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The Making of Modern Societies: Britain and Europe, c.1500-c.1750


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor: Brodie Waddell
  • Assessment: one essay of 5000-5500-words (100%)

Module description

Is Britain a European country? In modern times, the disintegration of the British Empire and the foundation of what would become the European Union have made this a vexed question. It is not a new one, however. In the early modern period, England's - later Britain's - involvement with European affairs was similarly complex and ambivalent.

We invite you to join the debate about Britain's historic relationship with continental Europe in a crucial period for the development of national states and modern societies and economies. By investigating key themes such as confessionalisation, 'multiple monarchies', the print revolution, the emergence of a consumer culture, and subsistence crises, this module offers new perspectives on how historians conceptualise 'early modernity'.

We will ask whether a simple fact of geography - Britain's separation from the Continent - has isolated this island from European historical processes and thereby created a sense of a nation apart. To what extent have historians been complicit in the creation of the myth of Britain's 'island story'?

On this course, you will assess and critique some of the major problems that have shaped early modern history over the past quarter-century or so. Traditionally, scholars have sought to understand 'early modernity' by presenting the histories of 'Britain' and 'Europe' in sharp contrast to one another. Whereas England/Britain was thought to have developed a unique constitutional framework, in which the powers of king and parliament balanced one another, Europe's other great powers, especially France, became 'absolutist' states where representative institutions played little or no role in governance. England also experienced what some historians regarded as a more 'tolerant' form of Protestant Reformation: the country did not manifest the polarised confessional positions that generated the horrors of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in France (1572) and the devastating European-wide conflict known as the Thirty Years War (1618-48). Instead, it was England that seemed to have experienced the first 'modern' revolution and created the first 'modern' society.

This simplistic dichotomy has long since been dismantled by historians who are now far more interested in the interactions between England/Britain and Europe. Can modern British scholars successfully integrate the approaches and methodologies pioneered by Europeanists, while retaining a sense of what was distinctive about the English/British historical experience?

Indicative Module content

  • Britain, Europe, and early modernity
  • Confessionalisation
  • The 'problem' of multiple monarchies
  • Europe's seventeenth-century 'crisis'
  • The 'print revolution'
  • Civility and violence
  • Popular cultures
  • A consumer revolution?
  • Climate and famine
  • Britain, Europe, the Atlantic, and the World

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you should be able to:

  • display a good knowledge of the major themes in early modern historical study
  • compare and contrast the approaches used by British and by Continental European historians and to understand the reasons for difference
  • handle primary sources with confidence and demonstrate the ability to use them as a means of critiquing current paradigms
  • show an understanding of how and why historians have conceptualised 'early modernity'
  • situate early modernity within wider debates about the development of the historical discipline
  • participate in informed debates about current academic work on early modernity, in both small and large group discussion.