Power Elites: Ruling Groups across Space and Time (HIH3618)

StaffProfessor Henry French - Convenor
Dr Matt Rendle - Lecturer
Dr Jennifer Farrell - Lecturer
Credit Value30
ECTS Value15
NQF Level6
Duration of Module Term 1: 11 weeks; Term 2: 11 weeks;

Module aims

This module is designed to enhance students’ understanding of recurring themes in the history of power elites and aristocracies over a time scale extending a time scale extending from the early medieval period to the 20th century.  It will be taught by two or three different tutors, and exact chronological and thematic focus will depend on which tutors are teaching the module in any given year. By close specialist evaluation of key topics such as elite identity, gender and elite status, justifications for elite power, the projection of cultural authority, and questions of aristocratic decline, in settings as various as Medieval Spain, Early Modern England, Nineteenth-Century Europe and Twentieth-Century Russia students will trace key developments in the subject, and think about these comparatively across time and space. The module will also introduce students to the approaches of different disciplines, such as sociology and art history, and to a variety of different historical source materials, such as autobiographies, letters, diaries, petitions, portraiture, architecture, funeral monuments and novels. By using a combination of tutor-led seminars and lectures, student-led seminars and independent study, the module will enable students to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of taking a comparative approach to the study of power elites and aristocracies.  In this way students will learn to draw thematic comparisons between material from different sources, show awareness of contrasting approaches to research, and demonstrate an enhanced understanding of some of the philosophical questions arising from research into large historical themes.  They will also learn to present some of these complex issues to the rest of the class by leading a seminar in the second half of the course.

ILO: Module-specific skills

  • 1. Analyse developments in the history of power elites and aristocracies and compare their relationship to other phenomena such as law, education, religion, political ideology, rebellion and artistic culture across a variety of historical time-periods and contexts.
  • 2. Compare and explain key historiographical developments in the history of power elites and aristocracies across different societies and periods, and relate them to an overall conception of the subject.
  • 3. Evaluate carefully and critically the approaches that historians and scholars working in other disciplines have taken to understanding the bases of elite wealth, power and social/cultural authority, the processes by which these were reproduced through time within systems of politics, religion, education, gender and culture, and challenged by rebellions, representative politics, dictatorship and egalitarian social policies.
  • 4. Define suitable research topics for independent study/student-led seminars in the history of power elites and aristocracies, evaluating different and complex types of historical source and historiography.
  • 5. Demonstrate the possibilities and limitations of comparative methodological approaches in historical research more generally.

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

  • 6. Analyse the key developments in complex and unfamiliar political, social, cultural or intellectual environments.
  • 7. Identify and deploy correct terminology in a comprehensible manner; use primary sources in a professional manner; present work in the format expected of historians, including footnoting and bibliographical references.
  • 8. Assess critically different approaches to history in a contested area.

ILO: Personal and key skills

  • 9. Work both in a team and independently.
  • 10. Digest, select and organise material to produce, to a deadline, a coherent and cogent argument, developed through the mode of assessment.
  • 11. As a team, understand how to lead a group discussion of a historical topic.

Syllabus plan

Weeks 1, 3, 5, 7, 9: Five sessions covering methodological and conceptual issues relating to the following themes:

  • How can we define power elites in past societies? What were the bases of their power/wealth & status?
  • How far did elites’ circumstances match the rhetoric of their power? How did they police their membership, or assimilate new/rival elites?
  • How did elites justify their power, in terms of ideologies or religious values? How did they use these to project or soften their authority?
  • How did elites respond to political challenges from popular rebellions, political reform movements, ideological opponents and the growth of totalitarian or egalitarian systems of government?
  • How did elites project their social and cultural power as patrons of art, literature, architecture, and through their ‘lifestyles’ (material culture, clothes and food)? What messages were they transmitting by these means?

Each session will be taught through one 2-hour seminar and one 1-hour lecture. The lectures will focus on worked examples or case studies from the tutor’s own area of specialism and suggest questions and themes which could be explored comparatively by the students themselves.  The seminars will explore particular issues in more depth, through case studies or discussion of particular sources and historiographical debates.  They will also lay the foundations for the student-led seminars in the second half of the course. Topics covered will vary according to tutor availability but may include:

  • Legal privileges and status
  • Sources of wealth, status and power – acceptable and unacceptable
  • Elites and political power – centres and peripheries, relations with monarchy/representative politics/dictatorship
  • Elites, religion and power – how did elites express their power through religion?
  • Elites, political ideology and power – changing understandings of the doctrine of political ‘aristocracy’
  • ‘Aristocratic decline’ or re-invention?

