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HIST2049 Sin and Society, 1100-1500

Module Overview

In present-day Europe most of us consider religion a matter of personal choice and private conscience to the point that many are hardly religious at all and our society is increasingly secular. This module will explore how the opposite was largely true in the medieval West: orthodox religion was compulsory and affected all aspects of public and private life. The module will focus on sin, wrongdoing that violated religious norms, and how it was defined and disciplined. The module is wide-ranging and will cover such topics as sexual behaviour, violence (including warfare and murder) and heresy (religious dissent), and explore both the Church’s teachings on such issues and how these shaped social attitudes and behaviour. The module will draw on a rich variety of sources, including Dante’s Inferno and religious art.

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

• Introduce you to some key religious beliefs of medieval Western society • Encourage you to empathise with social attitudes and behaviour from a distant historical period

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • how Christian teachings and practices concerning sin changed in the period 1100- 1520.
  • how effectively the Church controlled social behaviour in this period.
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • understand why a past society observed certain beliefs and practices
  • adopt an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the past
  • engage critically with contrasting viewpoints in primary and secondary sources
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • consider a wide variety of material and produce a written synthesis.
  • suggest how religious teachings and rituals can inform the historian.
  • present and defend your point of view orally.
  • make effective use of your time and meet deadlines.


In modern western society religious belief is largely a matter of personal choice, but the later medieval West was a ‘compulsory’ Christian society where the Church’s influence was all pervasive. Many issues that we now consider matters of private conscience, notably sexuality, were then subject to the public judgement of churchmen. The medieval Church also claimed jurisdiction over many crimes now punished by state authorities, notably perjury. The module will begin by examining the Church’s attitude to sin in c. 1100 and how this underwent a major transformation in the twelfth century. Before then the Church imposed very heavy penances for sin often lasting several years, and this discouraged many from confessing their sins except on their deathbed. Kings and nobles could sidestep this problem by founding monasteries where monks could atone for their patrons’ sins, notably the many years of penance imposed on Normans who fought and killed at Hastings. However indulgences were introduced in the twelfth century that reduced penances and encouraged more regular confession. The pope Innocent III required all Catholics to confess their sins at least once a year at Easter from 1215. From around this time the friars denounced sins in their sermons communicating the Church’s teaching on sin to wide audience and wrote influential manuals to guide confessors. Medieval religious art depicted the torments of hell that awaited unrepentant sinners and the Italian poet Dante (who died in 1312) provided an unforgettable vision of these in his famous ‘Inferno’. The performance of penances such as pilgrimage was deemed essential to avoid these, but the confessional was not the only church forum which handled sin. Many serious sins were judged by church courts that enforced the Church’s rules in every part of Europe. At the head of this international legal system stood the pope, who claimed to be supreme judge and law-maker in the Church and reserved judgement to himself of certain sins. By around 1250 many of these ‘reserved’ sins were absolved on his behalf by the papal penitentiary. The records of this office treat such sins as violence, apostasy (runaway monks), violations of clerical celibacy and other sexual crimes. These records have been largely uncovered through the convenor’s own research and they will be studied together with other historical, artistic and literary sources regarding sin. The module will end by considering the challenge that the early-sixteenth religious reformers posed to traditional beliefs and practices concerning sin.

Special Features

Lectures will provide a core narrative as well as more focussed analysis of particular texts, spaces and images deemed to be especially illuminating of broader trends. Seminars will provide practical experience of interpreting texts and other sources. Group work will encourage you to draw your own conclusions from these sources and assess their value to us as historians. Oral presentations will allow you to share these conclusions with the class as a whole, to hone your presentation skills, and revisit your findings in view of the comments offered by your fellow students. The written assignments and examination will test, under pressure of time, the knowledge and skills you have developed. Prior informal assessments will enable you to prepare for these and help ensure that you do your best.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include • 2 lectures per week. • 1 seminar per week. Learning activities include • participating in small group and plenary discussion and debate. • close analysis of primary source documents and images. • independent reading and research for seminars and essays. • listening and note-taking during lectures.

Independent Study264
Total study time300

Resources & Reading list

E. Duffy. The Stripping of the Altars – Excellent on the late medieval English evidence. 

R N. Swanson. Religion and Devotion in Europe, c.1215-c1515. 

M. Lambert. Medieval Heresy – a fine survey of the main forms of heresy. 

B. Hamilton. Religion in the Medieval West – an invaluable introduction. 

R. I. Moore. The Formation of a Persecuting Society – a thought-provoking study of medieval intolerance of religious dissent (heresy) and other forms of deviance. 

B. Bolton. The Medieval Reformation. 

Dante. Inferno. 

J.A. Brundage. Law, Sex and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. 

S E Ozment. The Age of Reform, 1250-1550. 

J. Bossy. Christianity in the West, 1400-1700. 


Assessment Strategy

Assessments designed to provide informal, on-module feedback  you will be given informal feedback on your oral contributions, group work and essay planning during the course of the module.  practice essay.


MethodPercentage contribution
Essay  (2000 words) 25%
Essay  (2000 words) 25%
Examination  (2 hours) 50%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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