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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Robin C Stacey
HSTAM 290
Seattle Campus

Topics in Ancient/Medieval History

Examines special topics in ancient/medieval history.

Class description

CLASS TITLE: "Mysteries of the Middle Ages"

In 1478, officials in Berne, Switzerland, summoned an infestation of beetles to appear before the bishop in a formal judicial proceeding to explain the damage they were doing to local grain yields. Unaccountably, the beetles failed to appear, though the bishop later said that he had heard their “vicious and abominable answer” and failed to be persuaded by it. Nor were the beetles alone in the dock: throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods, animals were arraigned and even executed on a variety of different charges. Human motives and emotions were often attributed to the defendants; so also were factors regarded as exculpatory, as in 1457 when seven piglets, condemned to death with their mother because of a violent attack on a local boy, were “let off” because of their youth and inexperience. At times, animal defendants even had counsel to represent them in court, such as the advocate who in 1713 contrasted the industry of his termite clients favorably with the laziness of the monks who were prosecuting them. Cases like these inevitably excite our curiosity, as do tales of lost treasure, vanished civilizations and intriguing personalities like Robin Hood and Arthur. It may not be the case that everybody loves a mystery, but most of us do, and it is my intention to focus this course on subjects like druids, bog bodies, the Picts, the Holy Grail, the Templars, the Shroud of Turin, Lady Godiva, and lots more. Students will read medieval ghost stories and the Latin ancestors of well-known fairy tales, and they will consider the writings of long-vanished early Christian communities and contemplate how modern concerns about gender have reshaped our understanding of figures like Joan of Arc. They will learn as well about modern mythmakers like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who used medieval texts as the basis for stories designed to speak directly to twentieth-century concerns. I have chosen to organize the class around a series of Individuals, groups and events that pose problems for historians either because of the nature or scarcity of the evidence about them, or because the world view in which they are grounded is one we no longer share. My intent in this course is not to provide students with a narrative account of the middle ages—although we will be proceeding more or less chronologically and building in later weeks on things learned earlier in the term. My goal is rather to introduce entry-level students to some of the practical and philosophical “basics” of how to do history. Each week thus not only introduces students to a variety of “cool” topics that are fun to think about, but to how historians think about such subjects, and how they go about researching them. How do historians distinguish fact from fiction, for example, particularly in cases like the Templars or Arthur, where the stories that have grown up around the originals have taken on a life of their own, obscuring from view what can actually be known about them? What happens when sources contradict one another, or are so blatantly partisan as to call their reliability into question? How do modern perspectives and priorities influence the way historians perceive the past, and what does it mean for history to “change” from one generation to another? These are the types of issues that for me constitute the real “meat” of the course, and it is my hope that students will leave captivated and intrigued not only by the subjects that brought them into the course, but by the discipline of history itself.

The course as I conceptualize it at present is organized into five different sections, each of which presents a different historiographical question or approach that is then explored through a specific time period or set of texts. Thus the “Historian as Detective” uses an ancient murder mystery to introduce students to the idea of history as an investigative and argumentative process. “History before Text” asks students to broaden their notions of the evidence with which historians work by considering unorthodox sources. “History and Belief” poses a number of different questions. How do historians study religion or other subjects that have strong—often very strong—resonances in our own day? How ought we to handle dissenting voices in the past (e.g. “Gnostic” or heretical Christianity), especially in cases where one group can be shown historically to have won out at the expense of others? How do we study cultures whose basic presumptions about, for example, the relationship between the natural and supernatural worlds, are fundamentally different from our own? “History and Myth” asks students to consider individuals or groups (Arthur, Robin Hood, the Templars, Joan of Arc) whose historical origins and importance have been overshadowed by the myths that have built up around them—which myths themselves become for historians the object of study in their own right. A particular concern in this section will be the question of how historical interpretations of individuals change over time in response to the priorities of the period in which they are being studied. Thus, we will talk not only about Robin Hood in the medieval context, but about Robin Hood as he appears in the writings of Marxist authors and post-modernist historians. Similarly, with Joan of Arc, we will look not only at the historical Joan, but at Joan as she has been interpreted in our own era by scholars interested in feminist and gender history. We will also return in this section to a question raised earlier with the “Gnostics” of whether historians should write only about those who succeed, or whether history’s invisibles should find a place in the historical record as well. And in the last section of the course, “The Modern Middle Ages,” we will look at the ways the middle ages have been reinterpreted and used by persons living in the modern era, from twentieth-century liberation theologians embracing the poverty of St. Francis, to Tolkien’s use of early English heroic poetry to comment on the horrors of twentieth-century warfare, to Hollywood’s various attempts to complicate the notion of the hero through what purport to be retellings of medieval myth.

Student learning goals

Students will learn some of the basic skills of the historian's craft, such as working with primary sources, textual analysis, and source criticism. Students will learn to tell "good" from "bad" history, and to be able to assess for themselves whether the popular histories they encounter in books or on TV are sensible or not.

Students will be exposed to, and consider in discussion, some of the major philosophical issues with which historians are confronted, such as who constitutes the past? How do we deal with historical "losers"? How does history change according to the age that writes it, and what does that say about the historical enterprise?

Students will not write lengthy papers, but they will write and revise very short pieces (1/2-2 page) frequently with an eye towards improving their analytical skills and their ability to write concise, argumentative prose.

Students will engage in oral discussion and debates in section that will enable them to "solve" for themselves some of history's great mysteries.

Students will edit and revise the prose of others, an exercise that helps them turn a similarly critical eye on their own writing.

This is not a narrative survey of the middle ages, but students will learn about many important historical personalities and events, as well as how they have been studied.

General method of instruction

4 days a week of large class lecture or question/answer demonstration 1 day of the week will be sections devoted to the discussion of primary sources

Recommended preparation

None. This is an entry-level course suitable for freshmen, sophomores, and non-History majors as well as more advanced history students.

Class assignments and grading

5 reader reflection paragraphs (non-graded) 2 two-page mini-essays, each with mandatory revisions 1 midterm, 1 final participation in section discussion, participation in writer's workshops

Reading: Josephine Tey, -The Daughter of Time-; Karen King, -The Gospel of Mary-; Andrew Joynes, -Medieval Ghost Stories-; selected Arthurian tales and sources; Craig Taylor, -Joan of Arc- (selected sources); various Robin Hood and other outlaw tales (mostly available online); Judith Bennett, -Cecilia Penifader: A Medieval Life-; Dan Donoghue, -Lady Godiva-.

25% each paper 15% midterm 15% participation 20% final


The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Robin C Stacey
Date: 05/03/2010