Weeks 11, 13, 15, 17, 19: Five 2-hour seminars led by groups of 2 or 3 students on topics chosen from a menu offered by tutors.  Topics will vary according to tutor availability and student choice but may include:

  • Lineage, blood and ancestor stories/myths
  • Elites and gender – women, wealth and power; masculinity and notions of authority
  • Challenges to power – revolts, rebellions & revolutions
  • Elite identities and education – formative experiences across time & space
  • Social projection of power – art, literature, architecture, the court, patronage, luxury, clothing, food

These will involve students giving comparative presentations based on a series of primary source case studies, and set-up for student-led seminars

 Alongside these, there will be five 1-hour lectures, as for Weeks 1-9 above.

 Week 21: Concluding session: discussion of overarching issues and comparative points.

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching Activities1111x 1 hour lectures to run on alternate weeks over both terms, as described in syllabus plan above.
Scheduled Learning and Teaching Activities126 x 2 hour tutor led seminars to run in weeks 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 21, as described in syllabus plan above.
Scheduled Learning and Teaching Activities105 x 2 hour seminars in weeks 11, 13, 15, 17, and 19. Each led by a group of 2 or 3 students. Topics should be chosen from a menu of subjects agreed in advance by tutors. While tutors give guidance and a basic reading list, students are responsible for designing seminar activities and identifying further reading materials.
Guided independent learning267Students prepare for seminars, essay, final report and exam through reading and research; they also work in groups to lead seminars based on projects that have been developed.

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay Plan500 words1-8, 10Verbal and Written

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay303000 words1-8, 10Verbal and written
Student-led seminar [comprising: leading a student led seminar (36%) and attending all student-led seminars (4%)]402 hours1-11Verbal and written
Take-away exam303000 words1-8, 10Verbal and written

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
EssayEssay1-8, 10Referral/deferral period
Student-led seminar and participation1500 words (written by student individually) describing and reflecting on the proposed seminar activities and materials equating to one person’s contribution (c. 45 minutes), plus proposed handout or powerpoint from seminar (not more than 2 sides of A4) and seminar reading list (not more than 1 side of A4)1-11Referral/deferral period
Take-away examTake-away exam1-8, 10Referral/deferral period

Re-assessment notes

The re-assessment consists of a 3,000 word essay and 3,000 word take-away exam, as in the original assessment, but replaces leading and participating in student-led seminars with a written seminar plan and reading list that corresponds to one student’s contribution to such a seminar. The plan should outline how the seminar is to be structured and organised as well as detailing the material to be used. This will enable a reader to gain a sense of what the student intended to do in the seminar, the rationale for this activity, and when this activity / discussion would take place.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Becker, S. Nobility and Privilege in Late Imperial Russia (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1985).

Black, J. The British and the Grand Tour (London: Croom Helm, 1985).

Cannadine, David. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

Cavender, M. Nests of the Gentry: Family, Estate, and Local Loyalties in Provincial Russia (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2007).

Crouch, David. The image of aristocracy in Britain 1000-1300 (London: Routledge, 1992).

Crouch, David. The Birth of Nobility: constructing aristocracy in England and France, 900-1300 (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2005).

Crouch, David. The English aristocracy, 1070-1272 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

Dewald, J. The European Nobility 1400-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Girouard, M. Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978).

Heal, Felicity, and Clive Holmes, The Gentry in England and Wales, 1500-1700 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1994).

Lieven, D. The Aristocracy in Europe, 1815-1914 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992).

Lukowski, Jerzy. The European Nobility in the Eighteenth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

Marrese, M. A Woman’s Kingdom: Noblewomen and the Control of Property in Russia, 1700-1861 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).

Mayer, A. The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War (London: Pantheon Books, 1981).

Powis, Jonathan. Aristocracy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984).

Rendle, M. Defenders of the Motherland: The Tsarist Elite in Revolutionary Russia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Reuter, Timothy, ed., The medieval nobility: studies on the ruling classes of France and Germany from the sixth to the twelfth century (Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing Company, 1979).

Roosevelt, P. Life on the Russian Country Estate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

Rosenthal, Joel T. Nobles and the noble life, 1295-1500 (London: Allen and Unwin, 1976).

Scott, H. M. (ed.) The European Nobilities in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries 2 vols (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995).

Stone L., & J.C.F. Stone, An Open Elite? England 1540-1880 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).

Suleiman, Ezra. Elites in French Society. The Politics of Survival (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).

Vickery, Amanda. The Gentleman’s daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

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Key words search

Elites, Aristocracy, Power, Gender