HST6081: Islands and Isolation in European History, 1517-2017

The Sorrows of Boney, or- Meditations in the island of Elba (Bodleian Libraries)

15 credits (Semester 2017-18: Spring)

Module Leader: Dr Dina Gusejnova

Module Summary

'Marooned on the edges of the world or placed at the heart of utopia, islands have fascinated writers and poets for centuries. Now it's time for historians to take over.' Dr Dina Gusejnova

Geographic location is an important, if not necessarily a determinant, factor in history. At first sight, islands might appear to be peripheral to the understanding of the social and economic history of the European continent, which is dominated by land rather than maritime-orientated political communities. As a field of research, 'island studies' has been developed by world historians who specialise in regions which are dominated by islands and archipelagoes. This course will invite you to reconsider this common assumption about European history. Using the island as an idea and as a location of some key events and social processes, you will chart some of the most significant developments in European social and cultural history over a period of five hundred years. Taking a longue durée approach centred around a set of core texts, the course will flesh out the significance of islands in the development of ideas and social practices which are at the core of European identity from the early modern period to the contemporary world. Islands have always attracted the human imagination by virtue of their isolation from the economic or political processes on larger continents. Whether utopian or punitive, the ‘possibility of an island’ (to adapt the title of a novel by Michel Houellebecq) has affected the way European societies have expressed their dreams, punished their supposed enemies, or negotiated their political freedoms at times of war and conflict.

Module aims

This module aims to:

  1. Introduce students to the history of ideas as a window onto wider problems of modern history;
  2. Challenge the master narratives of European history which they have been exposed to and propose a new framework for thinking about Europe in transnational and global perspective;
  3. Familiarise students with the national and imperial contexts within which European societies have used islands in internal or external conflicts;
  4. Introduce students to a set of theoretical approaches to the theme of utopianism, isolation, and punishment.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the unit, students should be able to:

  1. Provide an account of the changing place of islands in modern European history through a deep knowledge of at least three key texts (Aims 1, 2, 3);
  2. Demonstrate specialised knowledge of at least one imperial or national case study of an island (A1, 3);
  3. Apply the theoretical approaches studied in the course to their specific case study [(A1, 4).


Learning hours
Seminar hours Tutorial hours Independent Learning
10 1 139

The module will be taught in five, two hour classes. The first seminar will introduce the framework of Island studies and invite you to share your reading experience of at least one key text of theory or fiction (LOs 1, 2). The following seminars will include period-specific readings and equip you with the historiographical framework of particular island case studies (LO2). The final seminar will include a series of presentations in which you will be asked to interpret a case study of your choice through the lens of a work of fiction of your choice (LOs 1, 3). You will, in addition, have individual tutorial contact with the module leader to discuss your written work for this module.



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

You will prepare a 3,000-word paper on a topic agreed with the tutor. The essay will be expected to include discussion of the key historiographical debates surrounding the topic and the use and critical analysis of appropriate secondary literature and primary sources (LOs 1, 2, 3, 4).


Selected reading


  • Godfrey Baldacchino, ‘Islands, Island Studies, Island Studies Journal’, in Island Studies Journal, 1:1 (2006), pp. 3-18

Key works of fiction and theory

  • Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719) (any edition)
  • John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624) (any edition)
  • Thomas More, Utopia, ed. George M. Logan and Robert M. Adams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The GULAG Archipelago, Transl. Thomas P. Whitney (New York and London: Harper & Row, 1973)

Background reading

  • Renaud Morieux, The Channel. England, France and the Construction of a Maritime Border in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016)
  • Richard Price, The Convict and the Colonel: A Story of Colonialism and Resistance in the Caribbean (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006)
  • Gerry Simpson, Great Power and Outlaw States. Unequal Sovereigns in the International Legal Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
  • Adam Zamoyski, Rites of Peace. The Fall of Napoleon & the Congress of Vienna (London: Harper Press, 2007).



*The content of our courses is reviewed annually to make sure it's up-to-date and relevant. Individual modules are occasionally updated or withdrawn. This is in response to discoveries through our world-leading research; funding changes; professional accreditation requirements; student or employer feedback; outcomes of reviews; and variations in staff or student numbers. In the event of any change we'll consult and inform students in good time and take reasonable steps to minimise disruption.