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Medieval and Early Modern History

Medieval and early modern history is a flourishing area of research in the History Department. The Medieval and Early Modern History research group was founded in 2020 to replace the History of Medicine and Early Modern Britain and Europe research groups. Members work on a wide variety of overlapping themes in the religious, political, social, cultural and medical history of the period c. 1500-1750. We have particular strength in British and Irish history, as well as expertise in European history, in particular Italy, France and the Dutch Republic. As a group, we also have shared interests in themes such as:

  • The history of medicine (De Renzi)
  • The Reformation in early modern England
  • Politics and political culture in medieval and early modern Britain and Europe (Allen, Briggs, Forbes, Wolfson, Younger)
  • The history of gender (Allen, Hayes, Wolfson)
  • The history of queenship (Hayes, Wolfson)

Members of the group

Gemma Allen researches the political, religious and cultural history of later sixteenth and early seventeenth-century England and particularly early modern women.

Suzanne Forbes is an expert on Ireland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in particular print and politics in Ireland from 1689 - 1715.

Amy Hayes is a specialist in medieval Scottish history, with a particular focus on the socio-cultural role of the queen-consort in the fourteenth-sixteenth centuries. She has wider interests in elite women and children in the medieval and early modern period.

Silvia De Renzi works on the uses of medical knowledge in early modern Italy, including physicians’ activities as expert witnesses in law courts, their practice of autopsies and the history of surgical teaching. In her research she explores medical debates and practice from the combined perspectives of social and intellectual history.  

Neil Younger works on the political history of Tudor England, with a particular interest in the impact of religious change on government at the centre and in the localities.

Sara Wolfson is a specialist in the court of Charles I, particularly the socio-political and religious practices of the female court and household of Queen Henrietta Maria. She is also interested in dynastic relations, diplomacy and exile during the early seventeenth century.

Dr Linda Briggs is a cultural and social historian of early modern France, with further expertise in festival culture across early modern Europe. Her current work focuses on the French wars of religion. She uses visual and material cultures to access these histories.

Emeritus Members

Ole Peter Grell works on European social and cultural history in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including the history of the Reformation and of medicine.

Anne Laurence is a specialist on early modern Britain and is currently working on a comparative study of women in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales in the seventeenth century.

Rosemary O’Day Englander has interests in social and religious history in early modern Britain, Europe and the USA to late nineteenth-century, and British social and urban history

We also work with colleagues from across the Faculty of Arts with specialisms in early modern art, literature and music. See the Medieval and Early Modern Research Group.

Publications and conferences

At the Virtual conference of the Renaissance Society of America (April 2021), De Renzi presented a talk entitled: ‘Negotiating discipline:  Medical Encounters in the Counter Reformation’ where she discussed how the strict disciplinary regime that the Council of Trent imposed in Catholic countries gave physicians a new role as they could excuse people from obeying to the rules on health ground. Examining the encounters that this generated between physicians and two elite clerics, the talk examines how questions of health became bound up with concerns about the conscience and the self which had acquired exceptional importance in the Counter Reformation.  

Three FASS academics speak at the Lord Burghley 500 Conference

With this year marking the 500th anniversary of the birth of William Cecil (Lord Burghley from 1572) – one of the most important statesmen and patrons of the Elizabethan age – a series of six talks by distinguished scholars, highlighting key areas of Burghley's life and activities, have been released as part of the Burghley 500 commemorations.

In September, a three-day conference from Monday 20 to Wednesday 22 was hosted at St John’s College in Cambridge to commemorate Cecil’s birth, exploring the breadth and significance of Burghley’s activities as well as gathering new research into Burghley and his world. Burghley was described by the Spanish ambassador as ‘the man who does everything’. The scope of his interests was remarkable.

The three-day conference was kicked off by the OU’s Dr Neil Younger, Lecturer in History, who discussed the question of relationships between Elizabeth’s ministers. His talk focused on the apparent paradox that leading politicians generally preserved cordial and friendly relations with each other, even while they debated issues on which they deeply disagreed. He suggested that the amicable tone of government may well have helped to conceal the real depths of political contention in Elizabeth’s England.

