BA Ancient History and History

Year of entry: 2024

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

Course unit fact file
Unit code HIST21151
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? No


This course teaches students a brand new methodological toolkit of historical research: how to study history through objects. Material culture studies is a thriving and dynamic field of research that revolutionises how historians understand the past. The early modern period was characterised by fundamental material transformations: new global encounters between different peoples of the world led to a diverse and interconnected material world of goods that changed the way people ate, thought, socialised and behaved. The course examines how these new global connections and material goods enriched societies in  early modern Europe. This course explores 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, materials like feathers, and luxurious clothes from early America, India and China, to new technologies like clocks and street lights that reordered the daily lives of early modern communities.  


  • 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. 

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 websites 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

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

Source analysis 40%
Essay 60%


Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

Written feedback on assignments 1 and 2



One-to-one feedback (during the consultation hour or by making an appointment)



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).

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
Lectures 22
Seminars 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Rachel Winchcombe Unit coordinator

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