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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (11 'Big Sur' 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
- 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