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Study information

Serfdom in Late Medieval England

Module titleSerfdom in Late Medieval England
Module codeHIH1597
Academic year2022/3
Module staff


Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

Serfdom was an institution that denied much of the population of medieval England basic human rights. Legally, serfs (or villeins as they were called in England) could not own property, leave their village, or marry, without their lord’s permission. This module will use a variety of source material to discuss the legal foundations of serfdom, the everyday lives of serfs, and resistance to serfdom. In doing so it will explore daily life in medieval England and the impact of major events such as the Black Death and Peasants’ Revolt. No prior knowledge of the period is needed and all sources will be in English.

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module aims to allow you to:

  • Explore 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
  • Develop a basic knowledge of everyday life in late medieval rural England, and of events such as the Black Death and Peasants’ Revolt
  • 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
  • Conduct your own research into the source material, to consider its utility and limitations, and use it to explore particular topics and themes
  • Develop skills in source analysis and research that will provide a foundation for future historical work: particularly HIH2001 Doing History and the History dissertation

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 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

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 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

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 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

Whilst the content may vary from year to year, it is envisioned that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

  • Legal definitions of serfdom
  • Evidence of how serfdom existed in particular villages and regions, and how serfs lived their lives
  • Evidence of resistance to serfdom in rebellion and by legal means
  • 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
Scheduled learning and teaching2211 x 2 hour seminars
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, 10Referral/Deferral period
1 x 1500 word essay1 x 1500 word essay1-5, 7, 8, 10Referral/Deferral period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module 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).

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Key words search

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

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


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