HIS4211 – Political and Legal Culture in the Middle Ages

Schedule, syllabus and examination date

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Course content

What made the Middle Ages unique and medieval society inherently different from classical antiquity and modernity? Historians answer these questions in many different manners, but the study of medieval political and legal cultures offers one of the most productive and interesting ways to tackle such questions. Christian medieval society broke away from classical polytheistic traditions by bringing a single God to the heart of political and legal culture. In the early Middle Ages, God and religion became the main agents of legitimation for political and legal authority. Consequently, emperors, kings, and princes asserted the grace of God as the transcendent source of their political power, and they claimed to rule as vicars of Christ. In the same period, God took a central place in legal culture and the judgment of God (iudicium Dei) became a key form of judicial procedure in early medieval courts. The iudicium Dei was a method to find out the will of God, and could take different forms, such as trial by battle, trial by fire, or the ordeal of the cross. God continued to play an important role in legal culture in the following centuries, but he took on a much more distant and secondary role with the transition from the iudicium Dei to a “rational judicial procedure” in the high Middle Ages, which however opened not only for the extended use of witness testimony and written documents, but also for the greater use of torture and executions. In the same period, the rise of national kingdoms went hand in hand with the growth of administrative literacy, numeracy, taxation, more complicated forms of government, and political interaction. This process was accompanied with the reformulation of the relationship between rulers and their subjects, as well as between secular (earthly) and clerical (spiritual) authorities.

            In this course, students will study this transformation by discussing the relevant written sources and secondary literature divided into four major topics, namely political culture, key political ideas, judicial procedures, and canon law—two classes allocated for each topic. The first class will introduce students to the main topics of this course, its assignments, and examination forms, whereas the concluding class will overview the main themes of the seminar and will give student the opportunity to discuss the main direction and scope of their course papers.

Learning outcome

Upon completion of this course, students are expected to

  • have learned how research questions are formulated and investigated in the fields of medieval political and legal history
  • be familiar with major concepts and recent trends and debates in the historiography of medieval political and legal culture
  • be familiar with the major types of source material for the study of medieval political and legal culture
  • have knowledge and experience on how to critically engage with historiographical research.


After taking this course, a student will be able to:

  • know how to design and implement an independent paper project on a topic in the history of medieval political and legal culture
  • initiate and participate in discussions of texts and research in the history of medieval political and legal culture
  • read different types of academic texts in a critical and independent manner
  • work with others in small groups and give feedback on others’ work.
  • present his/her work in class and respond to the follow-up class discussion in a written form


Students who are admitted to study programmes at UiO must each semester register which courses and exams they wish to sign up for in Studentweb.

If you are not already enrolled as a student at UiO, please see our information about admission requirements and procedures.


This course is reserved for students at the master's programme of history and students doing their master's specialization in history at the lecturer education at UiO.


Recommended previous knowledge

To take this course students have to have a basic understanding of the historian’s craft, which includes the ability to find and read research relevant historiographical literature and to identify and analyze primary sources. A good ability to read and understand English is also required.


The course is taught in 20 hours of seminars, where the students will be active participants. Students are expected to prepare the seminar readings for discussion and to contribute orally to the course. Students will also be divided into small working groups to fulfil a set of assignments before and during class meetings. The list of obligatory readings is set at 800 pages to allow for a discussion of all texts of the curriculum in class. The students will find literature in addition to this (around 200 pages), in order to write their course papers.


Obligatory activities

To qualify for the exam, students are required to

  • a) develop and submit a problem statement and a comprehensive bibliography on the topic of the course paper (individual work)  
  • b) introduce two seminar sessions in collaboration with other students (group work)
  • c) The student participation in the seminar is mandatory. The learning outcome of this course depends on active student participation. To this end, students need to attend prepared and participate in class. Different types of activities will require participation throughout the semester. Specific information about mandatory activities will be announced at the first meeting and published on Canvas. Absence of up to two seminars can be approved by agreement with the teacher(s).

This is how you apply for a valid absence from compulsory activities/compulsory attendance if you're sick etc.


The course is assessed by exam portfolio (mappaevaluering) consisting of a) two response papers, each approximately 3 pages, on the topics of class discussions, and b) a course paper of approximately 8–10 pages (2300 characters without spacing and notes) on a relevant topic, developed by the student in communication with the teachers of the course.  Detailed information will be given in class and in Canvas.

Submit assignments in Inspera

You submit your assignment in the digital examination system Inspera. Read about how to submit your assignment.

Use of sources and citation

You should familiarize yourself with the rules that apply to the use of sources and citations. If you violate the rules, you may be suspected of cheating/attempted cheating.

Language of examination

You may write your examination paper in Norwegian, Swedish, Danish or English.

Grading scale

Grades are awarded on a scale from A to F, where A is the best grade and F is a fail. Read more about the grading system.

Explanations and appeals

Resit an examination

Special examination arrangements

Application form, deadline and requirements for special examination arrangements.


The course is subject to continuous evaluation. At regular intervals we also ask students to participate in a more comprehensive evaluation.

Facts about this course






Autumn 2021


Autumn 2021

The course is offered on an irregular basis

Teaching language