Emily Corran

University College London
Paris IAS
10 months


Research interests: Casuistry. the medieval Church. medieval theology and canon law. history of medieval women. sin in the Middle Ages.

Research Project

Casuistry, the Laity and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy in the Late Middle Ages: Rule-based ethics in complex institutions

The project investigates casuistry, the discipline concerned with practical ethics and fine-grained moral choice. Casuistry is an aspect of religious thought that is most associated with the Jesuits and the polemics of the Counter-Reformation, but in fact was a long-running scholastic discipline which first emerged at the end of the twelfth century and came to prominence in the later Middle Ages. It was a medieval intellectual tradition that was deeply engaged in practical moral reform: real problems stimulated academic thought, which flowed back into daily life through the influence of confession. Casuistry was, moreover, a discipline that explicitly engaged with the power structures and divisions of authority between penitent, confessor, bishop, mendicant and pope. It was therefore an area of medieval thought which, unusually for the period, engaged with the minutiae of daily life and the business of practical offices.

This study adds a new dimension to the intellectual history of this period and connects the Middle Ages with the early modern period. It is a source of social and institutional history, in that it describes practical choices relating to lay belief, gender and social interaction. Additionally, it sheds new light on religious culture. Medieval casuists shifted their discussions away from the relative certainty of moral ideals, towards the confused realities – they sought solutions for intractable situations, and so engaged in moral judgments that, although rational, were expedient and provisional.


Emily Corran is a lecturer in medieval history at University College London. She specialises in late medieval ethical thought. She particularly looks at manuals for priests and investigates the advice they were given on how to resolve dilemmas. The part of ethics concerned with difficult decisions came to be known as casuistry and, after the Reformation, was particularly associated with the Jesuit order. In the later period, casuistry was controversial because it appeared to be too permissive; in the Middle Ages, however, this kind of ethics was extremely popular and an important intellectual resource for church institutions. Emily’s research will eventually become a history of casuistry from the thirteenth century up to the end of the Council of Trent (1563). Prior to joining UCL she was a Junior Research Fellow at St John’s College Oxford.