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HIS2318 : Revolutions of the Mind: European Thought, 1550–1750

  • Offered for Year: 2024/25
  • Module Leader(s): Dr Simon Mills
  • Lecturer: Dr Katie East, Professor Rachel Hammersley
  • Owning School: History, Classics and Archaeology
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus

Your programme is made up of credits, the total differs on programme to programme.

Semester 2 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0
European Credit Transfer System


The word Renaissance means a rebirth: beginning in Italy in the fourteenth century, the rediscovery of the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome breathed new life into the arts, literature, and learning. By the end of the sixteenth century, these influences had spread northwards – to France, the Low Countries, and, eventually, to England. Yet the same period when Europeans looked back to the classical past is known to historians as ‘early modern’. The age of ancient philosophy was also an era of cutting-edge science. The same men and women who pored over the Scriptures with Hebrew and Greek lexicons looked with telescopes at the stars. They prayed for their souls and pondered new fundamental theories in physics and philosophy. Within another two centuries, these different impulses threatened to tear apart established world views, so that by the end of the seventeenth century a new dawn of revolutionary modernity was on the horizon.

This module introduces students to the world of European ideas between the late Renaissance and the early Enlightenment – roughly the period from 1550 to 1750. Through the close study of primary sources, it will uncover what people during this period thought, how they argued, and why their ideas had such revolutionary consequences in religion, science, philosophy, and politics. Topics will thus range widely: from the dissident Jewish thinker Baruch Spinoza’s revolutionary reading of the Bible to the world-changing cosmology of Galileo; from the attempts of Europeans to learn the languages and reassemble the histories of the Ottoman Empire, China, and South America to the vision of the commonwealth at home sketched by the much-reviled Englishman Thomas Hobbes; from the Renaissance commitment to Aristotle’s natural world to the Royal Society, Isaac Newton and their ‘New Science’.

Students will also interrogate how, as historians, we can place these ideas in context. The age-old universities’ monopoly on learning was challenged during this period by new scientific societies, which, in turn, were forced to defend themselves against the charges of atheism and irrelevance. The printing press continued to expand the reach of the written word; yet manuscripts, too, remained vital: ideas were argued over in letters, worked out in commonplace books, and scribbled in the margins of scholars’ books. Correspondence, traditions of educational travel, and codes of sociability and friendship cohered into what many historians have identified as a ‘Republic of Letters’ – an ideal polity in which the virtues of learning might (or sometimes might not) transcend local allegiances to church and state.

Students will also reflect critically on how we ought to understand these longue durée changes in the history of ideas. How did discoveries in science or historical scholarship affect debates in theology or philosophy? Should continuity take precedence over change? How useful is the notion of the ‘early Enlightenment’ inherited from the twentieth-century scholar Paul Hazard? And what kind of Enlightenment – radical, moderate, conservative, clerical – did these developments in learning set in motion?

Outline Of Syllabus

The following are some of the central topics typically covered across the module:

• Approaching the Late Renaissance
• God’s world and God’s word
• Building Solomon’s House: Francis Bacon and the Reformation of Learning
• Galileo’s Telescope: Revolution in the Cosmos
• Instituting the New Science: Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and the Royal Society
• A Revolution in Philosophy: Descartes and the case for reason
• England’s Greatest Philosopher? John Locke and his Critics
• Theories of Political Society from Machiavelli to Hobbes
• Early Modern Europe encounters the World
• What was ‘Early Enlightenment’?

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion661:0066:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture101:0010:00One one-hour lecture p/w
Guided Independent StudyDirected research and reading331:0033:00Reading based on module reading list
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching102:0020:00Seminars
Structured Guided LearningStructured research and reading activities201:0020:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesWorkshops12:002:00Session with the Special Collections
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesWorkshops11:001:00Assessment Feedback and Guidance
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study481:0048:00General consolidation activities
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

• Impart core knowledge and an overview of key themes and historiographical views
• Stimulate development of listening and note-taking skills

• Preparation for seminars will involve private reading, reflection, and personal responsibility for learning
• The seminars will allow extended discussion of the ideas and events covered in the lecture
• Seminars will also centre on close reading of primary sources

• The workshop will provide the opportunity for one-on-one feedback for assignments, and guided preparation for on-going assignments, helping students to develop crucial academic skills

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Written exercise2M201000-word written exercise
Essay2A802500-word essay
Formative Assessments

Formative Assessment is an assessment which develops your skills in being assessed, allows for you to receive feedback, and prepares you for being assessed. However, it does not count to your final mark.

Description Semester When Set Comment
Written exercise2M500- word Essay plan
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

The written exercise will test specific skill outcomes, such as source analysis and engagement with secondary literature.

The essay will encourage students to synthesise the knowledge accumulated from across the module, applying it on an individual and independent basis, and displaying their writing skills.

The essay plan will give students a chance to develop their response to the final essay and receive feedback on their ideas to guide the composition of the essay.

All of the assessments for this module will be submitted and marked online.

Reading Lists