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Conceptualising Early Modernity

In this session, we shall engage with debates about periodization and the concepts of modernity and early modernity. For this purpose, we will discuss a range of different approaches, some more empirical and some more theoretical, including a neo-Marxist perspective that emphasises patterns of exchange rather than novelties in production and consumption. Students should be prepared to discuss the following questions.



  1. Is the concept of modernity useful? If so, how?
  2. Does it make sense to separate out the ‘early modern’ from the 'modern'?
  3. Are the costs and benefits of using ‘early modernity’ the same as would be incurred by any periodization scheme or does ‘early modernity’ carry specific freight?
  4. Does Karatani’s structural approach to periodization in world history avoid or manifest some of the problems with the concept of modernity?
  5. Did early modernity mean similar / dissimilar things to different individuals and groups?


Core reading

  • R. Starn, ‘The Early Modern Muddle’, Journal of Early Modern History, 6: 3 (2002), 296-307.
  •  E. Cameron, ‘Medieval and Modern’, in: C. Scott Dixon and B. Kümin (eds), Interpreting Early Modern Europe (London, 2019), 18-48 (text, sources, appendix)
  • J. Goldstone, ‘The Problem of the Early Modern World’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 41 (1998), 249-84.
  • K. Karatani, The Structure of World History (2013), author’s preface and chs. 7-9.
  • A. Shryock and D. L. Smail, ‘History and the Pre’, American Historical Review 118: 3 (2013), 709-737.


Further reading

  • Phil Withington, Society in Early Modern England: The Vernacular Origins of Some Powerful Ideas (2010)
  • Wolfgang Reinhard, ‘The Idea of Early Modern History’ in Michael Bentley (ed) Companion to Historiography (1997)
  • ‘Early Modernities’ special issue of Daedalus 127 no 3 (1998) – available online
  • Merry Wiesner-Hanks, ‘Do Women need the Renaissance?’, Gender and History (2008), 539-557
  • Jerry Bentley, ‘Early Modern Europe and the Early Modern World’ in Charles Parker and Jerry Bentley (eds), Between the Middle Ages and Modernity (2007)
  • Asa Briggs and Daniel Snowman (eds) Fins de Siècles: how centuries end, 1400-2000 (1996)
  • Ludmilla Jordanova, History in Practice (2006), chapter 5, ‘periodisation’.

Image result for witches sabbath woodcut

Is early modernity best seen as a period of anxieties about religious and socio-cultural transformations? Hans Baldung Grien, 'The Witches' (c. 1510)