What you will study
Early modern Europe was a period of dynamic change in social, cultural, religious and intellectual life. In 1500, new ideas about learning associated with the Renaissance were spreading across Europe, the old order of the feudal system was still firmly in place over large parts of the continent and the Catholic Church held huge power and authority over many aspects of life. By 1780, Enlightenment ideas of a greater political accountability were taking hold, towns and cities played an important role in culture, politics and industry, and society was becoming increasingly mobile – all this before the fundamental social and political changes brought about by the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.
While this module follows a conventional chronological span, covering the period from 1500 to 1780, it moves away from the traditional focus of many early modern history modules on diplomatic and political events such as the Thirty Years’ War and dynastic change. Instead, the module focuses on the study of everyday life and explores major events such as the Reformation through their effects on people and communities. The narrative of the module is driven by an expanding scope of study. Book 1 explores social and cultural life from the point of view of individuals, families, and households, ending with a unit that examines how individuals saw themselves and reflected on their lives. Book 2 examines early modern history at the level of groupings such as parishes, guilds, schools and other institutions as well as transient and informal groups such as rioters. Book 3 explores developments on a larger scale at the level of the states and international contacts, including the movement of money, goods and new ideas across Europe.
A recurring issue across the module is the balance of change and continuity. The early modern period offers examples of rapid and far reaching change, most notably around the Reformation, but it is also a period characterised by continuity, for example in economic and social life. This module aims to show the complexity of patterns of change and continuity: how peasant subsistence agriculture survived alongside specialist industrial production of goods.
The module is structured around five themes:
Society and social order
This broad theme covers topics such as the causes of and responses to poverty, the identity and role of elites, prescribed gender roles and the reality of how men and women behaved; the role of institutions such as churches or guilds in providing identity and maintaining order, and the challenges to the social order made through popular protests.
Religion: Reformation and Counter-reformation
The history of religious life in the early modern world is dominated by the Reformation - the rise of new Protestant churches and the reaction of the once dominant Catholic Church. The impact of the Reformation is explored in the broadest sense – not just through changing patterns of faith and worship, but the changing role of both Protestant and Catholic churches in welfare and the political conflicts around the adoption of Protestantism. It explores current historical debates around the shift to Protestantism, and whether the shift to the new faith as rapid or complete as previously thought.
Bodies, health and disease
Disease and death had a huge impact on early modern people: it shaped families by taking away parents and children, and robbed individuals of their ability to earn a living. This theme explores how the body and disease was understood in early modern Europe, the impact of lifecycle on health, the effects of disease on peoples’ lives, and efforts to control disease
Work and trade
This theme explores the world of work at many levels: from patterns of work found among individuals – who worked at what occupations, and where and when work was carried out – to the organisation of occupations conducted by groups such as mining, to world trade and changing patterns of consumption and the organisation of banking and finance that underpinned global trade.
Knowledge and ideas
The early modern period is bookended by intellectual movements – the Renaissance and Enlightenment – that spread across Europe. The module explores the spread of ideas through an exploration of developments in education and literacy, case studies of the development of ideas in the scientific revolution, and the impact of Enlightenment thinking on society.
Throughout the module, you will explore a wide range of source materials that provide the evidence for historical change. Printed documents such as pamphlets and ballads, and manuscript sources including letters, wills, and rules for guilds give direct insights into the thoughts and actions of people living five hundred years ago. Images – from grand portraits to cheap prints – and videos of building and places help you visualise life in the early modern world. The module also features images and audios of early modern objects, large and small, exploring what they can reveal about early modern history.
You will learn
This module gives you the skills required for the study of history. It builds on your skills in reading and writing developed at OU level 1, teaching your how to analyse more complex contemporary documents, to get to grips with historical debates and to understand why historians differ in their interpretation of the past. The module will guide you through to the rich archive of documents and information, once limited to scholars, but now available to all students through the internet and accessible through The Open University Library.