HST6054: Language and Society in Early Modern England

15 credits (Semester 2017-18: Autumn)

Module Leader: Professor Phil Withington

Module Summary

This module invites you to think about what words meant in early modern England – not merely to social and intellectual elites (though they are certainly part of the mix) but also ordinary men and women. In so doing it encourages reflection about the implications of these meanings – and their changes and continuities over time – for social attitudes, relationships, and practices. These aims reflect the impact of the infamous ‘linguistic turn’ on early modern studies and how some of the most interesting recent work on language and meaning has been done at the intersection between literary, intellectual, and social history.

Module aims

This module aims to encourage you to discuss the way historians have approached language and discourse over the past forty years. You will also consider attitudes towards language in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. You will be introduced to the kind of evidence available to historians and the possibilities of interpretation. You will also think about particular words and vocabularies that have attracted especial historical attention. You will be encouraged to tailor the general themes and methodologies discussed to their more particular interests. This includes writing dissertations in non-English and cross-cultural subjects: although the focus of the seminars is on vernacular English, the issues and interpretative possibilities are transferable.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, you should be able to demonstrate the ability to:

  1. Discuss various approaches to and concepts of language and society as used by historians;
  2. Understand early modern theories of language, especially those of Renaissance humanist writers;
  3. Recognise the broader importance of linguistic analysis to historical understanding;
  4. Know the various kinds of sources available to study early modern language (digitized, printed, scribal, archival);
  5. Undertake your own research on particular words or families of words;
  6. Present orally and in writing critical arguments;
  7. Relate the issues and methods raised by the course to your own dissertation work.


Learning hours
Seminar hours Tutorial hours Independent Learning
10 1 139

The module is taught in five, two-hour classes. The first three classes introduce the course; acquaint you to early modern and modern theories of language; and reveal the kinds of sources available. To this end you will be introduced to a number of approaches to language - for example in conceptual history, political thought, social history, and historical pragmatics – and encounter different source bases which are available to early modern historians (including Early English Books Online and the English Short Title Catalogue). Particular words will be used to illustrate different theoretical approaches and source bases, and it should be noted that you will have prepared some initial reading in advance of the first class. In the final two classes we look at families of words which have received extensive historiographical attention and consider the arguments and issues raised in detail. The style of teaching encourages discussion and debate, and there will be opportunities for presentations. There will also be tutorial supervision to discuss written work.



Assessment methods
Assessment % of final mark Length
Coursework 100% 3000 words

You will prepare a paper (not more than 3000 words) which either develops a conceptual and historiographical discussion of studying language in the past, or which discusses the semantics and uses of a particular early modern world.



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