Early Modern History 1500-1700

This exciting course introduces you to the latest developments in the study of British, European and World History between c. 1450 and 1800.  From the Reformation and Counter-Reformation to the Enlightenment, we look at how the world was transformed by the new encounters between civilisations. We explore the visual and material culture of the Renaissance and Baroque, we ask how the idea of the self developed, we track changes in warfare and the growth of the state, and we examine how gender relations were transformed and social hierarchies challenged.

Course Organisation

Alongside the Theory and Methods course, students spend their first term studying Sources and Historiography. This course introduces you to the key historiographical debates that shape our discussions. We will critically examine how our field has been transformed by the challenges of global history, what concepts like “early modernity” or the ‘fiscal-military state’ might mean, and ego-documents and experience. We will consider how the work of thinkers like Lynn Hunt, Michel Foucault, or Norbert Elias have changed our field, and what challenges are posed by the history of gender.

As part of the Skills component of the course, you will be able to learn a language - such as French, German, Italian, Spanish and many more.  You can take dedicated Languages for Historians classes, specifically targeted to the needs of history scholars. There is also a highly regarded introductory summer Latin Course, taught in the three weeks before your course begins, and you can then continue to work on your Latin in groups for all levels during the year. You will be able to learn palaeography so that you can read manuscript and archival source materials. We have some of the most advanced digital humanities resources in the country, and you will be able to acquire the technical skills you need.  And you can work on manuscripts and early books with the guidance of leading scholars.

In the second term, students take one of a wide portfolio of Option courses.  Those particularly relevant to Early Modern History typically include:

 

The ‘globalization’ of history has been the most visible and significant development in historical scholarship of the past decade or so. Historians are increasingly aware of the need to place their work in a context that spills over national, regional, or civilizational boundaries. Some of the most exciting work has emerged from probing the global dimensions of the ‘early modern period’ before the rise of European world domination. This course will introduce the two principal methodologies involved in doing this new large-scale history – the connective and the comparative – through a series of seminars led by one European historian and a different specialist in cultures outside of Europe each week. In pursuit of the connective we will consider what happened when Europeans began to traverse the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and became entangled in a newly diverse range of societies. For example, what kind of architecture resulted when Portuguese ecclesiastical styles were transplanted to the tropics? Other weeks will take a more comparative approach. Considering the way in which Chinese intellectuals turned to classical texts in formulating ‘Neo-Confucianism’, for example, should help us see the over-familiar European themes of Renaissance and Reformation in a new light.

 

 

How have people understood the self in the past? How have they conceptualized emotions? Is there a self before 1700? How do different cultures conceive of the self and how do they understand spirituality? What is the relation between the individual self and the collective? This course seeks to understand ways of approaching the self and psychology in different times and places. It also seeks to explore ways of incorporating subjectivity and emotions of people in the past in how we write history; and to question the sociological, collective categories of analysis that historians often employ. Each session will take a particular example of a cultural context and explore how historians could write the history of subjectivity. The sessions will draw on different types of source material – diaries, letters, visual sources, material objects, travel writing, memoirs, court records, micro-historical material, oral history – and consider the problems and possibilities they offer. Four of the sessions will be on the early modern period; four will be on the modern period; however, in their assessed essay, students may concentrate on either the early modern or the modern period. The course deliberately bridges the early modern and the modern because the historiography itself does. This enables productive comparisons. 

 

 

In recent decades the political history of early modern Europe has re-invented itself in dialogue with social, economic and cultural history. Analyses of state formation and political culture have aspired to replace biographies of statesmen, narratives of party struggle and genealogies of institutional development. This course examines a series of themes in the development of early modern states to test models of political change on a range of societies from the British Isles to Eastern Europe. It aims to equip those interested in reformations, counter-reformations, rebellions, courts, parliaments, towns, nobles, peasants and witches – and in statesmen, factions and institutions – with the ideas and comparators needed to frame a sophisticated research project in their chosen field. Class topics will include:

  • the military-fiscal state
  • clientage and faction
  • confessionalisation
  • justice and the law
  • government, economy and social change
  • household order
  • communication, propaganda and magnificence
  • communication, representation and revolt

 

 

This option offers the opportunity to engage with a range of exciting new scholarship on the Enlightenment, covering the period from the second half of the seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth century. It takes inspiration from recent rebuttals of the postmodern critique of the ‘Enlightenment project’, and addresses the subject in comparative and transnational perspective. We shall cover Enlightenment both as an intellectual movement and as a social phenomenon, examining how thinkers across Europe engaged with new publics. For the first four weeks we shall explore the major interpretative issues now facing Enlightenment historians, including:

  • the coherence of Enlightenment – whether we should think in terms of one Enlightenment or several;
  • the importance and duration of ‘radical’, irreligious Enlightenment;
  • the relation between Enlightenment, the republic of letters, and the ‘public sphere’;
  • the politics of Enlightenment: public opinion, reform, and revolution.