Dr Gemma Allen, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at The Open University, recorded a talk and Q&A on ‘Burghley’s Women’, discussing the importance of the strong women in William Cecil’s life, none more so than his second wife Mildred. Unusually highly educated for women of the time, Mildred and her learned sisters, together with Burghley’s mother, sisters and daughters, give a new perspective on this Elizabethan statesman. You can watch Dr Allen's talk and Q&A session via the lordburghley500 website by signing up.

On the conference’s final day, Dr Susie West, Senior Lecturer in Art History and Heritage at the OU, discussed how William and his wife Mildred Cecil’s interests as readers and collectors of books found architectural expression in their houses. Elizabethan rooms for books, as studies or libraries, rarely survive and were never intended as public rooms. Whether in their town or country houses, the close association of book rooms and their private apartments is strong, an association paralleled by royal libraries.

Sign up to view the selected recordings from the conference here via the lordburghley500 website.

Trinity Network Conference, March 2021

Amy Hayes is one of the founding members of the Trinity Network, a multidisciplinary network focussing on the Trinity Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, the Trinity Collegiate Church (Edinburgh) and the Trinity Hospital (Edinburgh) as emblems of Scotland’s outward-looking engagement with Europe and the wider Renaissance. The network arranged a one-day symposium on Saturday 27th March. More details can be found via the Revising the Trinity webpage.

European Society for the History of Science, September 2020

Silvia De Renzi presented: ‘Teaching surgery in seventeenth-century Rome: Books, bodies and Guglielmo Riva’s printed pictures’ which explored a set of striking and so far overlooked anatomical and surgical tables to discuss the use of illustrations to educate surgeons and what those representations of diseased bodies reveal of contemporary pathological notions.

What did it mean to be a Queen of Scotland?: A Conversation with Amy Hayes, Helen Newsome and Jade Scott (August 2020).

Amy Hayes joined colleagues for an interdisciplinary online discussion on Scottish queenship, hosted by the Society of Renaissance Studies. The recorded talk can be found via the 'What Did it Mean to be a Queen of Scotland?' webpage.

Sara Wolfson co-edited volume on the Wedding of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, published 2020

Sara Wolfson, Staff Tutor and Lecturer in History, has published a co-edited volume with Marie-Claude Canova-Green on The Wedding of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, 1625: Celebrations and Controversy .

The union of 1625 between Charles Stuart, the Protestant king of Great Britain, and Henrietta Maria, a Catholic Bourbon princess, was a unique cross-confessional alliance in post-Reformation Europe. The volume brings together literary, art, music, and political-cultural scholars to explore for the first time the variety of celebrations that accompanied the match. In this volume, leading scholars from a variety of disciplines explore for the first time the marriage celebrations of 1625, with a view to uncovering the differences and misunderstandings beneath the outward celebration of union and concord. By taking into account the ceremonial, political, religious and international dimensions of the event, the collection paints a rounded portrait of a union that would become personally successful, but complicated by the various tensions played out in the marriage celebrations and discussed here.

Sara Wolfson Special Journal Issue Published, 2020

Louise J. Wilkinson & Sara J. Wolfson (2020) Introduction: premodern queenship and diplomacy, Women's History Review, DOI: 10.1080/09612025.2020.1827729

Sara Wolfson’s co-edited special issue on premodern queens explores how consorts, dowagers or regents, often played pivotal roles in the lives of medieval and early modern kingdoms. As women who often married across geographical, political and, sometimes, religious borders, they were ideally placed to serve as diplomats and ambassadors, whether directly as agents or indirectly as transmitters of cultural practices, values and ideas. Her co-authored introduction celebrates the position which queens occupied at the heart of international and transnational affairs in the premodern era. It argues that queens were figures who enjoyed meaningful public authority. Their ceremonial actions were imbued with significance, and their deliberate and considered interventions in court politics, and in the wider affairs of their marital and natal families’ kingdoms placed them on the international stage and at the heart of European monarchy. This introduction also offers an overview of the articles within this special issue and their contribution to recent historiographical debates on queenship and the nature of pre-modern diplomacy.

