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Knowledge, Power and Nature 1500-1700 (HI395) - Module Details


This module offers a cultural history of the European investigation into nature during a period that is usually known as the ‘Scientific Revolution’. It will introduce us to the grand narratives and their ‘heroes’ as in older histories of science and medicine, but will also encourage us to critically rethink the old categories. The shifting frameworks of ideas are not therefore the main focus of this module. Instead it aims at contextualising various European scientific endeavours between 1500-1700, and discussing them within the wider landscape of early modern European culture (i.e. discoveries and conquest, court culture and patronage, or trade, commerce and consumption). Of particular concern will be the history of the life sciences, frequently ignored in general histories of science and medicine. The chronology of the module will allow us to focus on two particular manifestations of the early modern investigation of nature: first, the restoration and renewal of the accomplishments of the ancients during the 16th century influenced by humanist thought, and second, the 17th century forging ahead with professedly novel and ambitious programmes of scientific endeavour, exemplified by natural philosophers such as Bacon or Descartes. The history of medicine and science will be a particular focus, but we will also cover social history, economic history, literary studies, art history, and anthropology.

  • The module will be taught through 18 (9 per term) seminars, which you must attend. There will be assigned readings. a

You will be asked to make short presentations at some seminars, or to focus on particular items on the reading list. I may introduce additional documentary texts as the module proceeds, and these will be circulated or placed in SRC. My office hours will be posted (room H336).




Aims and Objectives:

Like other advanced options, this module involves the study of a broad-ranging theme -- the Scientific Revolution from a cultural history perspective -- in a comparative and interdisciplinary context over a long chronological time frame. You can expect them to operate at a rather more sophisticated conceptual level than first or second year modules.


Workload and Teaching

The module will be taught through seminar discussion, which will be partly student-led. Non-assessed short essays, and (for some students) a 4,500- or 8,000- word assessed essays and a written exam.


Single honours

Coursework includes 3 non-assessed essays, i.e. 2000 words (due term 1: Friday week 7; Term 2 week 3 and 7 in term 2). Assessment consists of:

EITHER 1 three-hour exam AND 1 x 4,500 world long essay

OR 1 two-hours exam AND 1 x 8,000 words essay. (All assessed essays are due at noon on Wednesday of week 3 in term 3).


Joint honours/Historical studies /2+2

Coursework includes 3 non-assessed essays, i.e. 2000 words (due term 1: Friday week 7; term 2: weeks 3 and 7). Assessment consists of:

EITHER 1 x three-hour exam

OR 1 two-hour exam AND 1 4,500 word long essay (all assessed essays are due at noon on Wednesday of week 3 in term 3).


All essays must be typed and properly referenced using the style guide (marks will be deducted for inattention to scholarly protocols!)

There will be an introductory session and some introductions in seminars to help you grasp the main themes and issues, but as a third-year student you will be expected to organise your own learning rather more independently than hitherto. Although we will be discussing chiefly secondary material, emphasis is placed on introducing a range of primary sources, including some visual material.


Expected Learning Outcome:

  • Further development of essay writing
  • Particular focus on improvement of presentation skills
  • Identify key processes and debates in early modern history and history of science and medicine
  • Engage with works from neighbouring disciplines
  • Develop an individual long essay topic, compile and appropriate bibliography and critically evaluate a range of primary and / or secondary sources in comparative analysis.