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BA Latin and Spanish / Course details

Year of entry: 2020

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Course unit details:
The Stuff of History: Objects Across Borders, 1500-1800

Unit code HIST21152
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by History
Available as a free choice unit? No


This course teaches students a brand new historical methodology: how to study history through material objects, which is a dynamic field within the discipline of History. The course focuses on the material transformations that took place in an expanding global world of goods in early modern Europe and investigates the ways in which objects shaped every dimension of people’s lives, from the consumption of new spices, intoxicants (like tobacco, tea and coffee), foodstuffs and luxurious clothes from early America, India and China, to new technologies like clocks and street lights that reordered the rhythm of rural and expanding urban communities.


HIST21152 is restricted to History programmes, History joint honours programmes, Classics and Ancient History programmes, and Euro Studies (please check your programme regulations for further details).

This module is only available to students on History-owned programmes; History joint honours programmes owned by other subject areas.; and CLAH-owned programmes. Available to students on an Erasmus programme, subject to VSO approval.


  • To investigate how historians can interpret the past through the analysis of surviving material objects.
  • To assess how the objects that were produced, consumed and circulated within Europe’s expanding global borders, shaped the tastes, habits, behaviours, beliefs and routines of early modern communities.
  • To investigate the potential of new technologies, and the socio-cultural contexts in which they were embedded, to reshape aspects of the early modern human experience.
  • To teach students why collections in museums and heritage organisations are crucial source materials for our understanding of history – and its tangibility.
  • To assess the entangled nature of social, economic, cultural and political relations between Europe and the wider world in a transformative era of global travel and exploration.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course you should be able to:


The following topics are an indicative list of the course contents:

  1. Doing History with Objects
  2. Food and Eating
  3. Cooking and Healing
  4. Textiles and Luxury
  5. The Printing Press: from Broadsheets to Newspapers
  6. Microscopes, Windows and Telescopes: Discovering New Worlds
  7. Early modern intoxicants: smoking and drinking cultures
  8. How Tea and Coffee came to Europe
  9. The Meaning of Light
  10. Street Life and Urban Life
  11. The Politics of the Bedchamber

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching and learning methods will combine 22 lectures (x 2 per week) and weekly seminar discussions (11 in total), object-based learning. Seminar and background readings will be placed or signposted on Blackboard, which will also contain links to relevant web-sites and course information. The course will conform to Blackboard minimum standards.

Knowledge and understanding

Manifest knowledge and understanding of:

  • Techniques of interpreting material objects as primary sources for historians.
  • The growing circulation of and access to material goods in early modern Europe.
  • The socioeconomic and technological transformations that reshaped early modern lives.
  • The global entanglements of early modern European markets, tastes and behaviours.

Intellectual skills

  • Develop an ability to use objects critically as sources for understanding the past.
  • Combine the analysis of material artefacts with other primary and secondary sources from the early modern period.
  • Develop an understanding of why a focus on material objects has dominated recent historiographies of early modern Europe, in reference to the ‘material turn’.

Practical skills

  • Essay writing and the organisation of research into a coherent argument.
  • Write an object-led assignment in a lively and accessible manner suitable for the wider public (guidance and specific links to databases will be provided).
  • Seminar participation and the ability to articulate a response to various primary and secondary sources, as well as to comments by other students.  
  • Using electronic databases to research early modern history.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Locating and summarising relevant research materials.
  • Written and oral communication skills.
  • Teamwork skills developed through discussion with other students.

Employability skills

Written communication
This course is designed to encourage students to think about their History degrees as a possible pathway to a career in the Museum or Heritage sector. They will become familiar with the collections of many such organisations in Manchester, and beyond, and they will learn how to bring history to life for wider public audiences by illuminating historical artefacts through historical research and writing.

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written exam 40%
Written assignment (inc essay) 60%

Feedback methods

  • written feedback on assignments 1 and 2
  • additional one-to-one feedback (during the consultation hour or by making an appointment)
  • feedback on exam if requested

Recommended reading

  • ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’, BBC website:
  • Findlen, Paula (ed.), Early Modern Things: Objects and their Histories, 1500-1800 (London: Routledge, 2013).
  • Hamling, Tara, and Catherine Richardson (eds), Everyday Objects: Medieval and Early Modern Culture and its Meanings (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010).
  • Jardine, Lisa, Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance (London: Macmillan, 2006).
  • MacGregor, Neil, A History of the World in 100 Objects (London: Penguin, 2012).
  • Handley, Sasha, Sleep in Early Modern England (Yale University Press, 2016)
  • Trentmann, Frank, Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First (London: Penguin, 2017)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Lectures 22
Seminars 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 165

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Sasha Handley Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Assessment Methods

Essay, summative, 1000 words, 20%

Essay, summative, 2000 words, 40%

Exam, summative, 2 hours, 40%

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