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Deviants, Rebels and Witches in Early Modern Britain and Ireland - 30 credits (HS1828)

Module Tutor: Dr Mark Williams

Course Description

When, where, and by whom were the worlds of early-modern British and Irish individuals and societies ‘turned upside down’? What did it mean to be a ‘deviant’ or a ‘rebel’, and why were they thought to pose such a challenge to the social order? Most importantly, what can these people at the ‘margins’ tell us about the nature of early-modern society? This module assesses such questions and examines the nature of order and disorder. Through both thematic and chronological approaches it examines shifts in the social, cultural, and religious fabric of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales brought about through both innovation (e.g. the advent of print, the rise of the ‘public sphere’, debates over religious toleration) and the reinforcement of existing social orders (e.g. prosecuting witchcraft, maintaining gender boundaries). Central to these discussions will be the question of how (or whether!) early-modern societies were self-regulating entities. Students will be encouraged to think broadly about ideas of boundaries and identification across the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Credits: 30

Availability of module: Every Year

Prerequisites: N/A

Necessary for: N/A

Teaching methods

A range of teaching methods will be used in each of the sessions of the course, comprising a combination of lectures, seminar discussion of major issues and workshops for the study of primary source material. The syllabus is divided into a series of major course themes, then sub-divided into principal topics for the study of each theme.

The aim of the lectures is to provide a brief introduction to a particular topic, establishing the salient features of major course themes, identifying key issues and providing historiographical guidance. The lectures aim to provide a basic framework for understanding and should be thought of as useful starting points for further discussion and individual study. Where appropriate, handouts and other materials may be distributed to reinforce the material discussed.

Seminar and Source Workshops:
The primary aim of the sessions will be to generate debate and discussion amongst course participants, focused in particular on primary source material. Seminars and source workshops for each of the course topics will provide an opportunity for students:

(a) to discuss topics or issues introduced by the lectures,

or (b) to discuss related themes, perhaps not directly addressed by the lectures, but drawing on ideas culled from those lectures.

and (c) to analyse different types of primary sources available, discussing the principal ways in which they can be used by historians.

Seminars and source workshops will provide the student with guidance on how to critically approach the various types of primary source material. Preparation for seminars and workshops will focus on specific items from the sources and related background reading, with students preparing answers to questions provided for each session. Both seminars and source workshops will provide an opportunity to discuss and debate the issues with fellow students. Classes will be divided into smaller groups for discussion purposes, with the results presented as part of an overall class debate at the end of the session.


Students will be assessed by means of a combination of one essay relating to primary sources [20%], an assessed essay [30%] and an examination paper [50%].

Course assignments:

The Assessed Essay relating to primary sources will contribute 20% of the final mark for the module and must be no longer than 1,000 words.

The Assessed Essay will contribute 30% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 2,000 words.

The Examination will take place during the second assessment period [May/June] and will consist of an unseen two hour paper that will contribute the remaining 50% of the final mark for this module. Students must write 2 answers in total.

Summary of course content

Section I: Approaches to Early Modern Society: Methods and Debates

Section II: Medieval Legacies? The Foundations of the Early-Modern Community
• Religion
• Government
• Gender: Margins and Boundaries
• Society - Parish and Pulpit

Section III: Tracing Reformations – Deviations and Reinforcements
• Deviant Print
• The Lollards
• From Above, From Below : Where, when, and why ?
• Locality and Change – A ‘British’ Reformation?

Section IV – Case Study: The Self and Society – Diaries, Journals, and the Internalisation of Order

Section V – Crime and Criminality
• Property and Theft
• Punishment and Space
• Case Study: Insanity and Institutionalising in Early-Modern England – The Foundation of Bedlam

Section VI – Revel and Rebellion
• Disloyalty and the State
• Disloyalty and the Parish
• Case Study: David Underdown’s Revel, Riot, and Rebellion – An Historiographical Assessment

Section VII – Gender Case Study I – Holy Women in the Reformation(s)
• Sainthood and Martyrdom

Section VIII – Gender Case Study II – Witchcraft in the ‘Three Kingdoms’
• Comparison: Witchcraft in England, Scotland, and Ireland

Section IX – Gender Case Study III – Masculinity in Seventeenth Century England
• ‘Honour’ Cultures
• Infidelity and the Household
• Male Sexuality – Homosexuality before ‘Homosexuality’

Section X – Public or Private?
• Sociability and Subversion
• The Rise of Enlightenment?

Learning outcomes

  • Demonstrate a systematic and critical understanding of the key thematic points of early-modern social and cultural structures.
  • Critically identify and engage with both contemporary and current interpretations of early-modern social order(s).
  • Discuss and critically assess the range of secondary debates regarding social boundaries, identification, and distinction.
  • Problematise and debate the idea of ‘order’ and marginalisation.
  • Assess and interpret a variety of primary sources relating to the practice and experience of the early-modern society.
  • Formulate a critical and source-based argument relating to the early-modern deviance and social order. This will require both original interpretation of primary sources and sustained engagement with debates in secondary literature.
  • Both develop and problematise comparative approaches across the ‘Three Kingdoms’ in the early-modern period.
  • Identity problems in the study of social order, both in the employment of primary sources and the use of secondary literature.
  • Complicate ideas of ‘bias’ in early-modern sources by assessing the value of diaries, journals, and other reflective sources in the reconstruction of early-modern identities and social structures.
  • Identify the strengths and weaknesses of different theoretical approaches to empire and the early-modern period generally.
  • Engage with and identify the challenges posed by online resources from within the discipline, including Early English Books Online (EEBO), Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO), and the 1641 Depositions Project Online.  

Skills that will be practised and developed

  • communicate ideas and arguments effectively, whether in class discussion or in written form, in an accurate, succinct and lucid manner.
  • formulate and justify arguments and conclusions about a range of issues, and present appropriate supporting evidence
  • an ability to modify as well as to defend their own position.
  • an  ability to think critically and challenge assumptions
  • an ability to use a range of information technology resources to assist with information retrieval and assignment presentation.
  • time management skills and an ability to independently organise their own study methods and workload.
  • work effectively with others as part of a team or group in seminar or tutorial discussions.   

Suggested preparatory reading

Gaskill, M. Witchfinders: a seventeenth-century English tragedy (London, 2005).
Ingram, M. Church courts, sex and marriage in England, 1570-1640, (Cambridge, 1987).
Jewell, H. Education in early modern England, (Basingstoke, 1998).
Levack, B.P., The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, (London, 2006 (3rd edition)).
MacCulloch, D., Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700, (London, 2004).
Shepard, A. Meanings of manhood in early modern England, (Oxford, 2003).
Thomas, K. Religion and the decline of magic : studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century England , (London, 1997 (3rd edn.))