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Early modern Europe: society and culture c.1500-1780

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The early modern period from 1500 to 1780 is one of the most engaging periods for historical study. Beginning with the upheavals of the Reformation, and ending with the Enlightenment, this was a time of fundamental intellectual, social, religious and cultural change. At the same time, early modern Europe was rooted in and retained many of the customs of medieval times. You will explore this balance of change and continuity through documents written, and (for the first time) printed including diaries, pamphlets, legal documents, bureaucratic records and ballad songs, as well as the images and objects.

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 became increasingly mobile – all before the fundamental social and political changes brought about by the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.

While this module covers the period 1500 to 1780, it moves away from the focus of many early modern history modules to focus on everyday life and explore 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 cause and response to poverty, the identity and role of elites, prescribed gender roles and how men and women behaved, the role of institutions such as churches or guilds in providing identity and maintaining order, and the challenges to 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. You'll cover the changing patterns of faith and worship, as well as the changing role of Protestant and Catholic churches in welfare and the political conflicts around the adoption of Protestantism. You'll also explore current historical debates around the shift to Protestantism, and whether the shift to the new faith was as rapid or complete as previously thought.

Bodies, health and disease
Disease and death had a huge impact on early modern people as 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 reading and writing skills developed at OU level 1, teaching your how to analyse more complex contemporary documents, to get to grips with historical debates and 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.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 2 module and you need to have the study skills required for this level, obtained either through OU level 1 study, or by doing equivalent work at another university.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

What's included

All teaching material for this module is delivered via three printed books and online via the module website which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • module materials
  • audio and video content
  • assessment guide
  • access to online tutorials and forums.

You will need

You may find it useful to have access to a large public or university library.

Computing requirements

You'll need a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of 64-bit Windows 10 (note that Windows 7 is no longer supported) or macOS and broadband internet access.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile App will operate on all current, supported, versions of Android and iOS. It's not available on Kindle.

It's also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook, however, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you'll also require a desktop or laptop as described above.

Materials to buy

Set books

  • Kumin, B. (ed) The European World 1500-1800: An Introduction to Early Modern History (3rd edn) Routledge £32.99 - ISBN 9781138119154

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. You will be taught through a blend of methods that may include online tutorials and moderated online discussion forums. This blend of methods is designed to help you benefit from tuition whatever your circumstances.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying A223 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Early modern Europe: society and culture c.1500 - 1780 starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2021. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2027. 

Course work includes:

6 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
No residential school

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