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BA History and French / Course details

Year of entry: 2021

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


In 1587, customers could choose from 128,955 African, Asian, American, and European feathers in one single store in Venice. Shortly afterwards, English scientists studied similar feathers under the newly invented microscope. How did such globally traded things shape how people experienced the world? Bringing global history and material culture studies into a conversation with anthropology, (underwater) archaeology, art history, microscopy and museology opens new perspectives on writing decentered histories of the early modern past and the early modern ‘discovery of things.’ In this time of the first globalisation, people around the globe experienced an unprecedented diversity of material cultures through global trade and colonialism. This course follows the dynamics of circulating materials, offering fresh perspectives on the big stories that small things may tell: excavated cargo ships; the exploitation of Amazonian biodiversity; indigenous perspectives on colonial encounters; global trade of Indian textiles; the restitution of Polynesian artefacts from Cook’s expeditions.


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 equips students with profound knowledge in early modern history, global history and material culture studies. 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, and the agency of things. Such concepts challenge centre-periphery models of historical change and open up global approaches to the past. Students will learn methods of studying historical artefacts, e.g. digital microscopy, 3D object-scanning, narrative approaches, remaking experiments. This course will provide students also with a deep understanding of early modern zones of cultural contacts and material exchange, e.g. the Atlantic world of commodities, indigenous-European gift-giving, and the Eurasian textile trade. 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. Students will explore and reflect on cross-disciplinary perspectives between history, material culture studies, anthropology, archaeology, museology, and visual studies.

Knowledge and understanding

  • students will develop a global perspective on early modern 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 material culture by exploring how early modern things materialized identities
  • material engagement experiments (either handling sessions, digital microscopy, 3D object-scanning, and/or remaking experiments, depending on pandemic-related teaching environments) will equip and train students to use central heuristic tools of material culture historians: besides textual and visual analyses, students will learn about digital technology 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, anthropology, art history, and museology

Intellectual skills

  • apply interdisciplinary research approaches/practices/methods to the study of material culture
  • evaluate agency of humans, objects, and materials
  • 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 and early modern colonialism

Practical skills

  • investigate textual primary sources in relation to the holdings of museums
  • analyse archaeological reports and understand archaeological evidence
  • using digital technology as new heuristic tools, e.g. digital microscopy and/or 3D object scanning
  • apply anthropological theories and methods of material culture studies
  • essay writing and how to compose narratives with and about objects
  • by studying global history, non-English and non-European primary sources, students will be attuned to the benefits of language learning for their studies (English translations of all course materials will be provided)

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 - knowledge in dealing with objects will provide students with a broader understanding of the various possible trajectories of future employments in libraries and museums - reflective and critical thinking, reconsidering the societal impact of research and ethics of museum collections - oral communication and written presentation - craft convincing arguments by organising/structuring evidence and testing/reflecting on working hypotheses

Assessment methods

Portfolio of two critical object narratives 40%
Essay 60%


Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative and Summative

Written feedback on coursework


Oral feedback on course performance and coursework preparations in office hours



Recommended reading

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

Victoria Avery, Melissa Calaresu and Mary Laven, eds., Treasured Possessions from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2015).

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

Zoltán Biedermann, Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello, eds., Global Gifts: The Material Culture of Diplomacy in Early Modern Eurasia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

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

Stefan Hanß, ‘Material Encounters: Knotting Cultures in Early Modern Peru and Spain’, The Historical Journal, 62 (2019), 584-615,

Timothy J. LeCain, The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

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

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

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

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

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


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Seminars 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Stefan Hanss Unit coordinator

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