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Unit information: Speaking with Authority: Women and Power in the Middle Ages (Level I Special Field) in 2020/21

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Unit name Speaking with Authority: Women and Power in the Middle Ages (Level I Special Field)
Unit code HIST26024
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Holdenried
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of History (Historical Studies)
Faculty Faculty of Arts

Description including Unit Aims

Unusually for medieval women, Hildegard of Bingen (d.1179), Bridget of Sweden (d.1373) and Catherine of Siena (d.1380) were among the most influential public voices of their day. Joan of Arc (d.1430) led the French army to victory. Claiming to be divinely inspired, these women freely castigated kings and bishops, emperors and popes, exhorting them to reform and spurring them on to political action. As numerous surviving letters attest, their advice was frequently sought and heeded by Europes most senior secular and religious leaders. Yet, female claims to divinely inspired leadership provoked much anxiety and attempts by the Church hierarchy to curtail the public voices of women. Making full use of the womens own writings, as well as of different materials produced by male clerics we will ask why men distrusted female claims to divine authority (especially after 1200) and explore the public voices of women.

Intended Learning Outcomes

  • To place students in direct contact with the current research interests of the academic tutor
  • To enable students to explore the issues surrounding the state of research on women in medieval Europe
  • To develop students’ ability to work with primary sources
  • To develop students’ abilities to integrate primary source material into a wider historical analysis
  • To develop students’ ability to learn independently within a small-group context
  • To develop knowledge of the variety and types of writings used by women to express their views and experiences in the Middle Ages
  • To develop knowledge and understanding of the contribution made by key male figures and their texts c.1150-1400 to the medieval debate about the ‘discernment of spirits’
  • To enable students to reflect on how wider intellectual, institutional and social developments shaped the way in which women’s capacity to mediate the divine word was understood in the West c.1150-1400

Teaching Information

Classes will involve a combination of class discussion, investigative activities, and practical activities. Students will be expected to engage with readings and participate on a weekly basis. This will be further supported with drop-in sessions and self-directed exercises with tutor and peer feedback.

Assessment Information

1 x 3500-word Essay (50%) [ILOs 1-8]; 1 x Timed Assessment (50%) [ILOs 1-8]

Reading and References

  • Caciola, Nancy, Discerning spirits: divine and demonic possession in the Middle Ages (2003)
  • Elliott, Dyan, Proving woman: female spirituality and inquisitional culture in the later Middle Ages (2004)
  • Elliott, Dyan, ‘Seeing Double: John Gerson, the Discernment of Spirits, and Joan of Arc’, The American Historical Review 107.1 (2002), pp.26-54
  • McGuire, Brian Patrick, Jean Gerson and the last Medieval Reformation (2005)
  • Sahlin, Claire L., Birgitta of Sweden and the voice of prophecy (2001)
  • Voaden, Rosalynn, God's words, women's voices: the discernment of spirits in the writing of late-medieval women visionaries (1999)