Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024 (archived)

Module HIST30X1: Beyond Feudalism

Department: History

HIST30X1: Beyond Feudalism

Type Open Level 3 Credits 20 Availability Not available in 2023/24 Module Cap None. Location Durham


  • • A pass mark in at least TWO level two modules in History


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • To understand why aristocratic power ‘worked’ in medieval societies and how it varied over time, place, and circumstance
  • To examine how the idea of ‘feudalism’ as a system came to exist in the post-medieval period, and its impact on current interpretations of the Middle Ages
  • To develop a nuanced approach to historical frameworks as conceptual and analytical tools


  • Were the Middle Ages feudal? Far from being a foregone conclusion, trying to answer this question opens up the real complexity of medieval history and its significance today. This module aims to tackle the idea of ‘feudalism’ in three key contexts: in relation to actual medieval societies, as a product of post-medieval attempts to systematize a messy reality, and as a cultural phenomenon in modern medievalism. To get past the idea of aristocratic power as a monolith, we will trace its evolution over the central and late Middle Ages, its extensive regional diversity within Europe and beyond, and its internal variability from great princes to petty lords, women as well as men, and old families alongside new. Moreover, we will consider not only the aristocrats themselves, but the way their authority acted as a linchpin within medieval society at large, balancing royal power above and the interests of peasants and towns below. By comparing these dynamics with how feudalism is ‘supposed’ to work, we can see how this concept shapes overarching narratives of the medieval period on the one hand and of current social tensions on the other. Ultimately, we will weigh the usefulness of ‘feudalism’ for doing different kinds of history, and what it means that we continue to define the Middle Ages this way.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • An understanding of the social, political, and economic dynamics of medieval aristocratic power in its cultural context, with a focus on Western Europe
  • The ability to analyze interactions between historical practices and concepts over the long term
  • The ability to evaluate and critique approaches to so-called feudal societies in academic and popular debates
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Challenging students’ assumptions about the past and reflecting on the nature of the discipline (and, where appropriate, interdisciplinarity) at an advanced level
  • Appreciating how historical knowledge is produced, what forms it takes, and the purposes it serves
  • Reflecting on students’ own historical consciousness and practice
Key Skills:
  • The ability to employ sophisticated reading skills to gather, sift, process, synthesise and critically evaluate information from a variety of sources (print, digital, material, aural, visual, audio-visual etc.)
  • The ability to communicate ideas and information orally and in writing, devise and sustain coherent and cogent arguments
  • The ability to write and think under pressure, manage time and work to deadlines
  • The ability to make effective use of information and communications technology

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:
  • 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;
  • tutorials either individually or in groups to discuss topics arising from prepared work, allowing students the opportunity to reflect upon their personal learning with the tutor.
  • Assessment:
  • Examinations test students' ability to work under pressure under timed conditions, to prepare for examinations and direct their own programme of revision and learning, and develop key time management skills. The unseen 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 essays remain a central component of assessment in history, due to the integrative high-order skills they develop. Essays allow students the opportunity to recognise, represent and critically reflect upon ideas, concepts and problems; students can demonstrate awareness of, and the ability to use and evaluate, a diverse range of resources and identify, represent and debate a range of subject-specific issues and opinions. Through the essay, students can synthesise information, adopt critical appraisals and develop reasoned argument based on individual research; they should be able to communicate ideas in writing, with clarity and coherence; and to show the ability to integrate and critically assess material from a wide range of sources;
  • 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
Seminars 10 4 in Term 1; 5 in Term 2, 1 in Term 3 (revision session) 2 hours 20
Preparation and Reading 180
Total 200

Summative Assessment

Component: Essay Component Weighting: 40%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay 3000 words - not including bibliography and footnotes 100%
Component: Examination Component Weighting: 60%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Seen examination [paper to be made available not less than seventy-two hours before the start of the examination] 2 hours 100%

Formative Assessment:

A written assignment of 1000-2000 words to be submitted in Michaelmas Term

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