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People and their Things: Material Worlds from the Renaissance to Today


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 5
  • Convenor and tutor: Professor Frank Trentmann
  • Assessment: two 2000-word assessments (50%) and a 48-hour take-home examination (50%)

Module description

In this module you will have the chance to engage with major themes and debates about the changing relationship between people and their things in a global and comparative perspective from pre-modern times to the present. The topics of discussion include:

  • what historians can learn from the study of things and different approaches to material culture
  • collecting cultures in the Italian Renaissance
  • taste in late Ming China
  • the discovery of novelty in the Dutch Republic and Britain
  • the luxury wars
  • empire and trade
  • sugar from slave plantation to European consumers
  • the role of slavery
  • the industrious revolution and the relationship between consumption and work
  • the role of African consumers
  • things in the Japanese home
  • the modern city as a shopping city
  • consumer boycotts
  • things in socialism
  • the rise of the United States as a consumers’ republic
  • the electrification of everyday life
  • consumption in China
  • waste and recycling
  • contemporary debates about sustainable consumption, material flows and climate change.

Secondary sources will be complemented with select primary sources (objects and images as well as texts and inventories) that will give you the opportunity to understand better the transformation of material cultures in the world over the longue durée.

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will:

  • have good knowledge of the major themes in the history of people and their things (material culture)
  • be able to compare and contrast modern scholars’ approaches on the subject
  • be able to handle primary sources with confidence and use them as a means of critiquing current paradigms.