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Option 3: Medieval Margins : Identity & Otherness

Dr Juliana Dresvina


Medieval western culture produced a set of gendered social norms and various means of maintaining them. Both the norms and the means of their enforcement proved to be vital for post-medieval western society, and it was only the processes of the minority emancipation in the 20th century that initiated the gradual change in social attitudes – some of which are still very much at large in our modern world. This persistence of the seemingly redundant cultural norms comes as no surprise if we remember that every society needs ‘the other’ in order to define itself against it, using a wide range of ‘otherness’ to serve as its mirror. This course explores these norms and means by examining various contemporary texts, both historical and literary, the way different types of ‘otherness’ was perceived, interpreted, utilised, persecuted and fictionalised, and the qualities of the majority each of the categories of the ‘aliens’ were meant to reflect.

Indicative Interdisciplinary Course Programme

Week 1: Image of Society: Law, Religion, Rituals

In the first week of the course we look at the ‘aliens’, and why we need them, as well as at the different degrees of otherness and their functions in the Middle Ages. We will attempt to survey medieval worldview, outline its main components, and establish the significance of rituals for the ‘medieval majority’ (if there was ever such a thing). We will also sample some medieval identity-forming texts, such as theological writings and legal documents.

• R.I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250 (1987)
• J.C. Laursen and C. J. Nederman (eds), Beyond the Persecuting Society: Religious Toleration before the Enlightenment (1998)
• D. Nirenberg, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (1996)
• M. Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966)

Week 2: ‘Close’ Others: Women

In week 2 we are scrutinising the closest of the medieval ‘others’ – women, and the way they were defined and interpreted in male-dominated milieu. We will examine popular theories of women by Aristotle and Galen; consider the images of Eve and the Virgin Mary, and look at medieval attitudes towards love, sex and marriage. Finally, we will briefly touch on questions of sexual deviations and witchcraft.

• H. Leyser, Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450-1500 (1996)
• R. H. Bloch, Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love (1991)
• G. Duby, Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages (1994)
• J. Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1992)

Week 3: ‘Not-So-Close’ Others: Jews and Heretics

Week 3 is dedicated to two categories of ‘aliens’, present in the medieval society yet segregated from it: Jews and heretics. We will discuss the persistency of anti-Semitic narratives in the Middle Ages, found in all social strata. We will also examine the elusiveness of the term ‘heretic’ and fragility of the medieval religious orthodoxy.

• K. R. Stow, Alienated Minority: The Jews of Medieval Latin Europe (1992)
• M. Rubin, Gentile Tales: The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews (1998)
• M. D. Anderson, A Saint at Stake: The Strange Death of William of Norwich, 1144 (1964)
• Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation (2002)

Week 4: ‘Distant’ Others: Monsters and Saracens

Both monsters and Saracens (Muslims) were separated from a medieval person by geographical distance. This distance often made them a useful object for projections of medieval fears, anxieties, but also of dreams and desires. They could be employed as allegories, moral examples, as vehicles for social criticism. In some cases, virtuous Saracens and benevolent giants raise the question of whether the true monster is found without or within.

• J. J. Cohen, Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: Of Difficult Middles (2006)
• J. J. Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (1999)
• D. Williams, Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Medieval Thought & Literature (2nd edn, 1999)
• S.A. Miller, Medieval Monstrosity and the Female Body (2010)

Week 5: ‘Familiar’ Others: Criminals and Outlaws

In the final week we will be looking at the roles ascribed in medieval culture to those who broke the established rules of the society. We will focus on various forms of punishment and the changing perception of criminals – from order-shattering monsters to martyrs and saints. We will also watch some recent Robin Hood films in order to discuss how (a)historical these films are (and why), what changes were introduced, and how the concept of outlawry is portrayed/explained there – in short, how the medieval character of Robin Hood is (mis)interpreted in our modern popular culture.

• Mitchell Merback, The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel (1998)
• Trevor Dean, Crime in Medieval Europe 1200-1500 (2001)
• Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren, eds., Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (1997)
• J. C. Holt, Robin Hood (1982)
• John Bellamy, Robin Hood: An Historical Inquiry (1985)


©  Dr Ken Addison, St. Peter’s College, University of Oxford: for 2022

St Peter’s College Summer School at Magdalen College, University of Oxford