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 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 both traditional and innovative methods can be used to interpret the subject.

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, you will be supervised by a dedicated member of staff who will guide your research towards the completion of an original historical subject that you have chosen and developed. In addition, you 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.

If you have any questions, drop us a line on

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 2023-24

  • Global and Transnational History
  • Archives
  • Ideas and Intellectual History
  • Power
  • Beliefs
  • Images
  • Objects

Option courses in 2023-24

This course looks at how books were made in the early modern period and how as an artefact they tell us far more about themselves than can be found simply by reading them. The seven classes are likely to include topics such as: 

  • Introduction to the History of the Book
  • Manuscripts and Early Modern Culture
  • Printing in the Hand Press Era
  • Descriptive Bibliography
  • Early Modern Bookbindings
  • The History of Libraries
  • The Book Trade

The module will be taught in a series of weekly classes of ninety minutes, led by the convenor and with a number of invited speakers or demonstrators. There will be opportunities to see how books were printed and to study techniques of book-binding, as well as to consider topics such as the transition from manuscript to print, the histories of libraries and the early modern book trade, and the history of reading practices. Those taking the course will learn how to make an accurate, bibliographical description of an early modern printed book. 

This MPhil option provides an advanced introduction to the socio-cultural history of early modern the Mediterranean. It builds upon the recent scholarship that has analysed the Mediterranean as a place of exchange between East and West. The paper aims at introducing the students to the latest research on the study of diversity, mobility and cross-cultural encounters that characterised the region and the relationship between the Ottoman Empire and the wider European context. We will look at the shared history of the Mediterranean and, more broadly, of Europe through the study of mobility, not only of people but also of things, ideas and diseases; through religious, linguistic and food encounters and the analysis of space, the infrastructure of mobility, and urban history. We will follow the movement of goods and people from Northern Europe to the Mediterranean and vice-versa. Students will be introduced to the latest theoretical work in cultural history, material culture studies, urban history, global and microhistory and will also closely analyse the sources underpinning these works. The paper employs written sources such as travel accounts, memoirs, and embassy accounts and also includes a handling session at the Fitzwilliam Museum where students will learn to think about objects as primary sources. The course frames objects and visual sources as key primary materials to understand the circulation of things and people. We will also consider cities, the built environment and architecture (quarantine stations, inns, caravanserai and fondaci) as spaces of cross-cultural encounters and also as further examples of the circulation of ideas, people and typologies between East and West.

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 will introduce students to some of the most exciting areas of debate in the study of the material and visual culture of early modern Europe and beyond, equipping them with the skills to integrate analysis of images and objects into their own research. This paper will investigate changes in the visual and material world, from the conception of goods through to the making process, distribution, and eventual consumption. Spanning the period from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, this paper will introduce students to important approaches in the study of both visual and material evidence, including methodology that crosses disciplinary boundaries, whilst simultaneously encouraging them to explore agents and processes of cultural formation. Students will be encouraged to think about how we can analyse the rich reservoir of remains from the early modern period and produce original research based on it. The sessions will involve both theoretical work and closer examination of individual artefacts. We will explore the ‘social lives’ of objects and images, examining how they shaped relationships, and how their use, form, and meaning could evolve and adapt. Class topics will include the agency of objects, objects and ideas, connected material histories, remaking as historical analysis, and artisan creativity and constraints. Class participants will be asked to prepare one short presentation (5-10 minutes) and final assessment will be by an essay.

This course provides an innovative entry-point into the fast-growing field of environmental history. It takes a materialist itinerary, responding to feminist theory, postcolonialism, science and technology studies, anti-racism and cultural history. Each class brings at least two experts into dialogue around a specific set of material complexes that make up what we now call the environment. The course begins with an introduction to concepts and theory and then proceeds across various natural things. The intent is to ground discussions of early modern changes in specific substances, elements and media. This allows a sense of the creation of what we call the environment, as well as the function of each of these things as agentic. In turn the human is cast here as a complex which is forged in the midst of these material changes and which in turn enacts politics or creates social forms which have consequences on their surroundings. The aim of the course is not to create environmental history as a separate method, but rather to illustrate how it may be integrated into the broad spectrum of world, national and regional history.

We often think of the early modern period in terms of the historical events that took place in Europe and defined this historiographical unit of research. How would such definitions change when we put on global, inclusive, and neutral glasses? Could we speak of a global early modern period? What would be the historical contours of such a period and in what ways could it inform our 21st century socio-political and intellectual discourses? These are some of the guiding questions that we will be asking throughout the eight sessions of this paper. 

The paper is divided into two sections: methodological and thematic. In the former, we will delve into the methodology of writing pre-modern history that is both globally inclusive and yet relevant. We will bring up the issues of periodization, chrono-labels and the concepts of Modernity and Early Modernity. We will also discuss the pros and cons of historiographical approaches such as comparative, entangled and connected histories, and their applicability to the study of the early modern period. 

In the second section of this paper, we will critically re-visit some of the established defining features of the early modern period, such as the Scientific Revolution, printing press, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the global circulation of materials, objects and ideas and the emergence of new identities and social structures. We will be asking how a global perspective prompts us to rethink the definitions of these labels and their singularity in a global context. 

Our weekly readings will aim to shed light on non-European cases—in particular, East and South Asia the Islamicate world and Americas—and serve as a basis for our weekly discussions in class. Additional readings or suggested themes of interest regarding any part of the world are warmly welcome. In particular, out-of-the-box approaches to the study of the early modern period—such as post-colonial, feminist, queer—would be a delightful contribution to our discussions. 

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

Applying to the course

To apply to the MPhil in Early Modern History, you will need to consult the relevant pages on the Postgraduate Admissions website (click below).

Since applications are considered on a rolling basis, you are strongly advised to apply as early in the cycle as possible.

On the Postgraduate Admissions website, you will find an overview of the course structure and requirements, a funding calculator and a link to the online Applicant Portal. Your application will need to include two academic references, a transcript, a CV/ resume, evidence of competence in English, a personal development questionnaire, two samples of work and a research proposal.

Research proposals are 600–1,000 words in length and should include the following: a simple and descriptive title for the proposed research; a rationale for the research; a brief historiographic context; and an indication of the sources likely to be used. The document should be entitled ‘Statement of Intended Research’. Applicants are encouraged to nominate a preferred supervisor, and are invited to contact members of the Faculty in advance of submitting their application to discuss their project (see our Academic Directory:

Below are some anonymised examples of research proposals, submitted by successful applicants to the MPhil in Early Modern History. You may use these to inform the structure of your submission. Please note that they are purely for guidance and not a strict representation of what is required.

Early Modern History - Research Proposal 1

Early Modern History - Research Proposal 2

Early Modern History - Research Proposal 3


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.