MPhil in Early Modern History

Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds

Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds


The MPhil in Early Modern History provides intensive training in the history of early modern Britain, Europe and the wider world to enable its students to produce a substantial piece of historical research and historical writing. This stimulating course is designed for those who have completed degrees in which History is the main or at least a substantial component and who want to consolidate their knowledge of the period between 1500 and 1800. It aims to deepen students’ understanding of how early modern history has been studied and to explore how traditional and innovative methods can be used to interpret it.

The MPhil in Early Modern History combines taught and research elements over a 9-month full-time programme. The taught elements include three modules, as well as training workshops and seminars, and all students will also complete a long piece of independent research (15,000 – 20,000 words).

Throughout the course students will be supervised by a dedicated member of staff, who will guide their research towards the completion of an original historical subject chosen and developed by them. In addition, students will benefit from Cambridge’s vibrant research environment, attending and participating in guest talks, workshops and other events throughout the year.

The course is particularly appropriate for those who may wish to continue on to a PhD, at Cambridge or elsewhere.  It is also well-suited for those who seek simply to explore early modern history at a deeper level. It is expected that this will be the normal means by which those without an appropriate Master’s degree from elsewhere will prepare for the PhD degree in Early Modern History at Cambridge.

Cambridge graduates in Early Modern History have taken up positions in UK and international universities or followed careers in business, the media, law and politics.

At a glance

All students will submit a thesis of 15,000–20,000 words, worth 70 per cent toward the final degree.

Students also produce three 3,000-4,000-word essays, two in Michaelmas term and another in Lent term; each essay is worth 10% of the final degree grade.

All students admitted to the MPhil in Early Modern History will be assigned a supervisor to work with them throughout the course, but crucially on the dissertation. Students will meet regularly with their supervisor throughout the course.

Students can expect to receive:

  • regular oral feedback from their supervisor, as well as termly online feedback reports;
  • written feedback on essays and assessments and an opportunity to present their work;
  • oral feedback from peers during graduate workshops and seminars;
  • written and oral feedback on dissertation proposal essay to be discussed with their supervisor; and
  • formal written feedback from two examiners after examination of a dissertation.

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The Course

Core Course: Sources and Methods

This compulsory module provides an introduction to the theories, approaches and conceptual challenges that accompany original historical research. Four of the classes will explore different ways of contextualising and evaluating key types of source material. The other three sessions will look at how scholars have addressed important underlying themes in the social, cultural, political and economic history of the Early Modern world. Bibliographies will be handed out at least a week in advance of each class. Some of the sessions will involve practical exercises in the handling and analysis of source material.

Topics for 2018-19

  • Global and Transnational History
  • Belief
  • Power
  • Material Culture
  • Visual Culture
  • Archives
  • Ideas and Intellectual History

Options for 2018-19

Historians have based their enquiries on the interpretation of texts for such a long time that the importance of material culture and visual cultures has only recently come into their view. The early modern period was an age of expansion, increasing trade and consumption, global encounters, religious reform and new ideas about natural philosophy. All of these had an impact on the material life of early modern men and women.

This course examines how we can analyse this rich reservoir of remains and produce original research based on it. It will introduce you to important approaches to the study of material and visual cultures in our period, and pick up on themes which relate to your particular research interests. The sessions will span theoretical work and zoom in to examine individual artefacts. Close-looking can reveal how objects such as clocks and paintings had a “social life” – they symbolised aspirations, were integral to personal relationships, and changed with use, damage and repair.

During the course we will visit collections around Cambridge including the Fitzwilliam Museum. Class topics will include the agency of objects, objects and ideas, materialities, objects and senses, and connected material histories. Class participants will be asked to prepare one short presentation (5-10 minutes) and final assessment will be by an essay.

This MPhil option encourages students to explore the wide variety of ways in which historians have tried to understand the nature of monarchical states in early-modern Britain and Europe. The course will consider how far this was a distinctive period in the development of such states, and the extent to which it was characterized by continuity or change. The classes will examine some of the different concepts and models that historians have evolved to understand royal government and state formation, and consider whether the term ‘absolutism’ is more of a help or a hindrance to gaining such an understanding.

The first class will offer a general introduction to the range of interpretations and methodologies that are found in the vast historiography on this subject. The remaining six classes will focus in turn on institutional approaches; intellectual approaches; the emergence of the fiscal-military state; the nature of the confessional state; the significance of iconography and the visual arts; and the nature of the ceremonial and ritual that surrounded monarchies in the early-modern period. The course integrates British and European themes, and each class will be built around two or three key books or articles, at least one of which is primarily British in focus, and at least one primarily European in focus.  Students will be expected to become familiar with these assigned readings, and to present to the group on the readings assigned for one of the classes.

Flows of capital and of labour, exchange of ideas and commodities, destruction of environments, expansion of empire: is this the face of globalisation in our own time, or in earlier centuries as well? This MPhil Option examines how and to what end historians can conceive of a ‘global early modernity’. It investigates the analytical frameworks and the historical processes that have made the period 1400-1800 appear to be a new, global age.

The course begins with a discussion of concepts, periodisation, and geography. In weeks one and two, we will consider the histories of and assumptions behind the projects of ‘global’ and ‘early modern’ history, especially the influence of the social sciences. But we will also study how these concepts have changed as historians studying various parts of the world have adopted and adapted them. Have global frameworks helped us to ‘provincialise’ Europe, or have they allowed European expectations to colonise other historiographical fields?

