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The Early Modern World, 1500-1800: Reformations and Revolutions


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 4
  • Convenor: Dr Brodie Waddell
  • Assessment: two 500-word reviews (20% each) and a 1500-word essay (60%)

Module description

The personalities of this era are rightly famous: Christopher Columbus and his voyage to the Americas in 1492, Henry VIII and his notorious marriage troubles, Elizabeth I and her reputation as the ‘Virgin Queen’, Oliver Cromwell and his leadership in the British Civil Wars,  Louis XIV and his magnificent court at Versailles.

To understand why these individuals and events mattered, we will explore the dramatic changes that swept through Britain, continental Europe and the wider world over these crucial 300 years.

We will move from the fragmentation of Christianity during the Reformation, through the horrors of seventeenth-century war and revolution, to imperial expansion, the brutality of the Atlantic slave trade and the intellectual debates of the Enlightenment. Justly known as ‘early modern’, this was a formative period in Western history, as Europeans began to interact with civilisations throughout the entire world and the continent turned into a global centre of power. Men and women experienced their first media and information revolution with the birth of print, the spread of literacy, religious reform and scientific revolution; they witnessed the emergence of new state structures but also innovative attacks on established political hierarchies and the emergence of a new globalised economy alongside the formation of national languages and institutions. This was the grandiose age of monarchy, with glorious courts and costumes: it was also an age of devastating war, famine and disease.

Many of the ‘case studies’ we examine will be drawn from British history but firmly set in their wider European and global context. By the end of this module, you will understand how this period laid the foundations for so many things usually labelled ‘modern’, such as:

  • ethnic and religious diversity
  • civil rights and parliamentary democracy
  • global trade and a consumer economy
  • the ‘modern world’ itself.

Indicative syllabus

  • Introduction: seeing the world
  • Thriving or surviving: cities, villages and hard times
  • Instable households: gender, sexuality and witchcraft
  • Fires of faith: reformation, heresy and persecution
  • Royal power: kings, queens and the state
  • Imperial ambitions: new worlds, colonialism and indigenous responses
  • The trade in people: slavery and resistance
  • Dangerous words: print, popular culture and public politics
  • An age of revolutions: the end of the old order
  • Conclusion: legacies