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Early Modern History


What is Early Modern History?


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, Reformation and Counter-Reformation; the ‘discovery’ of the Americas and the creation of European overseas empires; the Thirty Years’ Wars; the English Civil Wars; the French Revolution; the advent of print; the ‘scientific revolution’; Enlightenment; the emergence of capitalism and the making of global connections.

The early modern is sometimes understood as a transition phase in which a feudal society, formed around vertical ties of lordship, was transformed into a capitalist one, organised around horizontal class relations and fed by global networks. In the 16th and 17th centuries, population and urban growth unparalleled since the Black Death of the later fourteenth century, accompanied by huge price inflation, placed great strain on traditional social and political structures.

Change brought uncertainty and instability – but also opportunity. Technological change, captured by the term ‘the military revolution’, created the need for very large and expensive armies to fight wars, thereby precipitating the development of modern states. Their unprecedented coercive capabilities allowed the European powers to ‘discover’ New Worlds, notably in the Americas, acquire overseas territories, and exploit for their own benefit the resources they found there, including people: this was the age of the slave trade.

By 1800, Europe’s emergent nation-states dominated the rest of the world, with European trading and commercial networks facilitating flows of both people and knowledge on a global scale. New discoveries also fed into the so-called ‘scientific revolution’ of the later 17th century, in which the observational methods pioneered by Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, and members of London’s Royal Society, such as Isaac Newton, replaced models provided by ancient philosophers like Galen and Aristotle. Scientific enquiry did not ‘secularise’ society in any simplistic sense, however: early modern Europe not only remained intensely religious, but also continued to be divided by religion.


Venice: one of early modern Europe’s few republics and a global hub for commerce and trade. European, African, and Asian networks converged here until the ‘discovery’ of the Americas led to the increasing dominance of Amsterdam and London.



Why Study Early Modern History?


Early modern history is exciting because it’s not only about kings and queens, battles and great men – although they do feature! It’s 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 – have an important bearing on how 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 multiple and often competing constructions and 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.

How and why do societies change over time? Early modernity has always been about transitions and transformations, even if we recognize continuities. Where does the balance lie between the forces driving change and those that favour continuity? Did the features some consider unique to the early modern period – technological developments such as gunpowder and the printing press, the Reformation, the genesis of nation-states – result in a qualitative transformation of how human beings experience the world, discernibly different in scale or kind from other epochs? Or should we emphasize the continuities? Most people throughout this period worked land that they did not own, believed in both an interventionist God and the reality of witches, assumed that women were inferior to men, and expressed little interest in possessing the right to vote.


The Beggars Chorus: this ballad celebrates someone who was often treated as a pariah by early modern communities throughout Europe. The words were being sung by popular audiences long before they could buy this cheap printed version from the mid-17th century.



Why Early Modern History at Birkbeck?


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

Our teaching and supervision offers you both breadth and depth: it ranges widely across the16th to 18th centuries, covers socio-economic as well as political and religious history, and engages directly with cutting-edge ideas about how we understand the past. We have particular strengths in British, European, and Ottoman history.

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.

You will be taught by active researchers engaged with the latest debates in early modern history. We are particularly interested in political communication, state formation, collective identities, health, and the relationship between socio-economic and political cultures.

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 seek to inform and engage with public debate through television, radio, the press, and online fora.

Plague ravaged early modern Europe, especially in the urban centres of Italy and southern Europe. London’s worst and last outbreak occurred in 1666. This costume was designed to protect the wearer from the ‘miasmas’ that were thought (wrongly) to be responsible for the spread of plague.



Courses and Levels of Study


This Department offers you the chance to study early modern history from pre-undergraduate level through to independent research. The different levels of study and the courses we teach are outlined below.

