European and World History

Studied in one of four periods, this is a paper in non-British Isles History, which combines the study of an extended period with geographical range. It is approached more thematically than British Isles History, with an emphasis on the conceptual categories – of gender, economy, culture, state and religion – which enable us to understand both what past societies have had in common and where they have differed:

This course could have been labelled ‘The Heirs of Rome’. At the time it opens, human experience around the Mediterranean and far into its hinterland had been much the same for half a millennium or more. The Later Roman Empire was only the last of a series that had brought strong government and a generally ‘civilized’ standard of life – though the first to introduce them to north-western Europe. Yet within three centuries, most recognizable features of the world created by Rome and Persia had ceased to exist. The Arab armies of Islam, the last of the world’s great religions, took over the bulk of the ancient Near East, creating an enormous new capital at Baghdad; throughout the period covered by this course, and for some time afterwards, the Islamic ‘Caliphate’ was much the most prosperous and cultivated part of the known world. The rump of the old eastern Roman Empire survived as what historians call Byzantium: it was a formidable power within its limits, but is best regarded as another of Rome’s successor states. The West’s new super-power was the Franks, under the rule first of the Merovingian dynasty, and then of the Carolingians; Charlemagne (768-814), their greatest king, would be as formative for the making of medieval culture as was Napoleon for the modern world. For all that, the empire he created, covering most of Western Europe, fell apart under his successors. In short, the changes affecting the known world in this period were arguably more total and more startling than any before the nineteenth-century advent of European industry and empire.

This course thus has a Eurasian rather than merely European scope, stretching from Persia’s inner Asian frontiers to the British Isles and Scandinavia. Among its chief themes is that it is unnecessary to take too negative a view of the period’s turbulence. While the ancient world was well-defined, it was culturally ‘closed’, content with tall stories about life as lived beyond its frontiers. The West’s post-Roman masters, by contrast, penetrated the non-Christian and un-Roman worlds of Vikings, Khazars and Slavs, and by exploring hitherto unknown reaches of the northern Atlantic and of the eastern forests, sowed the first seeds of the twentieth century’s superpowers. Among the achievements of Christian literature was the devising of scripts, east and west, which are substantially the same as those in use today. Western Christendom and Byzantium developed their own new forms of social behaviour, whether secular (the life of the warrior), or spiritual (that of the monk); and the dividends these yielded in metalwork or book-illumination certainly stand comparison with the masterpieces of ancient art. If the overall impression of the period 370-900 remains one of a Christian world struggling for survival, it is also possible to pick up the first stirrings of the aggressive expansionism that would one day carry European culture into all corners of the World.

An attractive feature of early medieval history is that because the sources are so relatively few, it is possible for students to get access to a relatively high proportion of what is available. Takers of this course will explore translations of Roman historians (including a first-hand account of an embassy to Attila the Hun), Christian chroniclers, writers of saints’ lives and Muslim literati. They will be introduced to works of art of enduring beauty, though no longer (any more than is modern art) in the humanist idiom of classical culture. By putting our few texts in their wider cultural context, and by using written and material evidence together, we can recover a good idea of what was happening. The world of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages is an extremely lively field of current research and debate, both in this university and elsewhere. This course aims to show why.

The medieval world between 1000 and 1300 was characterised by immense dynamism in the economy, urban development, political organisation, gender relations, and martial culture. This course enables you to examine these sorts of changes in two distinct ways.

One approach involves focusing primarily on developments within western and central Europe (Latin Christendom) and on encounters between Europeans and representatives of other political, devotional and cultural traditions at the frontiers of Christendom. Viewed in this light, in 1000 Latin Europe can be typified (perhaps) as a largely agrarian society, with extended kin-groups, substantial political fragmentation, largely unregulated violence, and highly localised religious practices. It was neighboured to the south and south-east by the territorially more powerful and culturally sophisticated Islamic and Byzantine worlds, and to the north and east by pagans or recently-converted Christians. Over the next three centuries we may argue that there was substantial strengthening and homogenising of society and culture in Latin Christendom itself, and that this was accompanied by external expansion. Such changes can be charted through phenomena as diverse as monarchy, papacy, gender relations, knighthood, monasticism, universities, chivalry, pilgrimage, crusade, lay piety, intellectual culture and vernacular literatures, as well as interactions in frontier regions, including with Muslims in Iberia, Sicily and the Middle East, and with Orthodox Christians in Byzantium. Of course increasingly virulent attacks on heretics, the (perceived) enemy within, may question just how unified medieval Christendom really was in these centuries. 

