BA Politics and Modern History / Course details

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Savagery and Civilisation: Early European Encounters with the New World, c. 1492-1628

Unit code HIST31782
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by History
Available as a free choice unit? No


On the 12th of October 1492 Christopher Columbus first set foot on the hitherto unknown shores of the land that would become known as America. With this fateful, if accidental, ‘discovery’ Columbus set in motion a series of events that was to profoundly alter both indigenous American societies and European ones. Through this course students will explore the myriad ways that Europeans encountered, confronted, and attempted to explain the new lands across the Atlantic and assess how far the ‘discovery’ transformed early modern European society. This course will take an interdisciplinary approach to history, covering an array of research areas such as cultural history, the history of science and medicine, anthropology, and literary studies.



Available on which programme(s)?

History (hons.), History and Sociology, Modern History and Economics, Politics and Modern History, History and American Studies, and History and Modern Languages.

Available as Free Choice (UG) or to other programmes (PG)?


Pre-requisite units



Co-requisite units





  • Introduce students to a broad range of relevant themes and historiographical debates associated with the history of the European discovery of America.
  • Introduce students to critical concepts relating to the study of cultural history.

Encourage students to explore beyond the disciplinary boundaries of history, borrowing methods and perspectives from across the humanities and social sciences, including anthropology and literary studies.

Learning outcomes


  • Analyse the impact of the discovery of the Americas on European society and culture.
  • Evaluate how European society and culture shaped early reactions to the New World.
  • Understand and critique historical debates surrounding the impact of the ‘discovery’ on early modern European thought.
  • Utilise a range of independent study skills, such as the ability to evaluate and critique primary material and use it to create independent arguments relevant to the topic.



Week 1 European Travel and Exploration Before Columbus

Week 2 First Encounters: Columbus in the Caribbean

Week 3 Cannibals and Noble Savages: European Depictions of Native Peoples

Week 4 Mapping the New World

Week 5 Too Hot or too Cold? European Reactions to American Climates

Week 6 You Are What you Eat? Food, Diet, and the Impact of the Columbian Exchange

Week 7 A Godly Enterprise? European Religion in the New World

Week 8 The Construction of Authority: The Eye-Witness and the Rise of Empiricism

Week 9 Field Trip: Collecting the New World: Artefacts, Plants, and People (Manchester Museum)

Week 10 Field Trip: Promoting the New World: English Travel Narratives (John Rylands Library)

Week 11 A Belated Impact? The Influence of the ‘Discovery’ on European Society and Culture.


Teaching and learning methods


The course will be taught through a weekly three-hour seminar, in which students will receive a lecture on the week’s topic, listen and respond to student presentations, work in small groups on a variety of reading and source-related tasks, and contribute to full-class discussions. For each weekly seminar, students will be expected to undertake and respond to both secondary and primary reading.

In class, students will participate in group work that will focus on the week’s set readings. Students will be able to present their own ideas to their peers and respond to the views of others. They will also be able to reflect on their own approaches to primary source analysis and secondary interpretation.

Class discussions will focus on the main themes of the week’s topic and the historiographical debates surrounding it. Students will be able to thoughtfully critique and analyse a range of historical arguments and present their own position to the rest of the class.

Students will also have access to an additional office hour in which they will be encouraged to meet individually with the tutor to discuss their ideas and progress on the course.

As part of the course, we will also attend sessions at the John Rylands Library and Manchester Museum to give students the opportunity to handle historical objects and texts and to ask questions to experts working at these institutes.

Additional reading lists and resources will be made available to students via blackboard.

Knowledge and understanding


  • Assess the impact of economic, religious, cultural, medical and intellectual change on European perceptions of the New World.
  • Analyse the impact of the discovery of the New World on early modern culture and society.
  • Identify and critique a range of historical approaches to cultural encounters and early European colonialism.
  • Distinguish between and compare the different approaches to conquest and colonialisation amongst various European nations.

Intellectual skills


  • Assess, evaluate, and critique advanced historical analysis and argument.
  • Assess and evaluate the relative strengths and limitations of different types of primary material.
  • Analyse an array of primary sources including visual sources and material objects.
  • Understand anthropological and cultural approaches to early colonial encounters.

Practical skills


  • Essay writing.
  • Primary source analysis, both textual and visual.
  • Locating information from a range of sources, including books, journals, online databases, and online collections.
  • Participating in constructive historical debates through seminar participation.

Transferable skills and personal qualities


  • Improved oral and written communication skills.
  • Team-working and collaborative skills through group presentations.
  • Ability to present ideas clearly and cogently though presentations and seminar discussion.
  • Ability to evaluate the quality and reliability of information.
  • Experience handling and analysing artefacts in museums and special collection libraries.

Assessment methods

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

Feedback methods


Feedback method  -  Formative or Summative

Oral feedback on group presentation  -  Formative

Written feedback on primary source analysis  - Summative

Written feedback on essay  -  Summative

Additional one-to-one feedback (during office hours or by appointment) - Formative

Recommended reading


  • Chaplin, Joyce E., Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676 (Cambridge MA, 2001).


  • Earle, Rebecca, The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492-1700 (Cambridge, 2012).


  • Elliott, John, The Old World and the New, 1492-1650 (Cambridge, 1970).


  • Greenblatt, Stephen, Marvellous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Oxford, 1991).


  • Hulme, Peter, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean (London, 1986).


  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America (London, 2000).


  • Pagden, Anthony, European Encounters with the New World (New Haven, 1993).


  • Wood, Stephanie, Transcending Conquest: Nahua Views of Spanish Colonial Mexico (Norman, 2003).

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Seminars 33
Supervised time in studio/wksp 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 156

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Rachel Winchcombe Unit coordinator

Additional notes


Assessment task

Formative or Summative


Weighting within unit (if summative)

Primary Source Analysis













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