HST6602: Early Modernities

30 credits (Semester: Autumn)

Module Leader 2019-20: Dr James Shaw

Module Summary

This core module involves a critical analysis of the many ways in which assumptions about the characteristics of 'pre-modern' and 'modern' cultures and societies have shaped historians' approaches to the early modern period. A series of seminars will introduce you to themes and topics in early modern history, focusing on issues of 'individuality' and 'self-hood' in the early modern period. The sources for writing early modern history will be a complementary focus of the module, which will also introduce you to the technical and methodological problems associated with the effective use and interpretation of a range of pre-modern sources.

Module aims

This module aims to introduce students intending to specialise in the history of the early modern period to key themes and debates in current research. A series of seminars will address historiographical developments in early modern history and allow you to explore a broad range of themes and key issues in the study of this period, concentrating on issues of ‘self-hood’ and ‘individualism’.

The module aims to equip you with the historiographical grounding and methodological understanding with which to underpin your own independent research and so also introduces you to the technical and methodological problems involved in using source materials that survive from this period.

Overall, the module will equip you with the confidence and technical vocabulary to talk and write about a diverse range of written, visual and material sources intelligently and to use them confidently in support of independent scholarly argument.

Learning outcomes

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

  1. Recognise and be aware of the distinctive presuppositions that underlie historical writing on the early modern period and the notion of ‘early modernity’;
  2. Recognise the contribution made by other academic disciplines to the recent study of early modern politics, culture and society;
  3. Identify and engage critically with historiographical debates about the early modern period;
  4. Elaborate and defend an intellectual position to other members of the seminar group, presenting complex scholarly arguments succinctly and accurately;
  5. Present conclusions in a fluent written form, demonstrating a mastery of bibliographical materials (including electronic resources) referencing your sources appropriately;
  6. Evaluate a range of early modern primary sources, including material culture, employing appropriate analytical techniques and theoretical approaches;
  7. Speak confidently, using technical language, when discussing early-modern sources of different types and using them to support scholarly argument.


Learning hours
Seminar hours Tutorial hours Independent Learning
20 3 277

The principal mode of contact will be ten two-hour seminar classes. Within this standard format, students will be offered

  • A series of content-specific seminars, looking at a range of historical topics, issues, and problems that take you through a particular historical period (in this case, the early modern period), providing both an introduction to the advanced study of the period and the historical and historiographical context from which to undertake practice-based research.
  • A series of source-criticism seminars, each of which will concentrate on a specific type or genre of source material and will both examine particular examples and discuss general interpretative problems.

You will be set preparatory reading in advance for all seminars. You will be expected to share your knowledge of historiographical developments, debate controversial topics and listen and respond to the views of others in a structured environment. You will, in addition, have individual tutorials in which to identify topics for written papers, develop your reading around these topics, and discuss the structure and content of your written work.



Assessment methods
Assessment Type % of final mark Length
Coursework Formative n/a 2000 words
Coursework Summative 100% 6000 words

You will complete one written paper of 6,000 words. The work should engage with one or more of the concepts or themes of the module through a case-study/case-studies. It should demonstrate an advanced understanding of and critical engagement with current historiography, and advanced skills in the use of sources

There will be a formative assessment in which you are invited to submit up to 2,000 words of a draft / plan / piece of exploratory writing in advance of the final essay.


Selected reading

For your own preparation, and as an introduction into some of the themes of the module, you can read relevant sections of standard textbooks on early modern British and European history (e.g. Beat Kumin (ed.), The European World 1500-1800 (2nd edn, Routledge, 2014). In addition, for an introduction to the theme of 'selfhood', try beginning with Roy Porter (ed.), Rewriting the self: histories from the Renaissance to the present (Routledge, 1997).

We also recommend that you engage with any of the readings below, which are relevant for a number of topics in the module. Try beginning with those which are most pertinent to your own interests.

  • Peter Lake and Steven Pincus (eds.), The Politics of the Public Sphere in Early Modern England (Manchester, 2008)
  • Craig Muldrew, 'From a 'Light Cloak' to the 'Iron Cage': An Essay on Historical Changes in the Relationship between Community and Individualism' in Alex Shepard and Phil Withington (eds.), Communities in Early Modern England (Manchester, 2000), pp. 156-79.
  • Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment (Cambridge, 1995)
  • Michael T. Ryan, ‘Assimilating New Worlds in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 23.4 (October 1981), pp. 519-38
  • Carol Symes, 'When We Talk about Modernity', American Historical Review 116, no. 3 (2011).
  • Dror Wahrman, The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England, (Yale University Press, 2004), esp. pp. xi-xviii, 166-97, 265-321. [The chapter "The ancien régime of identity", pp.166-197 is available as an e-offprint]
  • Phil Withington, Society in Early Modern England. The Vernacular Origins of Some Powerful Ideas (Cambridge, Polity, 2010), especially ‘The Sociable Self’
  • Jonathan Wright, ‘The World’s Worst Worm: Conscience and Conformity during the English Reformation’, Sixteenth Century Journal 30/1 (Spring, 1999), pp. 113-133.



*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.