosexuality, and other ‘marginal’ groups, students will be introduced to a broad range of sexualities in medieval Europe. The gender identities of Jews and Muslims, will be examined, along with the anxieties that sowed the seeds for the “witch craze”.

Credits: 30

Availability of module: Every Year

Prerequisites: N/A

Necessary for: N/A

Teaching methods

A range of teaching methods will be used in each of the sessions of the course, comprising a combination of lectures, seminar discussion of major issues and workshops for the study of primary source material. 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.

Seminar and Source Workshops:
The primary aim of the sessions will be to generate debate and discussion amongst course participants, focused in particular on primary source material. Seminars and source workshops for each of the course topics will provide an opportunity for students:

(a) to discuss topics or issues introduced by the lectures,

or (b) to discuss related themes, perhaps not directly addressed by the lectures, but drawing on ideas culled from those lectures.

and (c) to analyse different types of primary sources available, discussing the principal ways in which they can be used by historians.

Seminars and source workshops will provide the student with guidance on how to critically approach the various types of primary source material. Preparation for seminars and workshops will focus on specific items from the sources and related background reading, with students preparing answers to questions provided for each session. Both seminars and source workshops will provide an opportunity to discuss and debate the issues with fellow students. Classes will be divided into smaller groups for discussion purposes, with the results presented as part of an overall class debate at the end of the session.


Students will be assessed by means of a combination of one essay relating to primary sources [20%], an assessed essay [30%] and an examination paper [50%].

Course assignments:

The Assessed Essay relating to primary sources will contribute 20% of the final mark for the module and must be no longer than 1,000 words.

The Assessed Essay will contribute 30% 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.

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

Introduction: concepts and themes
• From Women's History to Gender Studies

Shaping sexuality
• Gender, the Body and Health
• Sexuality
• Marriage, Family, and Household

The Church and devotion
• The Clergy and the Parish
• Religious People
• The Virgin, Saints & Mystics

Warfare and violence
• Chivalry, War and Violence
• Sexual Violence

Economic and social structures
• Work, Fraternities and Guilds
• Plague and 14th century change
• Popular Politics, Rebellion and Gender

Gender and religious difference
• Heresy and Gender
• The Gender of Others: Jews
• The Gender of Others: Muslims

Sexual difference
• Homosexuality and Lesbianism
• Cross-dressing

Reading sex and gender
• Gender in Literature
• Renaissance and Print Culture

Conclusions: Europe at 1550

Learning outcomes

  • Identify and critically analyse the main developments in the history of sexuality and gender c.1200-1550
  • Demonstrate awareness of key approaches to the study of sexuality and gender in modern historiography, in history and the social sciences
  • Understand how sexuality and gender were influenced by and shaped key institutions in medieval society including the Church, the parish, the manor, and the community.
  • Apply general theories on sexuality to themes and processes in the later Middle Ages, such as the validity of the concept of ‘hetero-normativity’ or ‘homosexuality’ in pre-modern societies.
  • Demonstrate an awareness and ability to analyse key primary sources on sexuality and gender c.1200-1550, including their construction, purpose, function, and broader significance
  • Demonstrate the ability to discuss elements of sexuality, gender, marriage, and the family in the medieval period using appropriate and specific analytical vocabulary
  • Evaluate and reconcile competing interpretations of sexuality and gender in this period, demonstrating the value and weaknesses of key historiographical argument
  • Relate ideologies and contexts from a range of sources (legal, literary, art historical, archaeological) to broader historical developments c.1200-1550
  • Develop sustained arguments relating to the study of sexuality and gender in the period c. 1200-1550, with appropriate supporting examples, and discuss the way in which these developments are analysed in modern historiography
  • Identify the central tenets of competing arguments in historiography, eg. evaluate the differing perspectives on gender and change over time concerning whether there was a ‘golden age’ for women in the century after the Black Death
  • Deploy analytical tools appropriate to the study of gender in the analysis of primary sources of various types, eg. legal texts including court records and Glanvill or literary genres such as pastourelle and fabliaux

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 preparatory reading

K. M. Phillips and B. Reay (eds.), Sexualities in History: A Reader (New York, 2002)
R. Shoemaker and M. Vincent (eds.), Gender and History in Western Europe (London, 1998)
M. Erler and M. Kowaleski (eds), Women and Power in the  Middle Ages (London, 1988)
D.M. Hadley (ed.), Masculinity in Medieval Europe (London, 1999)
C. A. Lees (ed.), Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages (Minneapolis, 1994)
S. Rigby, English Society in the Later Middle Ages: Class, Status and Gender (Basingstoke, 1995)
P. Stafford and A. B. Mulder-Bakker (eds.), Gendering the Middle Ages (Oxford, 2001)

Online resources:

Epistolae: Medieval Women’s Letters -
Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index -
Middle English Romance project -