Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024 (archived)

Module HIST21J1: Heretics and Inquisitors in the Late Middle Ages

Department: History

HIST21J1: Heretics and Inquisitors in the Late Middle Ages

Type Open Level 2 Credits 20 Availability Available in 2023/24 Module Cap 48 Location Durham


  • • A pass mark in at least ONE level one modules in History


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • To give students a deeper understanding of the concept of heresy and familiarise them with the major heretical movements of the late Middle Ages.
  • To have students learn how inquisition worked in the Middle Ages, and the intellectual and spiritual concepts underpinning the process.
  • To give students an understanding of the major debates over heresy and inquisition within the historiography, and the methodological and ethical issues historians face when using sources such as depositions.
  • To have students discover the historical view of inquisition and break down modern stereotypes.


  • The word ‘inquisition’ today is often used to evoke chilling images of torture, unchecked power, and illegitimate, rigged legal procedures. It is frequently used to exemplify the ‘backwardness’ and ‘barbarity’ of medieval society. But what did inquisition in the Middle Ages really look like?
  • This module introduces students to medieval heresy and inquisition, and traces the development of both from the mid-thirteenth century up to the end of the fifteenth century. By analysing depositions, sermons, inquisitorial manuals, and other documents, students will learn about the process of inquisition and how it evolved over time, how inquisitors perceived their role, what ‘heresy’ meant and how it developed, how heretics were demonised and stereotyped, and how power, social control, and religious belief interacted with one another within the process of inquisition. Specific heretical movements from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries will be used as case studies through which to explore these topics. Students will also examine the major historiographical debates over how heresy should be studied, and reflect on the difficulties of studying persecution through sources largely produced by the persecutors. The module will also have students consider the ‘cultural baggage’ of inquisition: the stereotypes of inquisitors and inquisition in the modern imagination and popular culture, and what purpose such images serve within modern discourse.
  • Key questions of the module are:
  • What was the process of inquisition, and what was its purpose?
  • Who were inquisitors, and how did they perceive their role?
  • What was heresy, and who and what was a heretic?
  • Was there a clear line between heresy and orthodoxy?
  • Was inquisition only about violence, power, and control?

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • A knowledge of major heretical movements of the late Middle Ages.
  • An understanding of medieval inquisition and how it functioned and developed.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • An ability to work with and analyse deposition records and polemical texts.
  • An awareness of the historiographical debates over medieval heresy and inquisition and key developments in scholarship since the mid-twentieth century.
  • reading and use texts and other source materials critically and analytically, addressing questions of content, perspective and purpose at an advanced level;
  • handling and critically analysing varying interpretations of a given body of historical evidence;
  • managing a body of evidence or information, particularly gathering, sifting, synthesizing, organising, marshalling and presenting information consistent with the methods and standards of historical study and research;
  • assembling evidence to address issues, constructing an argument and supporting it with evidence to permit and facilitate the evaluation of hypotheses;
  • intellectual independence and research, including the development of bibliographical skills, the ability to research, use, evaluate and organise historical materials, and to present independent research in written form.
Key Skills:
  • Self-discipline, self-direction, initiative, the capacity for extended independent work on complex subjects, the development of pathways to originality, and intellectual curiosity;
  • Discrimination and judgement;
  • Ability to gather, organise and deploy evidence, data and information, and familiarity with appropriate means of identifying, finding, retrieving, sorting and exchanging information;
  • Analytical ability, and the capacity to consider and solve complex problems;
  • Structure, coherence, clarity and fluency of written expression;
  • intellectual integrity, maturity and an appreciation of the validity of the reasoned views of others;
  • imaginative insight.

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

  • Student learning is facilitated by a combination of the following teaching methods:
  • lectures to set the foundations for further study and to provide the basis for the acquisition of subject specific knowledge. Lectures provide a broad framework which defines individual module content, introducing students to themes, debates and interpretations. In this environment, students are given the opportunity to develop skills in listening, selective note-taking and reflection;
  • seminars to allow students to present and critically reflect upon the acquired subject-specific knowledge, methodologies and theories, and to identify and debate a range of issues and differing opinions. The seminar is the forum in which students are given the opportunity to communicate ideas, jointly exploring themes and arguments. Seminars are structured to develop understanding and designed to maximise student participation related to prior independent preparation. Seminars give students the opportunity to develop oral communication skills, encourage critical and tolerant approaches to reasoned argument and historical discussion, build the students' ability to marshal historical evidence, and facilitate the development of the ability to summarise historical arguments, think in a rapidly changing environment and communicate in a persuasive and articulate manner, whilst recognising the value of working with others and, occasionally, towards shared goals
  • Assessment:
  • Examinations test students' ability to work under pressure, to prepare for examinations and direct their own programme of revision and learning, and develop key time management skills. The examination gives students the opportunity to develop relevant life skills such as the ability to produce coherent, reasoned and supported arguments under pressure. Students will be examined on subject specific knowledge;
  • Summative coursework will test students’ ability to communicate ideas in writing, present clear and cogent arguments succinctly and show appropriate critical skills as relevant to the particular module.
  • Assessment of Primary Source Handling: Students are assessed on their understanding of original primary sources, usually in print, their character varying according to the nature of the subject, and the students' ability to bring that knowledge to bear on 'cutting edge' research-based monographs and articles. Students are given the opportunity to discuss and articulate an understanding of changing interpretations and approaches to historical problems, drawing evidence from a body of primary source materials. Students are required to demonstrate skills associated with the evaluation of a variety of primary source materials, using documentary analysis for a critical assessment of existing historical interpretations. .

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Lectures 17 17 in Term 2 1 hour 17
Seminars 7 7 in Term 2 1 hour 7
Preparation and Reading 176
Total 200

Summative Assessment

Component: Coursework Component Weighting: 40%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay or equivalent assignment (e.g. source commentaries) 2,000 words, excluding footnotes and bibliograghy 100%
Component: Examination Component Weighting: 60%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Seen open book examination 2 hours 100%

Formative Assessment:

Formative work done in preparation for and during seminars, including oral and written work as appropriate to the module.

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