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Current Debates in Medieval and Early Modern History I


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.


In this course we will be examining current debates in the history of medieval and early modern Europe.
The aim of the literature seminars is both to acquaint you with historiographical developments and to let you think about the production of historical knowledge itself. We will therefore not just be charting how historical debates develop, but crucially also investigate why they do so.

Part I

Medicine, Public Health and the Environment in Medieval and Early Modern Times
Jeroen Duindam and Claire Weeda, weeks 1-3

In recent years, some historians of medicine such as Samuel Cohn Jr. have begun to explore the intent and implementation of public health policies prior to the industrial revolution and development of nineteenth-century epidemiology and modern medicine in Western Europe. These historians have especially identified public health interventions in the wake of outbursts of the plague, as apparent from the establishment of health boards and quarantine houses.

Moreover, they have argued, in times of crisis physicians turned towards civic or royal authorities in a bid to control disease, arguing for the segregation of the poor and healthy and for securing a clean living and working environment, in addition to challenging the tenets of Galenic medicine. They thus began to clean the streets, build latrines and encourage ‘healthy’ behaviour. As a result, these public health inventions would have fostered the creation of a public sphere in an era preceeding the centralized nationstate building and technological advancements of the nineteenth century.

However, taking it one step further, some premodern historians such as Carole Rawcliffe and Guy Geltner are now further challenging this paradigm by establishing that public health policies and concerns for a healthy population and environment predated the onset of the plague and subsequent waves of epidemics. They argue that, rather than merely in reaction to moments of crises, public health interventions occurred much earlier, with the early development of urban communities both within and outside of Europe, and was part of the fundaments of Galenic preventive medicine.

In this seminar, we will discuss the arguments for the development of public health policies in the wake of the plague as set forth in Samuel Cohn’s Cultures of Plague: Medical Thinking at the End of the Renaissance. Furthermore, we will challenge this view by reading excerpts from Carole Rawcliffe’s Urban Bodies on medieval preventive health interventions before the plague, supplemented by further literature.

You are requested to study Cohn’s book before the first class and hand in 3 clear statements either supporting or challenging his main arguments. These statements should be sent to both organizers 24 hours before the start of the first seminar. Supplementary literature and assignments will be made available during the first seminar; in the third week you will present your analysis based on Cohn and additional literature, and in the fourth week a 3,500 word essay.

Part II

Cities, Trade and the Origins of Capitalism
Raymond Fagel and Louis Sicking, weeks 4-6

Between the fourteenth and seventeenth century the urban trade centers of the Low Countries were international fore-runners in the development of capitalism: first Bruges, then Antwerp, and around 1600 followed by Amsterdam. Taking Oscar Gelderblom’s book on Cities of commerce (2013) as our point of departure, we shall enhance in a debate on the importance of institutions and inter-urban rivalry as an explanatory model for their success.

How do these ideas link up with ideas on the origins of capitalism in medieval Europe –e.g. the commercial revolution (Lopez)- and how must we evaluate the uniqueness of Northern European developments as contrasted with the development of capitalism within the city states of Northern Italy? This course is of interest for all students interested in premodern urban history, international trade and shipping, conflict resolution, and foreign nations.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  1. The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
  2. The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;
  3. The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;
  4. The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;
  5. (ResMA only): The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

  1. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subspecialisations as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following;
    • in the specialisation Europe 1000-1800: broader processes of political, social and cultural identity formation between about 1000-1800; awareness of problems of periodisation and impact of ‘national’ historiographical traditions on the field.
  2. (ResMA only): Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical foundation of the discipline and of its position vis-à-vis other disciplines.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Literature Seminar

The student:

  1. has insight in recent debates on the medieval and early modern history of public health, medicine, environment and public authority;
  2. Understands the complexity of the debates on Late Medieval and Early Modern Capitalism and has insight into the interaction between states, cities and private entrepreneurs.


The timetable is available on the MA History website.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours= 280 hours

  • Seminars (2 hours per week during 6 weeks): 12 hours.

  • Study of compulsory reading and associated assignments: 100 hours.

  • Reading additional literature, associated class presentation and writing of 2 essays/review articles: 168 hours.

Assessment method

  • Essay
    Measured learning objectives: 1-6, 8-9, for Res MA students also 7

  • Assignments
    Measured learning objectives: 1-6, 8-9

  • Presentations and participation
    Measured learning objectives: 2, 4-6, 8-9, for ResMA students also 5


Essays: 70%
Assignment, participation and presentations: 30%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • Announcements

  • Course information

  • Course documents

  • Assignments

Reading list

  • Part I Samuel Cohn, Cultures of Plague: Medical Thinking at the End of the Renaissance (Oxford 2010)

  • Part I Carole Rawcliffe, Urban Bodies (Woodbridge etc. 2013)

  • Part II Oscar Gelderblom, Cities of Commerce. The Institutional Foundations of International Trade in the Low Countries, 1250-1650 (Princeton 2013)

  • Additional reading to be announced


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Prof. Dr. L.H.J. Sicking
Prof. J.F.J. Duindam
Dr. R.P. Fagel
Dr. C.V. Weeda