Serfdom in Late Medieval England (HIH1597)

StaffDr David Stone - Convenor
Credit Value15
ECTS Value7.5
NQF Level6
Duration of Module Term 1: 11 weeks;

Module aims

A student completing this course should understand what it meant to be an unfree person (a serf) in medieval England between 1300 and 1450 and the variety of types of evidence used by historians to study serfdom and the challenges of interpreting these documents. They should also possess a basic knowledge of everyday life in late medieval rural England, and of events such as the Black Death and Peasants’ Revolt.


By analysing a variety of genres of source, students will learn about the uses and limitations of particular kinds of source, as well as the ways in which different sources can be combined to answer historical questions.  When researching source commentaries and presentations students will also have the opportunity to conduct their own research into the source material, to consider its utility and limitations, and use it to explore particular topics and themes.  In this way, the module will help students develop skills in source analysis and research that will provide a foundation for future historical work: particularly HIH2001 Doing History and the History dissertation.

ILO: Module-specific skills

  • 1. Assess the nature of serfdom in late medieval England.
  • 2. Work critically with a range of sources for serfdom.
  • 3. Critique late medieval historical texts.

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

  • 4. Identify the problems of using historical sources, e.g. bias, reliability, etc., and compare the validity of different types of source.
  • 5. Answer a question briefly and concisely.
  • 6. Present work orally, respond to questions orally, and think quickly of questions to ask other students.

ILO: Personal and key skills

  • 7. Independent study and group work, including the presentation of material for group discussion, developed through the mode of learning.
  • 8. Digest, select and organise material to produce, to a deadline, a coherent and cogent argument, developed through the mode of assessment.
  • 9. Work with others in a team and to interact effectively with the tutor and the wider group.
  • 10. Write to a very tight word-length.

Syllabus plan

The module uses original documents to explore the nature of serfdom in England in the period between 1300 and 1450. It does so from three contrasting perspectives (1) legal definitions of serfdom; (2) evidence of how serfdom existed in particular villages and regions, and how serfs lived their lives; (3) evidence of resistance to serfdom in rebellion and by legal means, and of how serfdom largely disappeared after 1381. Most of the documents studied are medieval in origin, all of which are presented in English translation (the originals are in Latin). Some nineteenth-century interpretations of serfdom are also studied.

Almost all the students will be in the first year of their degree programme. Since the aim of this module is to get them to work with primary sources, the first class will take the form of a mini-lecture explaining the basic outlines of the subject, providing a framework into which they can then fit the sources they will be studying, as well as explaining the format that the remaining classes will take: in particular, they will be divided into groups. In subsequent weeks, one group will present their answer to the question. The rest of the students will then subdivide into their own groups to determine a question to ask the presenting group. These questions will then be asked and answered, with discussion being allowed to develop on key points. Finally, the class will end with the tutor outlining the work to be done for the following week’s class.

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Teaching22Seminars (11 x 2hr)
Guided independent study128Independent study

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Group presentation (3-4 students)10-15 minutes1-4, 6-9Oral feedback
Lowest mark from portfolio of 5 source commentaries500 words 1-5, 7-8, 10Mark and written comments

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
4 highest marks from portfolio of 5 source commentaries 602000 words (500 words per commentary)1-5, 7-8, 10Mark and written comments
Essay401500 words1-5, 7-8, 10Mark and written comments

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
4 highest marks from portfolio of 5 source commentaries 4 highest marks from portfolio of 5 source commentaries 1-5, 7-8, 10August/September assessment period
1 x 1500 word essay1 x 1500 word essay1-5, 7-8, 10August/September assessment period

Re-assessment notes

You will be required to submit the same written work as for the summative assessment; if you are referred your mark will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

R.H. Hilton, Decline of Serfdom in Medieval England (Macmillan, 1983).
Mark Bailey, The English Manor c.1200-c.1500 (Manchester University Press, 2002).
Christopher Dyer, Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520 (Penguin Books, 2003).
E. Miller and J. Hatcher, Medieval England: Rural Society and Economic Change (Longman, 1978)
R.H. Hilton, Bond Men made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 (Routledge, 2003)
R.B. Dobson ed., The Peasants Revolt of 1381 (Palgrave Macmillan, 1983)

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Key words search

Serfdom, medieval, England, Middle Ages, everyday life, Black Death, Peasants’ Revolt, social history