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

The early modern period from 1500 to 1780 is a fascinating historical period to study. Beginning with the upheavals of the Reformation and ending with the Enlightenment, this was a time of fundamental social, religious and cultural change. Yet, alongside the era’s many social developments, you will discover the persistence of some medieval customs and ideas. This module explores this balance of change and continuity through a variety of sources, from manuscript and printed documents such as diaries, pamphlets, legal records and ballads to the images and objects that early modern people produced and used in their everyday life.

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Module code




  • Credits measure the student workload required for the successful completion of a module or qualification.
  • One credit represents about 10 hours of study over the duration of the course.
  • You are awarded credits after you have successfully completed a module.
  • For example, if you study a 60-credit module and successfully pass it, you will be awarded 60 credits.

Study level

Across the UK, there are two parallel frameworks for higher education qualifications, the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Northern Ireland and Wales (FHEQ) and the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF). These define a hierarchy of levels and describe the achievement expected at each level. The information provided shows how OU module levels correspond to these frameworks.
Level of Study
2 8 5

Study method

Module cost

Entry requirements

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What you will study

In 1500, the old order of the feudal system was still firmly in place over large parts of Europe and the Catholic Church held huge power and authority over many aspects of life. Yet new ideas about learning associated with the Renaissance were spreading across Europe. By 1780, Enlightenment ideas of a greater political accountability were taking hold, and some hierarchies questioned. Towns and cities were playing a growing role in culture, politics and economy, and society had become more mobile and diverse – all before the transformations brought about by the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century.

This module takes the approach of social and cultural history, focusing in particular on everyday life. Even major events such as the Reformation are studied mainly through their effects on people and communities. To help you get to grips with this rich history, the module is driven by an expanding scope of study, from individuals to communities to states. While the main focus is on Europe rather than the wider world, you'll be studying human diversity and in particular Black people and religious minorities, Muslims and Jews, who lived in Europe. You will explore why and how they travelled, what occupations they took up and how they integrated into or were excluded from communities and society.

Content and themes

In Book 1, you'll examine political, social and cultural processes from the point of view of individuals, families, and households. You'll learn how noble families gained power and prestige and the survival strategies of the poor, ending with a unit on how individuals saw themselves and reflected on their lives.

In Book 2 you'll study the importance of communities of varying sizes, from towns down to parishes, guilds, schools and other institutions, as well as of transient and informal groups such as the rioters who challenged the status quo.

In Book 3 you'll explore developments on the larger scale of states and international commerce, including the growing movement of money, goods, people and ideas across Europe and beyond.

Two main issues will recur in the module: the balance of change and continuity in this history and geographical differences. 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 in economic and social life. For example, in large parts of Europe, peasant life continued to be based on subsistence agriculture even when in other areas, a growing production of goods initiated consumerism. The population of European cities increased in diversity as overseas trade, colonial expansion and the trans-Atlantic slave trade developed. You'll learn how to assess such complex patterns and pace of change. As you familiarise yourself with the sources that document early modern life, you'll also engage with historians’ interpretations and some of their most lively debates.

The following five themes run through the module that will help your understanding of the period:

Society and social order
This broad theme covers topics such as social hierarchies, the causes and response to poverty, the identity and role of elites. You will examine prescribed gender roles and investigate how men and women behaved in practice, and you will discover the contributions of Black people within early modern societies. You will also study the ways in which identity was provided by institutions such as churches or guilds and the challenges to social order made through popular protests, as well as a range of historians’ interpretations of these events and changes.

Religion: Reformation and Counter-reformation
Religion dominated early modern lives, but the Reformation triggered major changes, including the rise of new Protestant churches and the response by the Catholic Church. The impact of the Reformation is explored in the broadest sense. You will study the changing patterns of individual faith and worship, the new role of Protestant and Catholic churches in the provision of welfare and the political conflicts around the adoption of Protestantism. You will read how historians explain the shift to Protestantism and whether this was as rapid and successful as previously thought. The cross-cultural connections of those from religious minorities such as Jews and Muslims will also be discussed.

Bodies, health and disease
Diseases and death had a huge impact on early modern families by taking away parents and children and robbing individuals of their ability to earn a living. This theme explores how early modern people understood their body, health and disease and how they experienced the lifecycle. You will also learn who provided care and how and which strategies were adopted to control disease, especially the dreaded plague.

Work and trade
This theme examines the world of work at many levels: patterns of work found among individuals – who worked at what occupations, and where and when work was carried out; how work was organised in guilds; changing patterns of consumption and the organisation of banking and finance that underpinned a growing global trade. You will also read about the diverse occupations and status of Black people in this world.

Knowledge and ideas
The early modern period is bookended by intellectual movements – the Renaissance and the Enlightenment – that spread across Europe. The module explores how ideas circulated as access to education and literacy expanded. You'll examine changes in how nature was explained following the Scientific Revolution and the impact of the Enlightenment on social and political life, including ideas about racial differences.

If you are interested in this module and would like to know more, you might like to try the free OpenLearn course Early modern Europe: an introduction, in which you'll explore some of the fundamental characteristics of this fascinating period of history.

