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Level 4

4AAT1301 From Machiavelli to Bodin: Renaissance and Reformation Political Thought


The modules run in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand so there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary depending between years.

Credit value: 15
Module tutor: Dr David Crankshaw
Assessment: One 2,000-word essay (40%) and one two-hour exam (60%)

Students are reassessed in the failed elements of assessment and by the same methods as the first attempt.

Teaching pattern: Two-hour weekly classes over ten weeks. 
Pre-requisites: none
Places available: 40  

The Renaissance and early modern periods saw momentous change, such as the discovery of the New World, the rise of Christian Humanism, the strengthening of the secular state, the fragmentation of Christendom in the turmoil of the Reformations and instability caused by economic transformation. These developments gave rise to works of political and/or moral philosophy that became famous in their own day and have intrigued intellectual historians and philosophers ever since.

The main purpose of this module is to investigate selected texts in order to ascertain their conceptual significance, but also to attempt to understand the historical circumstances in which they were born, and which they themselves influenced. Since context is judged to be as important as the texts, equal time is devoted to it: each work is therefore analysed and contextualized over two weeks. Teaching will be a combination of lectures and seminar discussions. The texts have been chosen in the light of connected themes, though also so that students may take advantage of existing bibliographical strengths in the College Library.

Most teaching sessions will be partly lecture format and partly seminar format, but the proportions will vary. For the first week of each pair devoted to a particular text, the emphasis will be on lecture format, though there will be some time for discussion. For the second week, however, the emphasis will be on seminar analysis of the set text. All students are strongly encouraged to participate in these discussions, having prepared for them by reading the set text, as well as some of the relevant literature recommended on this module syllabus. Each student will be offered constructive feedback on the assessed essay in a tutorial.

While the module is primarily intended for those taking the Religion, Philosophy and Ethics programme, it offers other students a text-based focus for inquiry into the Renaissance and early modern periods, complementing part of the survey module 4AAT1021 Turning-Points: an Introduction to the History of Christianity in England Since 1500 and providing a foundation for modules 5AAT2024 Martin Luther and the German Reformation and/or 5AAT2026 Religion, Culture and Society in Reformation Europe.

Sample topics (some may change)

  • Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (written 1513; published 1532)
  • Thomas More, Utopia (1516)
  • Martin Luther, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed (1523)
  • Jean Bodin, Six Books of the Commonwealth (1576)
  • The English Levellers (1647)

Preliminary reading

1. General reading on late medieval and early modern European history

  • MacCulloch, D., Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490–1700 (London, 2003)
  • Tracy, J.D., Europe’s Reformations, 1450–1650: Doctrine, Politics, and Community (2nd edn, Lanham, Maryland, 2006)

2. Set texts and associated reading for the first weeks of the module

(i) Machiavelli and The Prince

  • Skinner, Q. and Price, R. (eds), Machiavelli, The Prince, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge, 1988)
  • Skinner, Q., Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction (new edn, Oxford and New York, 2000)

(ii) More and Utopia

  • Logan, G.M. and Adams, R.M. (eds), Thomas More, Utopia, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge, c.1989)
  • Guy, J.A., Thomas More (London, 2000)
  • Logan, G.M. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Thomas More (Cambridge, 2011)

Further information

Module aims
  • To introduce students to select key texts of political philosophy, that have strong ethical and religious dimensions, from the Renaissance and early modern periods
  • To facilitate understanding of the importance of those texts via detailed historical contextualization. For example, Machiavelli’s The Prince and Luther’s work on Temporal Authority are analysed in relation to processes of state formation, which became bound up with the Reformation, while More’s Utopia is evaluated against the background of Renaissance Humanism
  • To foster understanding of the different interpretations of these texts advanced by contemporaries and by modern intellectual historians
  • To encourage students to improve their analytical, argumentative and presentational skills, both orally and on paper, as appropriate to a Level 4 module
  • To provide a foundation of conceptual and historical knowledge for students taking other modules in the Religion, Philosophy and Ethics programme
Learning outcomes

Generic skills

By the end of the module, candidates should be able to demonstrate:

  • The capacity to plan and execute research to a standard appropriate for a Level 4 module
  • The capacity to engage critically with the selected texts and with secondary sources
  • The capacity to present well-reasoned and well-structured arguments, expressed in clear English, that are convincingly supported by relevant evidence

Module-specific skills

By the end of the module, candidates should be able to demonstrate:

  • That they can convincingly explain, in an informed way, the contents, contexts and significances of the texts chosen for analysis
  • That they can evaluate some scholarly interpretations of the selected texts
  • That they can appreciate the nature of intellectual history, feeding into both broader historical studies and philosophical inquiry
Past syllabi
Previous syllabus document available on request from An extended teaching plan is available to view here.

Please note that module syllabus and topics covered may vary from year to year.


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