Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2019-2020 (archived)

Module HIST44930: The Liberal Arts – Learning, Knowledge and Power in the High Middle Ages (c.1100-c.1300)

Department: History

HIST44930: The Liberal Arts – Learning, Knowledge and Power in the High Middle Ages (c.1100-c.1300)

Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Available in 2019/20 Module Cap None.


  • None


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • To help students develop an independent command of primary material in the history of medieval learning, with an appreciation of the nature and form of sources and the ability to deploy different methods and techniques to interrogate them
  • To help students develop a deep engagement with historiographical trends and historical interpretations in the history of medieval learning.


  • The Liberal arts was a scheme of learning that provided the foundation for all medieval higher education. To study the Liberal Arts is to witness the immense continuities of the high medieval period, back to ancient Persia, Greece and Rome, and the intense transformation systems of knowledge underwent between 1100 and 1300. The traditional scheme encompassed the Trivium (Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric) and then the mathematical arts, the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy ). All medieval scholars of whatever stripe or specialisation studied the Liberal Arts; in its subjects the key to medieval understanding of the universe and the place of humankind within it. The period of the High Middle Ages c.1100-c.1300 represent one of the most important phases for medieval learning. The period witnessed the invention of the university, not least of the legacy of the Middles Ages, and the absorption of Aristotelian texts unknown to the early medieval West, together with their Arabic commentaries. The intellectual storehouses of two cultures, Ancient Greece and Medieval Islam were systematically appropriated by western Christian scholars. In every area, from medicine, natural philosophy and science to logic and grammar, the intellectual foundations were decisively shifted.
  • The course will give an introduction to the longer view that has to be taken of the subject, as well as the style and substance of medieval writing on the area. Deep historiographical arguments about the nature of knowledge transmission, cultural appropriation, identity and the relationship between ideas and the societies they represent, will be threaded through the course. Thematically the course will address key issues in the teaching and learning of the Liberal Arts, but also the purpose and point in so doing. By doing so the medieval classroom is put into the context of the power of ideas in the world outside.
  • Initial sessions will be devoted to what the high medieval West inherited: from Plato and Aristotle, to the Christianisation of the Arts (or not) in the Early Church. The tension between pagan and Christian learning will form a particular focus – and the implications of the question raised by Jerome in the 4th century: ‘What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, or a Christian with Cicero’. Why were the Liberal Arts important? How was the curriculum conceived. Early medieval authorities such as Bede and Isidore will be considered, together with Carolingian interest in formalising education. Subsequent sessions will focus on particular subjects and authors: Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric; Arithmetic and Geometry; Music; Astronomy. How the liberal arts were taught, the use of diagrams as well as text, medieval memorial techniques, and the formulation of the texts themselves will provide the framework around which discussion will move. Outlying subjects such as medicine, astrology, and alchemy will also be incorporated and the fluid nature of the Liberal Arts curriculum debated.
  • The final sessions will look at the institutional implications of learning, the development of schools and universities, the role of students and masters, the differences between places of learning, and the role of the papacy in defining the curriculum. Questions of heresy and authority are never far from the surface, especially in the translated Greek and Arabic literature. What scholars did with their new learning will also be considered: what was the 12th and 13th century graduate job-market? Why was learning valued and patronised? Throughout the course Durham’s unique manuscript resources will be used to illustrate the subjects under scrutiny, their material culture, and the archaeology of ideas and social interaction that they preserve.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • advanced knowledge and understanding of aspects of the medieval Liberal Arts traditions, including historiographical and conceptual approaches.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Subject specific skills for this module can be viewed at: http://www.dur.ac.uk/history.internal/local/PGModuleProformaMap/
Key Skills:
  • Key skills for this module can be viewed at: http://www.dur.ac.uk/history.internal/local/PGModuleProformaMap/

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Student learning is facilitated by a range of teaching methods.
  • Seminars require students to reflect on and discuss: their prior knowledge and experience; set reading of secondary and, where appropriate, primary readings; information provided during the session. They provide a forum in which to assess and comment critically on the findings of others, defend their conclusions in a reasoned setting, and advance their knowledge and understanding of the medieval Liberal Arts traditions.
  • Structured reading requires students to focus on set materials integral to the knowledge and understanding of the module. It specifically enables the acquisition of detailed knowledge and skills which will be discussed in other areas of the teaching and learning experience.
  • Assessment is by means of a 5000 word essay which requires the acquisition and application of advanced knowledge and understanding of medieval Liberal Arts tradition. Essays require a sustained and coherent argument in defence of a hypothesis, and must be presented in a clearly written and structured form, and with appropriate apparatus.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Seminars 10 Weekly in Term 2 2 hours 20
Preparation and Reading 280
Total 300

Summative Assessment

Component: Essay Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay 5000 words 100%

Formative Assessment:

Formative: 20 minute oral presentation 2000-word primary source commentary

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University