Organising Knowledge in Early Modern Europe 1500-1800 (HISM171)

Lecturer(s)Dr Staffan Müller-Wille, Dr Isabelle Charmantier
Credit Value30
ECTS Value
Duration of Module1 term (11 weeks)
Total Student Study Time300 hours including two-hours seminar a week

Module aims

This module will familiarise the postgraduate student with the significance of the printing 'revolution' in early modern Europe and the subsequent development of information processing practices. The module will centre on the book and the printed word: its invention, its relationship with a persistent manuscript culture, and the ways in which both authors and readers struggled to order, classify and organise the ever-increasing mass of knowledge available to them. Through both a chronological and thematic approach, the student will understand the impact that organising knowledge had on words (the development of information retrieval techniques such as indexes, glossaries and tables of contents), texts (establishment of archives and libraries) and things (cataloguing collections, museums and ultimately nature).

Intended learning outcomes

Module-specific skills

1. Understand the basic key themes and ideas in the history of the book and their interconnectedness.
2. Capacity to understand current historiographical debates concerning the book and the history of knowledge in early modern Europe.

Discipline-specific skills

3. Capacity to locate and analyse the relevant primary and secondary sources
4. Capacity of defending a well-constructed written argument using both primary and secondary sources.

Personal and key skills

5. Capacity of independent critical study and thought.
6. Active participation in seminar discussions.
7. Development of communication skills during seminar presentations.

Learning and teaching methods

The module is delivered through weekly two-hour seminar focussed on a set theme. Students will be required to undertake preparatory reading of primary and secondary materials to be able to discuss it in class. Individual and group presentations will serve as the basis for discussion guided by the module tutor.


A seminar presentation; 2 x 3,000 word essays.


Seminar presentation (25% of overall assessment); 3,000 word essay (38% of overall assessment); 3,000 word essay (37% of overall assessment).

Syllabus plan

1. Introduction: the Medieval book
2. A printing revolution?
3. Manuscript and print relations
4. Patronage and literacy
5. Publishing and the book trade
6. Authorship
7. Reading
8. Libraries and archives
9. Collecting and ordering knowledge
10. The book of nature
11. Conclusion

Indicative basic reading list

Gugliemo Cavallo, Roger Chartier and Lydia Cochrane (eds), A History of Reading in the West (Amherst MA, 1999)
Julia Crick and Alexandra Walsham (eds), The Uses of Script and Print, 1300-1700 (Cambridge, 2003)
Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature (New York, 1998)
Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 1996)
Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: the Impact of Printing 1450-1800 (London, 1976)
Paula Findlen, Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Berkeley, 1994)
Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: an Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London, 1970)
Marina Frasca-Spada and Nick Jardine, Books and the Sciences in History (Cambridge, 2000)
Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book (Chicago, 1998)
David McKitterick, Print, Manuscript and the Search for Order 1450-1830 (Cambridge, 2003)
Brian Ogilvie, The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe (Chicago, 2006)

Indicative web based resources:
Historical abstracts
Early English Books Online (EEBO)