Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024 (archived)

Module HIST3853: The World of Illuminated Manuscripts: Decorated Books and Cultural History from the Sixth to the Twelfth Century

Department: History

HIST3853: The World of Illuminated Manuscripts: Decorated Books and Cultural History from the Sixth to the Twelfth Century

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


  • None.


  • None.

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None.


  • This module will provide students with the opportunity to study in detail a selection of particularly important illuminated manuscripts dating from the early and high middle ages.
  • By close attention to their historical contexts it will enable students to understand the forms and techniques of, and the rationales for such volumes.
  • Reciprocally, it will provide training and experience in deploying the evidence of manuscripts for broader historical and cultural debate.
  • Concurrently, it will expose students to the work and practices of modern palaeographers, art-historians and textual scholars as well as of medieval historians.


  • At the beginning of the course students acquire the knowledge and practical skills to understand and interpret early medieval illuminated manuscripts, exploring how, why and by whom such books were made and decorated, and what the historian can learn from their script, text and ornament.
  • This knowledge is then applied to studying the role of the illuminated book in cultural history, examining the evolution of its form and decoration in a variety of contexts, and the various uses to which it was put by a series of monarchs, monks and missionaries.
  • Key themes studied include: Irish and Insular manuscripts; (such as the Lindisfarne Gospels); Italian books and their influence in Anglo-Saxon England; the books of Charlemagne and of later Carolingian, Ottonian and Salian emperors (especially those with ruler imagery); the manuscripts of 'imperial' bishops and monastic reformers; the development of abbey scriptoria in Normandy and Flanders; the Norman Conquest and English libraries; the illuminated Psalters and giant Bibles of the Twelfth Century.
  • Comparisons - between, for instance, the books of Charlemagne and Charles the Bald, of Ethelwold and Dunstan, and those of Normandy and Flanders - help to sharpen appreciation of the similarities and differences between the characters, areas and 'movements' in question. Diachronistic analysis (exploring, for example, what the illuminators of the Ottonian era owed to their Carolingian predecessors) permits an approach to medieval perceptions of the past and of authoritative exemplars therein.
  • One key theme running throughout the course is the interrelationship between England and her various neighbours: the recoverable travels of patrons, scribes and artists, and the circulation of books and exemplars will be studied for the light they shed on this process. Another is the nature, identity and work of scribes and illuminators - of whom the earliest considered here were certainly ecclesiastics, the latest paid professionals. Some have left statements and images bearing on their work and profession, which will be interrogated.
  • The course ends with the rise of paid professional book-scribes and artists, inexorably displacing their monastic equivalents: we shall explore how and why this came about and with what consequences, and how it relates to broader changes in church, state, culture and education.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • A detailed knowledge of some of the principal illuminated manuscripts produced in Western Europe between the sixth and the twelfth centuries, and of their historical contexts.
  • An understanding of the roles of decorated books in early medieval societies, of the techniques of their creators, and of the motives of their patrons.
  • An ability to understand and interpret primary visual evidence of decoration and script, and to combine it with relevant primary documentary sources for historical debate.
  • An awareness of the relevant modern art-historical, palaeographical, textual and historical literature, and an ability to compare and evaluate their sometimes divergent conclusions.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • 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:
  • 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 1 in Term 1: 1 in Term 2 30 mins 1
Seminars 19 Weekly in Terms 1, 2 & 3 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 2,500 words (not including footnotes and bibliography); preparation for, and presentation of, material in most seminars; practice in 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