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


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 4
  • Convenor: Brodie Waddell
  • Assessment: a 500-word object or source analysis (20%), an 800-1000-word article summary (20%), a 1500-word essay (20%) and a 48-hour online examination (40%), with a 60% attendance requirement

Module description

The personalities of this era are rightly famous: Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Americas in 1492, Henry VIII’s notorious marriage troubles, Elizabeth I’s reputation as the ‘Virgin Queen’, Oliver Cromwell’s leadership in the British Civil Wars, and Louis XIV’s 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; 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’ that we will examine will be drawn from British history, but they will be 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’: ethnic and religious diversity, civil rights and parliamentary democracy, global trade and a consumer economy, and the ‘modern world’ itself.

Indicative module content

TERM 1: People and Beliefs

  • Introduction: mapping early modern history
  • People, land and cities: peasants and everyday life; nobilities; cities - the Rise of London
  • Reformations: reformation movements; reformation from above - Henry VIII and the English Reformation; counter reformation and global Catholicism
  • Women and men: gender and the family; witchcraft and magic; kingship and queenship: Elizabeth I, ‘The Virgin Queen’

TERM 2: Power and Knowledge

  • States and politics: states; princely courts; civil war and revolution - Charles I, Oliver Cromwell and the War of the Three Kingdoms
  • Beyond Europe: imperial expansion; trade and colonial societies - the Atlantic slave trade; world empires
  • Culture and knowledge: print and popular culture; Renaissance and Scientific Revolution; the public sphere and party politics - Whigs, Tories and the Glorious Revolution
  • Conclusion: Enlightenment and the crisis of the Old Order