Certificate of Higher Education

The Certificate, and each individual module, stand on their own. Successful completion enables students lacking the appropriate school-level qualifications to move straight into undergraduate study. The components that are partly or wholly focused on the early modern period include:

  • The Early Modern World, 1500-1750
  • Exploring Wellcome Collection: A Social History of Madness in Europe
  • Interpreting the Tower
  • London from the East: A Social History of the East End



The undergraduate (Bachelor of Arts) degree is a general history degree that offers courses across a wide range of geographical spaces and time periods. Over your degree, you will study at three different levels, which are intended to lead you towards your final piece of work: a research dissertation on a topic of your own choosing. We offer the degree on a full-time (three-year) and part-time (four-year) basis.

After the first year, our courses operate on a two-year cycle. Hence, the courses are listed below with the years in which they are likely to run. Not all our courses will be available every year so it’s important to check the current timetable for the most up-to-date information.

It is possible to take a pathway in early modern history through the degree: here are the courses we are currently running.


Introductory modules (Level 4)

You must take a total of three year-long introductory modules (Level 4), one of which can be our introduction to early modern history. We recommend that you take this option if you wish to study early modern options at higher levels:


Thematic modules (Level 5)

You must take three year-long thematic modules (Level 5). All of them can be early modern:

  • London: Power and People, 1500-2000 (2017/18)
  • The Protestant Reformations and their Afterlives in the Early Modern World (2017/18)
  • Work and Play in Early Modern England (2018/19)
  • The Renaissance in Italy and Europe: From the Black Death to the Reformations (2018/19)


Document-based modules (Level 6)

You must take at least two year-long document based modules (Level 6):


Taught Postgraduate

The Department has 14 MA (Master of Arts) programmes, including the MA in Early Modern History. Students registered on any programme must take the compulsory core course (made up of a lecture series with tutorials) plus three options (seminar teaching).

The following options are recommended for Early Modern History students – but students can choose to take one alternative option if they wish. These options are also open to students on other MA programmes, for which please consult your course coordinator.


Postgraduate research

The Department offers three types of research degree, awarded for different levels of independent and original research:

MRes: 2 taught components plus a 30,000-word thesis

MPhil: 60,000-word thesis

PhD: 100,000-word thesis

Research projects at all three levels require a supervisor. It is important that you make contact with a potential supervisor as early as you can to discuss your ideas, find out if the project is viable, and ensure that you will work well together.


Early Modern History: the Birkbeck Community


Birkbeck has a busy community of early modernist historians, including permanent staff, postdoctoral researchers, and postgraduate students. We are always happy to receive enquiries from potential students and researchers about our work and our teaching – see the links below for more information.

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

Historians are leading members of our lively Early Modern Society, run by and for students past and present. It takes an explicitly ‘trans-disciplinary’ approach and, alongside social events, hosts a stimulating lecture series by leading public intellectuals – see the website for this year’s line-up.

Academic and teaching staff

Fred Anscombe

Research: the Ottoman Empire and post-Ottoman states

Teaching BA and MA level

Supevision: Ottoman and post-Ottoman history, 17th-20th centuries

Mike Berlin

Research: early modern and modern London

Teaching: BA 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: 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 and the republic of Venice

Teaching: unavailable 2017-18

Supervision: Italian history; the history of the book and information in Europe

Brodie Waddell

Research: early modern England

Teaching: BA and MA level

Supervision: English 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

Sarah Birt

Project: A Fashionable Business: Mantuamakers, Milliners and Seamstresses in London c. 1670-1770

Funding: Mercers' Company Doctoral Studentship

Supervisor: Brodie Waddell

Beverley Brown

Project: Uncovering the Social and Cultural World of Edmond Halley (1656-1742)

Supervisor: Brodie Waddell

Anne Byrne

British Academy postdoctoral research fellow

Project: Loving the king in early modern France, 1744-1789

Mentor: Julian Swann

Angela Cox

Project: Children in Elizabethan and Jacobean Portraits: 1560-1630

Supervisor: Vanessa Harding

Gary Jenkins

Project: Christ’s Hospital and the poor of London, 1552-1666

Supervisor: Vanessa Harding

Andrea Guidi

European Research Council postdoctoral fellow

Project: Bureaucracy and the military revolution in sixteenth century Italy; Machiavelli

