Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024 (archived)

Module HIST31C3: The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity

Department: History

HIST31C3: The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity

Type Open Level 3 Credits 60 Availability Available in 2023/24 Module Cap 18 Location Durham


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


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • To introduce students to the complexities of the late antique Mediterranean through the lens of the cult of saints
  • To enable students to develop detailed knowledge and understanding of a range of sources (written, material, visual) which shed light on a significant historical phenomenon
  • To encourage students to think about the intersection between religion, politics, and society, and to reflect on methodological and source-critical problems raised by the study of the distant past


  • In the 1970s and 80s, Peter Brown published a line of seminal studies on the Christian cult of saints in Late Antiquity which established an entirely new field of study. This module follows Peter Brown’s footsteps in that it considers the cult of saints as a window into the religious, political, and social dynamics that shaped late antiquity, a period which is considered formative for the long-term development of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.
  • From the Roman province of Palestine, Christianity rapidly spread over the entire Mediterranean realm. Recurring persecutions by Roman emperors and officials in the first to third century CE produced a line of martyrs whom the Christian congregations honoured as saints and figureheads of their new monotheist faith. When the emperor Constantine not only tolerated but explicitly furthered Christianity, laying the foundation for Christianity to become the official religion of the Roman Empire, its cult dynamics changed drastically. Bereft of the ‘opportunity of martyrdom’ due to the end of persecutions, zealous Christians explored other ways to express their piety: Renouncing the world, they turned to spiritual life by withdrawing to remote areas like deserts or mountains to live as hermits, or by joining monastic communities. These men and women who stood out due to their spiritual rigour were venerated as saints by the Christian community, as intercessors between the human, secular realm, and the heavenly, transcendental spheres. This module will explore the various forms of pious religious practice as well as the veneration of martyrs and saints that developed throughout late antiquity: We will look at desert hermits, pious bishops and abbots that gathered large crowds of followers, and extreme forms of ascetism practiced, for example, by stylites; we will trace the cult of relics, i.e., body parts or other objects related to a saint or martyr, the formation of cult sites that attracted visitors from all over the Mediterranean, and the development of pilgrimage routes. In this context, we will address diverse topics like gender dynamics, visual expression, architectural forms, and Mediterranean mobility. We will take into account the full spectrum of sources that historians have at their disposal to assess the phenomenon of Christian cult in late antiquity: Written evidence of pious practice and cult activity, like sermons and hagiographies (‘Lives of Saints’) that have been produced in this period, but also visual and material evidence like the archaeological remains of cult sites.
  • The questions that we will attempt to answer are, for example: What made the cult of saints so attractive? How does the cult of saints relate to older (i.e., non-Christian) forms of devotion? Can we distinguish between different forms of cult in Western and Eastern Christendom? What are the broader religious, social, and political implications that we can draw from studying the cult of saints with respect to the transformation of the Mediterranean realm in Late Antiquity?

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • Students will gain subject-specific knowledge of the cult of saints in late antiquity in relation to the broader religious, political, and social trends that shaped late antiquity as a period of innovation and transition
  • Students will develop their knowledge and understanding of the ways that historians construct, rather than record, the past
  • Students will gain experience of examining, analysing, and using different types of evidence (written, material, visual), with reference to current historiographical debates
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Integrating primary and secondary sources in a skilled and sustained manner
  • Engaging in deep, careful analysis of primary sources, while confronting methodological and conceptual challenges associated with advanced research.
  • Evaluating historical interpretations and encouraging students to position themselves within existing debates
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
Tutorials 2 Termly in Terms 1 & 2 0.5 hours 1
Seminars 19 Weekly in Terms 1 & 2 3 hours 57
Revision Sessions 1 Revision 2 hours 2
Preparation and Reading 540
Total 600

Summative Assessment

Component: Coursework Component Weighting: 60%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay 1 maximum of 3000 words, not including scholarly apparatus 34%
Essay 2 maximum of 3000 words, not including scholarly apparatus 34%
Source Analyses maximum of 3000 words, not including scholarly apparatus 32%
Component: Examination Component Weighting: 40%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Seen open book examination 3 hours 100%

Formative Assessment:

One formative essay of not more than 2500 words (not including footnotes and bibliography); preparation to participate in seminar and tutorials; at least one oral presentation, and practice source/gobbet work.

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