A different approach is to consider medieval Christendom as only one society among many others in Eurasia and Africa. You may study some aspects of Latin Christendom, but you will focus on other parts of Eurasia and Africa, examining them in their own terms rather than in relation to Europe. Thus, you may explore urban-based empires in medieval west Africa, or the Muslim polities which took shape in the Islamic world following the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate, including the Egyptian-Syrian domains of Saladin. You may look further east to examine the emergence of the Song empire in China, or at the fortunes of a longstanding Eurasian empire: Byzantium. On a pan-Eurasian scale, this paper offers you to the opportunity to study the Mongols and the complex mixture of conquest and assimilation which characterised their expansion within the Islamic world, Central Asia, China, and eastern Europe, as well as other ‘systems’ that linked different medieval regions, including networks of Jewish merchants and Islamic scholar-administrators. 

The period from 1400 to 1650 can be considered a defining moment in the creation of modern Europe and its relations with the rest of the world.

Beginning when population and agricultural production had been sharply reduced by plague, it saw both rise to new levels, while the development of cross-European trade began the process of economic specialization. Explorers, adventurers and merchants were opening up the New World of America, Africa and the Far East, laying the basis of a future world economy. Expansion of the material world was matched by enlargement of intellectual and cultural horizons. A new type of lay scholar, the humanist, rediscovered the texts of Latin and Greek antiquity, and developed intellectual interests, in language, morals and history, which differed markedly from those of medieval scholasticism. Artists and architects likewise took fresh inspiration from classical models, creating the glories of the High Renaissance and Baroque. The possibilities of new technology were most dramatically realised in the invention of printing.

Yet just as Renaissance drew Europeans closer in learning and culture, Reformation created unprecedented divisions in religion. Luther and Calvin succeeded where fifteenth-century heretics had failed, creating new churches, and forcing the long process of reform within the Roman Catholic Church to harden into Counter-Reformation. Economic and religious pressures put new strains on political structures. Expanding resources after 1500 enabled monarchs to support increasingly spectacular courts, larger administrations and more permanent armies, while forging new alliances with their nobilities. By contrast city-state republics flourished in the fifteenth century and declined in the sixteenth, only to set a new example in the successful revolt of the Dutch against the Spanish Monarchy.

By concentrating on broad themes rather than on the detail of developments within individual countries, the paper offers you the opportunity to study the whole process of historical change within this period. The lectures will introduce you to the major topics, while tutorials and classes take advantage of the range and quality of historical writing on this period to examine a wide variety of specific problems and subjects. To encourage study of the full range of developments within the period, the examination paper will require you to answer questions from three of the four sections into which it is divided.

This course approaches the nineteenth century in the widest possible way, ranging from population trends and social structure to cultural history and from revolutions to imperialism. It centres on Primarily in Europe (including the British Isles) ventures beyond this particularly when dealing with imperialism.

The nineteenth century is often hailed as the century of nationalism. The paper will cover the state and to the spread of state structures and national institutions and the construction of national identities and the pursuit of the nation-state are studied, as are the scientific ideas - such as Social Darwinism - underpinning them. A number of areas are also studied including the population explosion of the nineteenth century, the agricultural and industrial revolutions which helped to sustain it, the dramatic growth of towns, the various waves of emigration to the New World, the European élites, (noble and non-noble, conservative and liberal) and a study of peasants, industrial workers, and some of the social and political movements which played such a prominent role in the shaping of the nineteenth century (including the revolutions of 1830, 1848, 1871 and 1905). Finally, the changing gender roles and ideologies, and the question of whether the century was one of secularization or religious revival are also covered.

Undergraduates are expected to attend all 16 lectures designed for the course, in order to gain a sense of the broad themes and how they interlock, although for their weekly essays they may specialise in the subjects of their choice.

Please note that the options listed above are illustrative and may be subject to change.

Teaching: 16 lectures; 7 tutorials or 7 college classes (or a mixture), with submitted essays or essay plans for discussion.

Assessment: This paper is assessed with a 3-hour written examination.