The Medieval Foundations of England

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This course will concentrate on the most transformative and creative time in medieval English history. We begin with the invasion of Anglo-Saxon England by the Normans, Europe’s acknowledged masters of the art of war. Given that Norman knights used stirrups—the most advanced military technology of the day—was a Norman victory at Hastings inevitable? Norman propaganda claimed that Duke William was not only a conqueror but also the legitimate heir to the throne of England. Was he? Did the Norman Conquest result in the imposition of a “Norman yoke of oppression” on free Anglo-Saxons and an attempt to erase Anglo-Saxon culture? Regarding the century and a half after William’s victory, we will ask how the great conflicts of the age—English versus French, church versus state, king versus baron—led to the creation of ideals and institutions of such durability that they continue to shape lives in Britain and America. Some of our areas of inquiry: What is unique about the common law created in 12th-century England? How important is common law today? What did medieval people mean when they spoke of church and state? What do we mean today? Regarding medieval church and state conflicts, we will focus on the epic personal battle between King Henry II and his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket—a conflict that climaxed in Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral. The course will conclude with a critical analysis of the most celebrated constitutional document in English history, Magna Carta. But how should we understand Magna Carta? Is Magna Carta democratic and progressive? Or is Magna Carta aristocratic and reactionary? Since a copy of Magna Carta resides in our National Archives alongside our Declaration of Independence and our Bill of Rights, we might ask: Should it be there? A student ought to consider this course to be not only about a great period of medieval history but also a workshop in actually “doing history”—and “doing it” in an interdisciplinary way. For example, we will compare conflicting written accounts of the Norman Conquest with the pictorial narrative presented in the most famous of all works of medieval art, the Bayeux Tapestry. The tapestry’s unfolding images and texts have been compared to a motion picture and to a graphic novel, yet the tapestry requires an understanding of medieval pictorial conventions to be read correctly. Even so, it presents many puzzles to the student of history. The most enigmatic: What difference did it make in the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry that, although the patron was Norman, the artist who designed the scenes was Anglo-Saxon and the people who embroidered its images and texts were also Anglo-Saxons? This is a course that emphasizes developing analytical and writing skills that will serve a lifetime in whatever a person chooses to do. Conference work may focus on medieval questions or related ones from another time and place.