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Bewildering Bodies and Bizarre Beliefs, 1500-1700

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To present-day eyes, the beliefs of earlier eras can appear bizarre and absurd; the products of ‘ignorance’ or ‘superstition’.

This is certainly the case for early modern understandings of the human body.

Crucially, however, these seemingly irrational ideas were often based on careful study and complex systems of thought.

Indeed, the ways in which people in previous ages thought about the body and physiology can tell us a great deal about how they saw the world around them and their own place within it.

With that in mind, we will examine a range of beliefs about the body in Britain from 1500 to 1700.

This will include attitudes to healing and medicine, heaven, hell and purgatory, monsters and monstrous births, ghosts and witches, and the use of prophecy.

Focusing primarily on England, but drawing on the wider British and European contexts where relevant, we will examine what these so-called ‘aberrations’ can reveal about how ideas of ‘common sense’ and ‘normality’ have changed over time.

Learning and teaching

The module will be delivered as seven in-person sessions with pre-recorded lecture material to watch in advance of each session.

In-person sessions will consist of class discussion and group work on specific topics relating to the module.

The discussion and group work will enable you to think critically and to contribute to the debates and topics presented during the lectures.

You will also be expected to read relevant printed material and use that as the basis for contributions in class.

The discussion-led sessions and the recorded lectures will be supplemented by internet resources available to the students via Learning Central.


  • Early modern bodies and the extraordinary
  • Reading the body and the limits of the possible
  • Early modern monsters and monstrous bodies
  • Religion, belief and nostalgia
  • Early modern prophecy – uses and abuses
  • Ghosts, magic and witchcraft
  • Madness and melancholy

Coursework and assessment

You will be expected to complete two pieces of assessed work:

  • a short source analysis
  • a 1000-word blog

Advice and support will be provided for both assignments and you will receive detailed feedback relating to strengths and areas for improvement on both pieces of work.

Reading suggestions

  • David Cressy, Agnes Bowker’s Cat: Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England (Rhydychen, 2001).
  • Darren Oldridge, Strange Histories (Llundain, 2005).
  • Garthine Walker ac Angela McShane (goln.), The Extraordinary and the Everyday in Early Modern England: Essays in Celebration of the Work of Bernard Capp (Basingstoke, 2010).

Library and computing facilities

As a student on this course you are entitled to join and use the University’s library and computing facilities. Find out more about using these facilities.


Our aim is access for all. We aim to provide a confidential advice and support service for any student with a long term medical condition, disability or specific learning difficulty. We are able to offer one-to-one advice about disability, pre-enrolment visits, liaison with tutors and co-ordinating lecturers, material in alternative formats, arrangements for accessible courses, assessment arrangements, loan equipment and dyslexia screening.