You will learn

By studying this module, you will learn how to:

  • interpret the wide range of textual sources that document early modern life and also what to do if evidence is scarce or fragmentary
  • analyse images – from grand portraits to cheap prints and the maps that were produced at the time
  • study material culture – early modern objects, large and small, precious and ordinary that are an important source of evidence, particularly for Black history
  • evaluate and take part in historical debates
  • build a clear and persuasive argument in written form.

Vocational relevance

This module helps you develop the skills required for the study of history. It builds on the reading and writing skills acquired at OU level 1, teaching you how to analyse more complex documents, how to get to grips with historical debates, and to understand why historians differ in their interpretation of the past. The module will also guide you through the rich archive of online documents and information, once limited to scholars but now available to all students through The Open University Library.

Throughout the module, you will have opportunities to practice a number of skills highly valued by employers, such as qualitative analysis and applying evidence from a variety of source material to support arguments and develop lateral thinking. You will also develop skills such as problem- solving, communication, digital and information literacy, self-management and resilience, and global citizenship.

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.

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 2024. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2027. 


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the academic regulations which are available on our Student Policies and Regulations website.

Course work includes:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment

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.


Start End England fee Register
05 Oct 2024 Jun 2025 £3636.00

Registration closes 05/09/24 (places subject to availability)

This module is expected to start for the last time in October 2028.

Additional Costs

Study costs

There may be extra costs on top of the tuition fee, such as set books, a computer and internet access.

If your income is not more than £25,000 or you receive a qualifying benefit, you might be eligible for help with some of these costs after your module has started.

Ways to pay for this module

Open University Student Budget Account

The Open University Student Budget Accounts Ltd (OUSBA) offers a convenient 'pay as you go' option to pay your OU fees, which is a secure, quick and easy way to pay. Please note that The Open University works exclusively with OUSBA and is not able to offer you credit facilities from any other provider. All credit is subject to status and proof that you can afford the repayments.

You pay the OU through OUSBA in one of the following ways:

  • Register now, pay later – OUSBA pays your module fee direct to the OU. You then repay OUSBA interest-free and in full just before your module starts. 0% APR representative. This option could give you the extra time you may need to secure the funding to repay OUSBA.
  • Pay by instalments – OUSBA calculates your monthly fee and number of instalments based on the cost of the module you are studying. APR 5.1% representative.

Joint loan applications

If you feel you would be unable to obtain an OUSBA loan on your own due to credit history or affordability issues, OUSBA offers the option to apply for a joint loan application with a third party. For example, your husband, wife, partner, parent, sibling or friend. In such cases, OUSBA will be required to carry out additional affordability checks separately and/or collectively for both joint applicants who will be jointly and severally liable for loan repayments.

As additional affordability checks are required when processing joint loan applications, unfortunately, an instant decision cannot be given. On average the processing time for a joint loan application is five working days from receipt of the required documentation.

Read more about Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).

Employer sponsorship

Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU courses are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to complete. They also value the skills that students learn and can apply in the workplace.

More than one in ten OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the module you’ve chosen is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could approach your employer to see if they will sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. 

  • Your employer just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.
  • You won’t need to get your employer to complete the form until after you’ve chosen your module.  

Credit/debit card

You can pay part or all of your tuition fees upfront with a debit or credit card when you register for each module. 

We accept American Express, Mastercard, Visa and Visa Electron. 

Mixed payments

We know that sometimes you may want to combine payment options. For example, you may wish to pay part of your tuition fee with a debit card and pay the remainder in instalments through an Open University Student Budget Account (OUSBA).

Please note: your permanent address/domicile will affect your fee status and, therefore, the fees you are charged and any financial support available to you. The fee information provided here is valid for modules starting before 31 July 2025. Fees typically increase annually. For further information about the University's fee policy, visit our Fee Rules

This information was provided on 23/04/2024.

Can you study an Access module for free?

Depending on eligibility and availability of places, you could apply to study your Access module for free.

To qualify, you must:

  1. be resident in England
  2. have a household income of less than £25,000 (or be in receipt of a qualifying benefit)
  3. have not completed one year or more on any full-time undergraduate programme at FHEQ level 4 or above or successfully completed 30 credits or more of OU study within the last 10 years

How to apply to study an Access module for free

Once you've started the registration process, either online or over the phone, we'll contact you about your payment options. This will include instructions on how you can apply to study for free if you are eligible and funded places are still available.

If you're unsure if you meet the criteria to study for free, you can check with one of our friendly advisers on +44 (0)300 303 0069, or you can request a call back.

Not eligible to study for free?

Don't worry! We offer a choice of flexible ways to help spread the cost of your Access module. The most popular options include:

  • monthly payments through OUSBA
  • part-time tuition fee loan (you'll need to be registered on a qualification for this option)

To explore all the options available to you, visit Fees and Funding.

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 broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11) or macOS Ventura or higher.

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

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 (4th edn) Routledge £32.99 - ISBN 9780367691554 This item is print on demand, please allow 3 weeks for receipt following order

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.

To find out more about what kind of support and adjustments might be available, contact us or visit our disability support pages.