The Medieval Natural World

Module code: HS3696

Module co-ordinator: Dr Richard Jones

Module Outline

The attempt to explain nature - and by so doing order and control the material world - has been one of humanity’s greatest intellectual challenges. It has been an enterprise that has historically defined who we are and continues to do so into the modern era. Despite the size and complexity of the task, this has never discouraged people from trying. Every age and culture has made its own contribution. The middle ages were no different. How people came to understand nature during this long period, sandwiched as it were between the great age of philosophy that preceded it and the ages of science and discovery that would follow, is the subject of this 3rd year module. 

Topics covered

In the ten sessions we will cover the following themes: universal theories; astrology and astronomy, meteorology, geography, being human, animals, plants, minerals, and the Book of Nature. This option will introduce you to a very different world whose ideas have largely been dismissed. There are signs, however, that medieval ideas are once again being to find application within modern society.


This course will be based on 10 3-hour sessions. The module is supported by a dedicated book: R. Jones, The Medieval Natural World (Harlow: Pearson, 2013).  Sessions will focus on a range of primary sources - textual, visual, and material - and will be a combination of lectures and seminars.


  • A conference-style poster (12.5%) examining a particular aspect of the medieval natural world. Posters should combine text (400 words max) with visual materials. Design is key
  • Field trip cards (12.5%): Field trip is a Google app. The University of Leicester is the first university partner and is currently developing ways of delivering materials to the app. It is location based and centred on site-specific cards popping up on users’ screens while out and about. Students in this module will be asked to identify three UK places with natural world relevant material. This might be a church font with ornate foliate carving, or a place-name, or a mural painting etc. They will be asked to write a max. 350 word engaging and lively description of this, explaining its historical significance for publishing (subject to editorial) on the app.
  • 2,500 word essay (25%)
  • Examination 50%


Barber, R. (trans.), Bestiary: being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford M.S. Bodley 764, Woodbridge, 1999.

Barney S. (ed. and trans.), The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, Cambridge, 2006.

Bartlett, R., The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages, Cambridge, 2008.

Glacken, C.J., Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century, Berkeley, 1967.

Grant, E. (ed.), A Source Book in Medieval Science, Cambridge MT, 1974.

Jones, R., The Medieval Natural World, Peason, 2013.

Kendall C.B and Wallis, F. (trans.), Bede, On the Nature of Things and On Times, Translated Texts for Historians, 56, Liverpool, 2010.

Seymour, M.C. et al. (eds), On the Properties of Things : John Trevisa’s Translation of Bartholomæus Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum, 3 vols, Oxford, 1975.