On Touch: Critical Theories, Medieval and Modern (Q3200)

30 credits, Level 6

Spring teaching

'Bodies', writes Jean-Luc Nancy, 'for good or ill, are touching each other upon this page, or more precisely, the page itself is a touching (of my hand while it writes, and your hands while they hold the book)'. But what does touch have to do with writing, with reading, with textual processes? What role does touch play in cognition, consciousness and the relation of self and world? If in Western thought the traditional hierarchy of the senses has privileged sight and denigrated touch in the answers found to such questions, there is a growing body of contemporary critical theory from phenomenology to queer, which is highly attuned to the affective, cognitive and spiritual powers of touch. This module aims to introduce and explore these theories principally by taking up, as some of the most influential theorists of the 20th century did, the Middle Ages as interlocutor. Contemporary critical theories will therefore be placed in conversation with the learned theories of touch established in medieval philosophy and with localised theological, visual and poetic explorations made in the medieval English vernacular. In particular we will read Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Derrida and Michel Serres alongside the medieval scholastics Thomas Aquinas and Bartholomew the Englishman, the English female theologian, Julian of Norwich as well as consider artistic representations of the noli me tangere.

A crucial aim of this module is to understand and appraise key theories of touch. In using both medieval and modern theories and texts the module also aims to challenge some of our constructions and assumptions about the medieval past in ways which might allow us to touch it and it to touch us back. One way we will do this is by seeing and experiencing some medieval objects. There will be a visit to London to look at visual art representations of the noli me tangere as well as an opportunity to look at and handle some medieval artifacts. 

We will be working with some medieval materials in Modern English translation, but this module also gives opportunity to develop skills in reading and analysing Middle English. Support will be given in doing so in acquiring the basic skills needed to do this.

Teaching and assessment

We’re currently reviewing teaching and assessment of our modules in light of the COVID-19 situation. We’ll publish the latest information as soon as possible.

This module is running in the academic year 2019/20. We also plan to offer it in future academic years. It may become unavailable due to staff availability, student demand or updates to our curriculum. We’ll make sure to let our applicants know of such changes to modules at the earliest opportunity.


This module is offered on the following courses: