HST3303: Identity and Belief

20 credits (semester 1)

Module Team: Dr. Miriam Dobson, Dr. Amanda Power


Thematic Option Description

The Thematic Option (formerly Comparative Option) is a type of 20-credit, one semester module at level 3. Thematic Options take major historical themes and explore these across a broad time-frame and in a variety of different cultural and geographic settings. Each Thematic Option is taught by a team of lecturers whose own research relates to aspects of the topic under discussion, and they are designed to involve students and the teaching staff in a dialogue about how we approach key questions in the study of past societies. The topics selected for the modules all represent areas of lively, current historiographical debate and offer opportunities to respond to interpretations and theories emerging in other disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, geography and political science. For this reason they will appeal especially to students with an interest in thinking across disciplines in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, including those studying for dual degrees. All of the Thematic Options raise issues with strong resonances in our contemporary culture.

Thematic Options have been created to complement the more specialised work at Level Three, looking beyond the detailed focus on one specific place and time to ask more conceptual questions and allow for the space to engage with significant themes that run across many of the periods that we tend to study in isolation. How can we compare historical experiences separated in time and space? Can we gain insights into understanding one period by knowing how similar challenges were met in a very different historical context? Do we learn more from what periods have in common, or from the differences that emerge?

The modules are taught through a series of lectures and ninety-minute seminars, placing an emphasis on collaborative learning and the encouragement of active student participation in researching and presenting material in class. The assessment is a mixture of coursework and marks for oral performance in the seminars.



A pass in at least two history modules at level two.


Module Summary

The purpose of this course is to explore the role of belief systems both for individuals and communities, with a particular focus on religion. Key questions will include: How have religious beliefs shaped individual identities, both in terms of their own sense of self and their place in society? What role do spiritual beliefs play in the way communities function? What is the relationship between belief and the nation? How do we explain moments of apparently radical change in a society´s beliefs? These issues will be considered from an historical perspective, considering the nature of change and continuity over time and space.



The module is taught through a combination of lectures and seminars. The lectures introduce the themes covered in the course and provide the necessary background and framework for exploring the subject. The 90-minute seminars provide opportunities for students to develop their ideas and discuss their reading for the module, and allow scope for students to gain experience in collaborative learning and in developing and articulating historical arguments.

Week Theme
1 Introduction: Grand Narratives and Key Concepts
2 Religious Authority: Origins and Challenges
Seminar: Introductory meeting
3 Sociology, Anthropology and the Study of Religion
Seminar: Birth Rituals
4 Imagined Communities
Seminar: Nationalism and Religion
5 Religious Conquest
Seminar: Holy War - Crusaders and Jihad
6 Religious Change: Innovation, Adaptation and Conversion
Seminar: Conversion
8 Disunity within the Community
Seminar: Heretics and Religious Minorities
9 The Contours of Individual Belief
Seminar: Belief, Unbelief and Atheism
10 Believers in Society
Seminar: Displaying Identity - The Veil in History
11 Death, Apocalypse and the Afterlife
Seminar: Apocalyptic Visions
12 Conclusions



The module is assessed by a combination of written coursework (83%) and marks for oral participation in seminars (17%). Students write two essays: an essay of 2000 words (33%) and one of 3000 words (50%).

Hand-in dates of the comparative option essays are as follows:

Monday 14th November 2011 - HST3301, HST3303, HST3305
Wednesday 18th January 2012 - HST3301, HST3303, HST3305


Assessment 1

Deadline for submission of hard and electronic copy: 12pm Monday of Week 8 (14 November 2011). The first essay should be 2,000 words long (the word count includes footnotes but not the bibliography). The word count should be declared on the cover sheet.

It is paramount that you hand-in your essay to the basket in person located on the ground floor in Jessop West.


Assessment 2

Deadline: Wednesday 18th January 2012 (noon)

Word limit: 3,000 words (including footnotes, not including bibliography)

This essay accounts for 50% of the mark for the module.

Format: Word-processed, with footnotes and bibliography, the separate sheets of paper stapled together. You only need one copy. A cover sheet for this assessment is provided on MOLE this should be printed out and completed with your registration number, the date of submission, the name of your seminar tutor and the essay title. It should then be attached to the front of your essay before submission. Your feedback will be returned to you (via your seminar tutor or the course coordinator) in the second semester so that you can benefit from the comments of the marker.

It is paramount that you hand-in your essay to the basket in person located on the ground floor in Jessop West.


Selected Reading
  • Luther H. Martin and Harvey Whitehouse, eds, Theorizing Religions Past: Archaeology, History, and Cognition (2004)
  • Derek Peterson and Darren Walhof, eds, The Invention of Religion: Rethinking Belief in Politics and History (2002)
  • Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (1993)
  • John Arnold, Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (2005)
  • Steve Bruce, ed., Religion and modernization: sociologists and historians debate the secularization thesis (1992)
  • Peter van der Veer, ed., Conversion to Modernities: The Globalization of Christianity (1995)
  • Peter van der Veer and Hartmut Lehmann, eds, Nation and religion: Perspectives on Europe and Asia (1999)


Intended Learning Outcomes

By the end of the module, a candidate will be able to:

  • Interpret and engage with key themes in the history and historiography relating to the nature of ‘identity and belief’
  • Formulate coherent and well-grounded historical arguments, both in oral discussion within the seminar and in on paper in written coursework
  • Write informed and cogent essays in clear, well-structured and grammatical prose
  • Think critically about the problems, challenges and opportunities of studying a topic across a significant period of time and within a comparative framework