Supervisor: Filippo de Vivo

Katherine Harvey

Wellcome Trust postdoctoral research fellow

Project: The Bishop’s Body in Medieval England

Mentor: John Henderson

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

Charlie Taverner

Project: Street Food Sellers in Early Modern London

Funding: SSHP Doctoral Studentship

Supervisor: Brodie Waddell

Calum Wright

Project: Conscience and the commonwealth: Anglo-Scottish political cultures, 1637-1650

Funding: Birkbeck postgraduate studentship

Supervisor: Laura Stewart

Xu Yang

Project: Early Modern London and the Rules of Business: London Merchants and Institutions

Supervisors: Matthew Davies and Vanessa Harding


Filippo de Vivo, Alessandro Silvestri, Vanessa Harding, Laura Stewart, Brodie Waddell, Anne Byrne


Early Modern History: Collaboration


All our staff work to promote knowledge and understanding of early modern history not only amongst students and academics, but also in the public domain. Here are some examples of our collaborative work.

The Institute of Historical Research

The IHR at Senate House (the stunning 1930s building used as the Ministry of Information during WW2) runs a large number of regular seminars during term-time. It provides an invaluable forum in which historians can debate their research with colleagues and students. Most of us convene one of the range of early modern seminars at the IHR: for more details, see the seminar website.

Collaborative work

British history in wider context is a particular area of strength. Vanessa Harding has directed and co-directed a series of research projects focusing on family, household and housing in early modern London, collectively titled People in Place. A further project produced the London and Middlesex Hearth Tax of 1662-6 as an important online resource and in print as The London and Middlesex Hearth Tax (British Record Society, 2014). She is now developing a collaborative project to create an accurate map of London on the eve of the Great Fire of 1666, drawing on the Hearth Tax returns. Brodie Waddell co-founded an early modern history blog, The Many-Headed Monster, with colleagues from Exeter and Birmingham in 2012, where he co-edited three large online symposia: ‘The Future of History from Below’ (2013), 'The Voices of the People' (2015) and 'Addressing Authority' (2016).

Italian history, especially the history of information and the history of medicine, are particularly strong areas. Filippo de Vivo has led and participated in a wide range of collaborative projects about information, communication, and record-keeping, including a series of workshops on scribal culture at the V&A, the British Library and the Wellcome Collection, and an international network studying urban public spaces in Spain, Italy, France, and the UK. He is currently leading a team of researchers on a project on the comparative history of archives in late medieval and early modern Italy, which will culminate in a special issue on ‘archival turns’ for European History Quarterly in 2016. He is also collaborating with Sir Noel Malcolm (All Souls, Oxford) on an edition of Thomas Hobbes' translation of a series of letters from Venice, 1615-28John Henderson has a strong social media presence, advises on an EC-funded research project based at Cambridge University on ‘Visual representations of the Third Plague Pandemic', and represents Birkbeck on the Prato Consortium for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, which involves colleagues from the universities of Amsterdam, Arizona, Edinburgh, London Queen Mary, Toronto, and Warwick. Monash University is the hub. He is also developing the 'Medici and Medicine' research project at the Medici Archive Project, Florence.

St Mary

St Mary-le-Bow, London was designed by Christopher Wren and built in the wake of the Great Fire of London in 1666. Its records were the source for the project ‘People in Place’.


Our Colleagues in Other Departments


Our expertise in early modern history is complemented by colleagues in other Departments who also specialise in the early modern period. You can study the poetry, literature, and drama of the age of William Shakespeare and Aphra Behn, the art of the Renaissance, and the political ideas and theories that emerged out of the trauma of religious divisions and war.

We encourage students to consider taking options in other disciplines and welcome students from cognate Departments to our courses. For more information, go to the relevant Departmental websites:

English and Humanities

History of Art

Department of Culture and Languages: Eighteenth-Century Studies

Department of Culture and Languages: Renaissance Studies



How Can I 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:

Email or call + 44 (0) 20 3073 8093

Further contacts are also available.

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, see the relevant prospectus pages.