Gemma Allen on the rise of ambassadress, 2019

Gemma Allen has recently published an article on how the ambassadress became an important part of early modern diplomatic culture, from the invention of the role in the early sixteenth century. As resident embassies became common across the early modern period, wives increasingly accompanied these diplomatic postings. Such a development has, however, received almost no scholarly attention to date. By considering the activities of English ambassadresses from the 1530s to 1700, accompanying embassies both inside and outside of Europe, Allen places their activities within broader global and political histories of the period. ‘The Rise of the Ambassadress: English Ambassadorial Wives and Early Modern Diplomatic Culture’ appears in The Historical Journal, volume 62, September 2019.

OpenTALKS series: Neil Younger on Brexit and the Reformation, 2019

On 6 February 2019, Neil Younger gave a public lecture as part of the History department’s OpenTALKS series on the relations between Tudor England and Europe, reflecting on the often-made comparison between the English Reformation and Brexit. See the full talk via the OpenTALKS with Neil Younger eventpage.

Silvia de Renzi co-edited collection published, 2017

Silvia De Renzi has co-edited Pathology in Practice: Diseases and Dissections in Early Modern Europe, which offers a fresh account of the practice of dissecting bodies that was carried out for a variety of purposes all over Europe between 1500 and 1750. Authored by an international team of historians, it recaptures the lost world of physicians, surgeons, patients, families and civic authorities as they used the evidence of corpses to understand diseases and make sense of suffering. The evidence was ambiguous and led to intense medical debates and the development of a body of knowledge that the volume brings to centre stage for the first time. In her chapter, ‘Seats and series: dissecting diseases in the seventeenth century’, Silvia De Renzi explores how physicians built generalised knowledge about diseases from the repeated observations of the bodies of elite people and hospital patients alike.

Neil Younger’s article asks how Protestant was the Elizabethan regime?

Lecturer in History Dr. Neil Younger has published How Protestant was the Elizabethan regime? in the English Historical Review. Recent historiography on the Elizabethan regime has argued that it was strongly dominated by convinced Protestants, most prominently Lord Burghley, the earl of Leicester and Sir Francis Walsingham. This article argues that this consensus glosses over many important political figures whose religion was much more conservative, who were often sympathetic to Catholics and in several cases were probably essentially Catholic themselves. These individuals, although prominent at the time, have been seriously neglected by historians, often because of the nature of the archival record. The article surveys the prominence of such men throughout the reign, examining their religious inclinations. It goes on to assess the extent of their influence on the politics of the period, arguing that they were capable of mounting major political initiatives, and indeed scored several important successes against more strongly Protestant policies. Likewise, it argues that very often forward Protestant policies met with failure, in which the conservatives’ influence can often be detected. Finally, it discusses some of the consequences of these findings, proposing a more complex picture of Elizabethan politics, in which religious division and indeed conflict was a significant factor, and arguing that the Elizabethan regime should therefore be seen as a much less united and univocal entity than is often assumed.

This article is currently free via the English Historical Review website.

Allen and Younger go to the Tower

Allen and Younger presented papers at the 'In the Light of Gloriana' conference at the Tower of London on 19 November 2016. Allen spoke about the new phenomenon of the early modern ambassadress and Younger presented on Christopher Hatton.

Early Modern History Group conference, 'Women and Gender in Early Modern Britain and Ireland'

Allen, Forbes and Younger, together with OU colleagues Amanda Goodrich, Karl Hack and Janice Holmes, organised the 'Women and Gender in Early Modern Britain and Ireland' conference at the Institute of Historical Research in London on the 4th June 2016. This highly successful event, attended by over sixty delegates, showcased new directions in women’s and gender history. Speakers included Amanda Capern, Amy Erickson, James Daybell, Jane Humphries, Mary O’Dowd, Judith Spicksley, Rosalind Carr, and Frances Nolan. More details about the event can be found here.

Postgraduate study

Members of the group are happy to supervise postgraduate research on a wide range of topics. You can find out more about our research interests on our individual profile pages. We would be especially keen to offer joint supervision on the key themes listed above.

Current Research Students

Claire Ashwell, ‘Emotion and Elizabethan Royal Ceremonies’.

Chris Mains, ‘Sir Robert Cecil and Elizabethan Intelligencing, 1590-1603’.

Amy Moore, 'Oxford 1575-1640: Town, Crown and People'.

Recently Completed Research Students

Holly Harrod: Religion, Education and Charity in Early Modern England: Archdeacon Robert Johnson and his Grammar Schools, 1575-1630 (2019).


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