During the second half of the course, participants will be encouraged to set their own more precise study agenda, related to the topics of their course papers. They may explore in more detail the intellectual content of Enlightenment, its various contexts, its social framework, and its impact, within and across national and political frontiers. Topics which might be studied at this stage are:

  • Enlightenment contributions to natural philosophy, and the ‘arts and sciences’;
  • the Enlightenment ‘science of man’, as pursued in philosophy and political economy;
  • writing sacred, civil and natural history in the Enlightenment;
  • women, gender and Enlightenment.

Participants will also be encouraged to attend the research-oriented Enlightenment Workshop, which meets weekly in Hilary Term.

 

 

This option will explore the heterogeneous and changing forms of governmental and political collectivity – kingdoms, republics, empires, federations, provinces, cantons, quasi-governmental trading companies etc etc – which flourished in Europe and in the wider world in which Europeans operated between the age of Louis XIV and the 1848 revolutions. In a period often described as having seen first the rise of a European state-system and then of nation states, it will explore the diversity of forms of government and political life, the many different levels and modes at which governments operated, and the many internal and external pressures on their coherence and effectiveness – including interstate competition, globalising economic relations, disease and natural disasters, pressure from religious organisations and movements, rising expectations, ideological critique and popular insurgency.

Each week discussion will focus on ways in which both historians and contemporaries have conceptualised particular aspects of the relationship between states and peoples. One topic of obvious interest in this period is the nature of state crises and revolutions, and of attempts to recast states and the state system in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The Revolution has conventionally been interpreted as a turning point. We will examine and test that idea – by exploring the ways in which historians and contemporaries have conceptualised continuity and change, and by testing their accounts through our own case studies.

 

Throughout the degree, students work towards a dissertation.  Recent topics have included: 

  • The effects of the English Reformation on socio-economic relations in early modern England
  • Academic life of Moscow University in the eighteenth century
  • Levels of female involvement within the sixteenth-century commercial environment in England
  • The growth of the professional diplomat in the long sixteenth century: an Eastern Mediterranean perspective
  • Sex and Subcultures in Arts Clubs and Societies in London in the 18th Century
  • Pauper petitions and survival strategies in 17th-century England
  • 'Ragged, and Torne, and True': Conceptions and Depictions of Poverty in England and the Netherlands, 1500-1650
  • The Suffering Christ: piety and identity in print and prayer, 1450-1550
  • Performance of the Condemned: Newgate 1676-1772
  • Doubt and Conscience in the life and writings of Thomas More

Faculty and Research Culture

We have probably the largest group of early modernists anywhere in the world. We have particular strengths in the following areas:

More information on our academics and their subjects, please search within our people section.

We have a very lively research culture, with seminars, workshops, and discussion groups involving leading international scholars just about every day of the week. You can see what is on offer on the Centre for Early Modern Studies website, an interdisciplinary umbrella. The History Faculty is home to the major international project Cultures of Knowledge: Networking the Republic of Letters 1550-1750. It also houses the project ‘Everyday Life and Fatal Hazard in Sixteenth-Century England’. There is a large international research project on the Jagiellonian dynasty  in the early modern period; and another major project entitled ‘Stories of Survival: Recovering the Connected Histories of Eastern Christianity in the Early Modern World’. There is a lively Centre for Early Modern Catholicism. We run the centre for Early Modern British and Irish History, and we are engaged in the Oxford Centre for European History, the Centre for Global History and the Centre for Gender, Identity and Subjectivity. We work closely with the Ashmolean Museum, the Museum for the History of Science, and with the Bodleian Library (see Cristina Dondi). We also collaborate with our colleagues at Princeton, Muenster, Padua, Central European University Budapest, Basel and many other places to hold postgraduate workshops for doctoral and early career students.

 

Admissions Questions

We normally take about 8-10 MSt students and one or two MPhil students in this area, but numbers vary from year to year and we are able to be flexible.  If you have any questions about our admissions procedure, please check the University admissions pages and/or contact Graduate Admissions. If you have any questions about studying this topic at Oxford, please contact the Convener.

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