at Herstmonceux Castle, U.K.

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HIST 241/3.0 Issues in History: Castles, Kings, and the Concept of Chivalry

Instructor: Dr. Scott McLean

Course Description

For generations the popular perception of the Middle Ages was that it was an era of cultural and intellectual stagnation, a time with little impact upon modern Western culture easily overshadowed by the brilliance of the Renaissance which followed. In recent years, however, scholars have begun to overturn this view, demonstrating that the medieval era was a time of continuous development which set the foundations for much of Western culture. Early medieval society was continuously changing, and by the 10th century would see arrive on the scene one of the key elements associated with the period: the knight. Knights, armour clad warriors fighting on horseback, soon redefined medieval warfare and brought about great social change through the development of the feudal system. However, within a short period of time the role of the knight too began to change as innovations in weaponry, such as the longbow and cannon, made armoured knights on horseback obsolete. Further, as medieval society evolved there was a growing tendency for knights to become more like country gentleman and castles comfortable homes instead of military strongholds. It was during this time, inextricably linked to the changing roles of the knight, that the concept of chivalry was created and flourished as an ideal for the true knight to follow. But the concept of chivalry, an ideal rarely followed during the age of the knight, has had an impact far beyond the medieval era. The course explores Chivalry not just as an historical concept but also as a fundamental part of the modern mind.  Although the age of knights and castles has often been portrayed as a distant and even irrelevant world, the reality is that western society has, since the end of the medieval period in the 16th century, continued to return to the ‘Age of Chivalry’ for inspiration.  

Expected Learning Outcomes

Students are expected to develop a good general knowledge of the medieval period in relation to the key themes being explored. Students are expected to have a strong grasp of the concept of chivalry, why it developed during the middle ages and how it has influenced key developments in Western culture in the Early Modern and Modern periods.

Field Studies

During the term students will take part in two very exciting field studies opportunities. The first will take place at the end of week five when the class will visit Hampton Court Palace. During the visit students will have the opportunity to explore court culture during the reign of Henry VIII in an effort to better understand the king’s fascination with chivalric pursuits such as jousting and how they reflect the culture of the Tudor court. Following our visit students will write a short (750 word) report on how the chivalric ideal is represented at Hampton Court. The second field study will take place during the MTT to Paris when the class will visit the Cluny Museum. During this visit students will be required to find an object, or collection of objects, which represents an important part of medieval life, and if possible something which connects to one of the themes explored in class. During the first class of week eight the class will have a seminar session where each student will provide a brief (2-3 minute) discussion on their object.

Primary Research Expectations

Students will engage with primary materials during seminars and while on field studies to Hampton Court and the Cluny Museum. Students are expected to actively engage with the primary materials presented, analyzing and asking questions of them as they would other sources and, when possible, relating them to the key themes of the course.

  • Hampton Court Field Study Report: 15%
  • Participation: 20%
  • Film Presentation: 30%
  • Cluny Museum: 5%
  • Honor and the Duel Seminar Session: 10%
  • Exam: 20%