BA Politics and Modern History / Course details

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Material Encounters in the Early Modern World, 1400-1800

Unit code HIST31881
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by History
Available as a free choice unit? No


Did you know that customers were able to buy 128,955 feathers from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe in one single store in Venice in 1587? How did such things made people experience the world they lived in? How can historians make objects an integral part of the stories we tell about the past? This course explores connected histories of the early modern world from a material culture perspective. Researchers called this period the time of the ‘first global dialogues’, an observation which prompts historians to reflect on how to approach these new dynamics of circulating goods. During that time, ever more artefacts became available through new cultural contacts, changes in consumption patterns, and the first routines of global trade. This course offers fresh perspectives on the big stories that materials as diverse as embroidered clothes, feathers, glass beads or Milanese beetles may tell historians about early modern cultural contacts.


HIST31881 is only available to students on History-owned programmes; Euro Studies programmes; CLAH-owned programmes; and History joint honours programmes owned by other subject areas (please check your programme structure for further details).

This module is only available to students on History-owned programmes; Euro Studies 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.


This course will provide students with profound knowledge in early modern history, global history and the history of material culture. Students will develop object-centred approaches to the past by studying how objects shaped history and how historians may examine objects. Students will debate connected histories, cultural crossings, materialized identities, entangled objects and the agency of things. Such concepts help to relinquish predefinitions of a study’s centre and periphery and thus make students reconsider non-European, comparative and decentred approaches to the past. Students will understand the mechanisms of early modern zones of cultural contacts and material exchange. Above all, the course will show (i) how things constituted connections, exchanges and identities, and (ii) how objects reveal the daily life experiences of a changing world. Through handling sessions of actual objects and methodological/secondary readings, students will explore and reflect on cross-disciplinary perspectives between history, material culture studies, anthropology, archaeology, and visual studies.


Indicative content:

  • Decentering Early Modern History: Local and Global Dimensions
  • Rethinking the Matter of History: Material Microhistories
  • Imagining the World in Renaissance Europe: Globes and Cabinets
  • Maritime Trade, Underwater Archaeology and Oceanic History: the Cross-Cultural Flows of Goods
  • Feather Craze: New World Feathers and the Matter of Ingenuity
  • In-Between Textiles: Weaving Cultural Encounters
  • Images, Objects and Religions: The Power of Global Visual Artefacts
  • The Sensory Materiality of the Word: Languages, Manuscripts, and Calligraphy
  • Remaking the World of Matter: Early Modern Recipes
  • Material Acts: The Matter of Diplomacy
  • James Cook and the Global South Sea: Entangled Objects, Curiosity and Nature

Teaching and learning methods

The course comprises a weekly three hour seminar that will combine a product model of teaching with a process model of teaching. Secondary literature and primary sources have to be studied in preparation of each class. The students will find the relevant materials uploaded on blackboard. Translations of non-English source materials will be provided well in advance by the instructor. Each weekly seminar is composed out of three elements that serve to equip the students with both knowledge in terms of content and practical skill developments: (i) short lecture units; (ii) seminar activities that serve to review the preparatory/methodological readings and to reflect on materials and methods in an atmosphere of interactive discussion; (iii) small group work based on primary sources and the students’ weekly submissions. From week 2 till 12, students are expected to prepare brief observations on the reading materials that will be discussed in class. This course furthermore (iv) schedules sessions in the Whitworth Art Gallery and the John Rylands Library. These sessions serve to familiarize the students with the collections of the University Museums and Libraries, to evolve methodological and practical skills in dealing with early modern objects, and to develop new heuristic tools. Handouts reflecting on all these seminar elements will be provided after each section (uploaded on blackboard).

A weekly one hour office hour will give students the possibility to discuss their coursework individually. Students will be encouraged to seize the opportunity to discuss their preparations of essays and catalogue entries. All coursework will be submitted via Blackboard and TurnItIn. Students will be provided with short written feedback and the possibility to receive oral feedback in optional office meetings.

Knowledge and understanding

  • students will develop a non-Eurocentric perspective on European history; they will reconstruct early modern Europe’s embeddedness into as well as entanglements/connections with the early modern world
  • students will understand and critically assess the agentive qualities of matter by exploring how early modern things materialized identities
  • handling sessions in the Whitworth Art Gallery and John Rylands Library as well as material engagement experiments will equip and train students in central heuristic tools of material culture historians: besides textual and visual analyses, students will also learn how to use a digital microscope and how to engage in remaking experiments in reflective ways
  • evaluate the impact of materials, things and commodities on economic history in general and the history of consumption in particular
  • relate history with the research and methods of other disciplines like archaeology and anthropology

Intellectual skills

  • apply interdisciplinary research approaches/practices/methods to the study of material culture
  • evaluate agency of humans and objects
  • understand how to use artefacts as historical sources and how to reconsider texts as early modern objects
  • identify and critically engage with the material dimensions of cultural encounters, early colonialism and claims of cultural hierarchies

Practical skills

  • investigate textual primary sources in relation to the holdings of museums
  • analyse archaeological reports and understand archaeological evidence
  • use of a digital microscope as a heuristic tool
  • apply anthropological theory and methods of material culture studies
  • essay writing and how to compose catalogue entries
  • by studying global history, the students will be attuned to the benefits of language learning for their studies (English translations of course materials will be provided though)

Transferable skills and personal qualities

Pedagogically speaking, the course will combine a product model of teaching with a process model of teaching so that students are going to be well-equipped in terms of contents and in developing/exerting/improving strategies of autonomous and self-reflective research.

  • communication skills: presentation and discussion of own interpretations based on primary sources and secondary readings
  • improve skills in object-related writing (catalogue entry)
  • critically engage with theory
  • assess the ethical implications of academic practice (doing history)
  • critically evaluate and improve argument-focused essay writing

Employability skills

think outside the box of traditional boundaries of history as an academic discipline
Oral communication
oral communication and written presentation
reflective and critical thinking, reconsidering the societal impact of research
Written communication
craft convincing arguments by organising/structuring evidence and testing/reflecting on working hypotheses
hands-on knowledge in dealing with historical objects will provide students with a broader understanding of the various possible trajectories of future employments in libraries and museums

Assessment methods

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

Feedback methods

Written feedback on coursework -summative

Oral feedback on course performance and coursework preparations in office hours - formative

Recommended reading

Appadurai, Arjun, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge, 1986).

Bentley, Jerry H., Subrahmanyam, Sanjay and Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E., eds., The Cambridge World History, vol. 6: The Construction of a Global World, 1400–1800 CE (Cambridge, 2015).

Gerritsen, Anne and Riello, Giorgio, eds., The Global Lives of Things: Material Culture of Connections in the Early Modern World (London, 2016).

Lemire, Beverly, Global Trade and the Transformation of Consumer Cultures: The Material World Remade, c. 1500–1820 (Cambridge, 2018).

Peck, Amelia, ed., Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800 (New York, 2013).

Richardson, Catherine, Hamling, Tara and Gaimster, David, eds., The Routledge Handbook of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe (London, 2017).

Rublack, Ulinka, ‘Matter in the Material Renaissance’, Past & Present 219 (2013): 41–85.

Thomas, Nicholas, Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific (Cambridge, Mass., 1991).

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Seminars 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 165

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Stefan Hanss Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Assessment Methods

Catalogue entry of an early modern object, summative, 1000 words, 20%

Essay, summative, 3000 words, 40%

Exam, summative, 2hrs, 40%

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