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Early Modern History

What is early modern history and why does it matter?

  • The early modern period – broadly conceived as the centuries between 1500 and 1800 – encompasses some of the most dramatic and hotly contested events in history: the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation; the advent of printing; contact and conflict between Europe and the Americas; the British Civil Wars; the American and French Revolutions; the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment; the emergence of capitalism and the Atlantic slave trade.

    Early modern history is exciting because it’s not only about kings and queens, battles and great men – although they cannot be ignored. It is also about how individuals, communities, and societies influenced, and were shaped by, religious change, economic development, new political ideas, technological innovation, and revolutions.

    Early modern history is a battlefield. Politicians, journalists, and other public figures frequently lay claim to this period. We are often told that certain great events – the European Reformations, the British Civil Wars, the Anglo-Scottish Union, the French Revolution – and the lives of great individuals – Elizabeth I, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte – helped our societies became ‘modern’. It’s important to be informed about the past so we can challenge those who would seek to use – or misuse – history for their own purposes.

    Early modern history, in common with the discipline in general, gives us the skills to put ‘the facts’ into their proper context. There is not one ‘truth’ waiting to be discovered about the past, but many often competing interpretations. Studying history develops critical thinking and encourages a sceptical attitude to received wisdom. It enables us to deconstruct the ‘grand narratives’ – from the rise of capitalism, to the rise of the state, to globalization – that have traditionally informed how scholars understand the emergence of modernity.

    Books, films and TV have made us all familiar with the images of King Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, the struggle between the ‘Roundheads and Cavaliers’, the Borgia and the Medici families, and the ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV’s magnificent palace at Versailles - but there’s much more for you to discover about early modern history at Birkbeck.

    Our teaching, supervision and collaboration offers both breadth and depth: it ranges widely across the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, covers social and economic as well as political and religious history, and engages directly with cutting-edge ideas about how we understand the past. You will be drawing on the knowledge and expertise of internationally renowned researchers. The History subject area at Birkbeck was rated in the Research Excellence Framework 2014 amongst the top 10 institutions in the UK for the quality and impact of its research.

    We have particular strengths in British, European, and Ottoman history. Our researchers are engaged with the latest debates about the histories of communication, health and illness, religious diasporas and migration, state power and popular politics.

    You will be joining a Department that actively communicates the importance of early modern history beyond the academy and asserts its relevance to modern-day issues and problems. We inform and engage with public debate through television, radio, the press and online.

  • The Trading Post of the Dutch East India Company in Hooghly, Bengal, Hendrik van Schuylenburgh, 1665

Courses and Levels of Study

Early Modern History at Birkbeck

  • Birkbeck has a busy community of early modernist historians, including staff, postdoctoral researchers, and postgraduate students. We are always happy to receive enquiries from potential students and researchers about our work and our teaching.

    Our students are active members of our research community. Check out the online research forum run by and for our postgraduate students.


    Academic and teaching staff

    Fred Anscombe

    • Research: the Ottoman Empire and post-Ottoman states
    • Teaching: BA and MA level
    • Supervision: Ottoman and post-Ottoman history, 17th-20th centuries

    Mike Berlin

    • Research: early modern and modern London
    • Teaching: BA level and MA level
    • Supervision: N/A

    Matthew Champion

    • Research: medieval and early modern northern Europe
    • Teaching: BA and MA level
    • Supervision: the social, cultural and intellectual history of later medieval Europe, especially in the history of time, religious cultures, and the history of the senses

    Vanessa Harding

    • Research: medieval and early modern London
    • Teaching: MA level
    • Supervision: English economic and social history; health and disease

    John Henderson

    • Research: medieval and early modern Italy, especially Tuscany
    • Teaching: BA and MA level
    • Supervision: Italian, especially Tuscan, social, cultural, and medical history

    Katherine Hill

    • Research: early modern Europe
    • Teaching: BA and MA level
    • Supervision: European and global religious, cultural and social history

    Julian Swann

    • Research: early modern France, especially elite political culture
    • Teaching: unavailable
    • Supervision: French history

    Filippo de Vivo

    • Research: early modern Italy, especially communication, history of archives and the republic of Venice
    • Teaching: BA and MA level
    • Supervision: Italian history; the history of the book and information in Europe

    Brodie Waddell

    • Research: early modern England
    • Teaching: BA and MA level
    • Supervision: early modern British social, economic and cultural history

    Jerry White

    • Research: London history, 1700 to the present day
    • Teaching: urban history, MA level only
    • Supervision: British modern and urban history


    Postdoctoral researchers and postgraduates

    Caroline Barron

    • Leverhulme Early Career Fellow
    • Project: Fake Transcriptions and the Eighteenth-Century Art Market

    Sarah Birt

    • Project: A Fashionable Business: Mantuamakers, Milliners and Seamstresses in London c. 1670-1770
    • Funding: Mercers' Company Doctoral Studentship
    • Supervisor: Brodie Waddell

    Anne Byrne

    • Honorary Research Fellow
    • Project: Loving the king in early modern France, 1744-1789

    Aaron Columbus

    • Project: Plague and the poor in the suburban environs of early modern London, c. 1600-1650
    • Supervisor: Vanessa Harding

    Angela Cox

    • Project: Children in Elizabethan and Jacobean Portraits: 1560-1630
    • Supervisor: Vanessa Harding

    Anna Cusack

    • Project: The Marginal Dead of Early Modern London
    • Funding: Mercers’ Company Doctoral Studentship
    • Supervisor: Brodie Waddell

    Katherine Harvey

    • Honorary Research Fellow
    • Project: The Bishop’s Body in Medieval England

    Kathryn Havelock

    • Project: Botanical symbolism in Florentine Renaissance painting, c.1450-1500
    • Supervisors: Dorigen Caldwell (Art History) and John Henderson

    Gary Jenkins

    • Project: Christ’s Hospital and the poor of London, 1552-1666
    • Supervisor: Vanessa Harding

    Matthew Laube

    • Leverhulme Early Career Fellow
    • Project: Sound, Violence and the Emotions in the Dutch Revolt

    Sarah Lennard-Brown

    • Project: The Almshouses of London and their role in lay piety and the relief of poverty 1340-1550
    • Supervisors: Vanessa Harding and John Henderson

    Sarah McBride

    • Project: Making a Visible Difference: Symbolism and Individuality in Representations of the Medici Court Dwarfs c.1530-1630
    • Supervisors: Dorigen Caldwell (Art History) and John Henderson

    Solene Rivoal

    • Visiting Postdoctoral Researcher
    • Funding: LabexMed
    • Home institution: Aix-Marseille Université

    Charlie Taverner

    • Project: Street Food Sellers in Early Modern London
    • Funding: SSHP Doctoral Studentship
    • Supervisor: Brodie Waddell

    Xu Yang

    • Project: Early Modern London and the Rules of Business: London Merchants and Institutions
    • Supervisors: Matthew Davies and Vanessa Harding

  • The Entry of the French Ambassador into Venice in 1706, Luca Carlevarijs, 1706 - 1708

Early Modern Collaborations

Our Colleagues in Other Departments

Find Out More About Studying Early Modern History at Birkbeck

  • Academic staff are always happy to answer queries but, in the first instance, you may be unsure which level of study is right for you. Our friendly office staff will be able to help:

    The application process for all our courses is straightforward, but we recommend that you begin gathering information as early as possible and check carefully for deadlines, especially if you are applying for funding.

    For more information about applications, visit our prospectus pages.