Subsequent classes will address the political, economic, social, and cultural developments seen as foundational to global early modernity. How did early modern transformations differ from nineteenth- and twentieth-century ‘globalisations’? What role did empires play in forging early modern global connections? How did travel and exchange affect local cultures? As we examine these arenas, we will discuss various approaches to global history (comparative, connected, microhistorical, material, etc.), and the methodological challenges of each.

This course is not only suited for early modernists. It also provides a solid basis to historians working on a later period and who want to acquire a better understanding of long-term historical developments.

This option is an advanced introduction to eighteenth-century history, primarily focussing on Britain and Europe. It aims to introduce students to the latest research topics, methods and debates in eighteenth-century history. The option is designed for graduate students, primarily those writing dissertations on aspects of the long eighteenth century.

The option takes advantage of the History Faculty's exceptional and diverse strength in eighteenth-century history and involves the participation of a number of colleagues. It is organised primarily according to key themes in eighteenth-century history; to some extent, these themes also correspond to different methodologies or sub-disciplines.

Unlike many MPhil options, the design is (selectively) synoptic, seeking to provide or broaden students’ background. The option will provide an opportunity to reflect on the relations – both compatibilities and incompatibilities – among the themes and methodologies. It is expected that this diverse approach will help students place their own research in the appropriate contexts. The basic assumption of the option is that individual research is enhanced by a thorough and wide understanding of current historical research in the field.

The convenor, Dr Renaud Morieux, will be joined each session by another member of the Faculty who will lead a session organized around a particular theme or methodological approach to the period. Students will be asked to undertake reading in preparation for these classes and, occasionally, to make a short presentation about the reading in the course of the term.  A full syllabus will be available in late September. Students will be contacted in advance of the first meeting with a reading assignment.

This course covers the history of poverty, disease and medicine broadly defined between 1500 and 1800. It will not provide a conventional ‘history of medicinal advances or gadgets’ but will provide a history of all manner of medical practitioners, as well as infirmary, dispensary and hospital provision. Despite tripartite divisions between physicians, surgeons and apothecaries there was an active ‘medical market place’ during this period. The course will place the development of the medical ‘profession’ within the context of high mortality rates from a wide range of diseases in the early modern period. The extent of poverty will be assessed, as will the extent of welfare provision (including medical assistance) for the poor through the Old Poor Law. We will also consider charitable provision, such as almshouses and voluntary hospitals.

This MPhil Option encourages students to consider the significance of space, place and landscape for our understanding of the early modern past. Too often the physical location and environment have been treated as an inert and passive backdrop to momentous historical events. The aim of this course is to underline the importance of integrating an awareness of the spatial context in which human interactions take place into our investigation of key developments in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It will expose students to a range of theoretical approaches and critical studies on the subject published by historians, as well as by geographers, archaeologists and anthropologists. The classes will ask them to consider the ways in which spaces and places operated not merely a sites and arenas, but also agents and catalysts for the political, religious, economic, social and cultural changes associated with the Renaissance, Reformation, civil wars and revolutions, agricultural transformations and intellectual and scientific initiatives. They will explore the shifting ways in which early modern people perceived the physical world around them and how they constructed the boundary between natural landscapes and those contrived by human endeavour. Further themes for investigation will include the relationship between landscape, history and memory; contemporary conceptions of the link between time and space; and the role of physical environments in the forging of social and confessional identities. Students will also be introduced to a range of relevant sources, including topographical and antiquarian writing, probate inventories, maps, engravings and paintings, and to both the potential and methodological problems they pose. It is hoped that some sessions can take place in the University Library, making use of original manuscripts, maps and early printed books.

We combine taught and research elements over a 9-month full-time programme. This includes skills training, training workshops and seminars, and students will also complete an independent research dissertation.

Core Course: Sources and Methods

  • Teaching: Weekly seminars
  • Assessment: Essay (3-4,000 words)

Option 1

  • Teaching: Weekly seminars
  • Assessment: Essay (3-4,000 words)

Preparatory dissertation work

  • Independent research and 1-on-1 supervisor meetings
  • No assessment

Assessment & Dissertation


Each of three modules in Michaelmas and Lent Terms (one Compulsory Core, and two Options) will require a 3,000-4,000 words essay (or equivalent).

Each will count toward 10% of the final degree mark, for a total of 30%.  Taken together, these are Part I, and students must receive passing marks in order to move to Part II.

Students will also prepare a 2,000-word dissertation proposal essay due in the Lent Term. This essay will be unassessed but students will meet with their Supervisor to discuss the essay and get feedback in preparation for the dissertation.


The thesis is Part II of the MPhil in Early Modern History.

All students will submit a thesis of 15,000-20,000 words, worth 70% of the overall mark.

At the discretion of the Examiners the examination may include an oral examination on the thesis and on the general field of knowledge within which it falls.

Practical assessment

All students will present their work at least once during the academic year and will receive feedback from academics and peers on their work-in-progress. This is not an assessed element of the course but is a valuable feedback tool for the dissertation.


The Dissertation, or thesis, is the largest element of the course, and for the MPhil in Early Modern History it is worth 70% of the overall mark.

Students are admitted to the University on the basis of the research proposal, and each student will be assigned a Supervisor who will support the preparation of a piece of original academic research. Candidates must demonstrate that they can present a coherent historical argument based upon a secure knowledge and understanding of primary sources, and they will be expected to place their research findings within the existing historiography of the field within which their subject lies.

All students should be warned that thesis supervisors are concerned to advise students in their studies, not to direct them. Students must accept responsibility for their own research activity and candidacy for a degree. Postgraduate work demands a high degree of self-discipline and organisation. Students are expected to take full responsibility for producing the required course work and thesis to the deadlines specified under the timetable for submission.