Undergraduate History Department Module Descriptions

This blog was produced in June 2020 specifically for students joining the course in September 2020.  Although it was up-to-date at the time it was produced, some changes to modules, courses and teaching staff may occur. Please make sure you check our website (https://www.kcl.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/courses/history-ba) or contact us directly for the very latest information before you commit yourself to any of our courses.

At King’s College London History Department, we are pleased to offer an array of expert-led second- and third-year teaching, allowing students to follow their developing interests and grow as historical researchers under specialist academic guidance. The array of modules on offer varies from year to year, as it reflects the shifting research interests of staff, as well as our efforts to provide a broad and diverse curriculum. To give you a sense of what provision we offer, current lecturers were asked about the modules they are currently offering, what these involve in terms of intellectual content, and the deeper questions they ask about the past. Each of these modules draws on research actively ongoing in the department. We have compiled a sample below – you will see that there is huge geographical and chronological scope to the subjects that you will be able to study in detail. You will also find some suggestions for further reading, watching, or listening if you would like to start looking into any particular topic!

The Worlds of the Indian Ocean

In 1998, somewhere between Sumatra and Borneo, a group of fishermen found a treasure. Lying on the sea floor was a huge wooden vessel—and inside it, silver and gold vessels, lead ingots, beautiful ceramics, and jars full of expensive spices. The ship had sunk long ago in the 9th century BC, when Arab merchants used to ply the sea routes between the Tang Empire in China and Baghdad, the great Abbasid capital. The wreck and its precious cargo tell us of a watery place that has played a central role in connecting humans for much of their history: the Indian Ocean. This module tells the history of the Indian Ocean and its different worlds from ancient times till the 21st century. It explores how its maritime networks– at once political, economic, ideological, cultural, or migratory—were born, adapted and reconfigured. How and why did people move across the ocean? What technological, political, economic, or environmental conditions enabled this long-distance travel? What did it feel like to be a sailor, a pirate, a merchant, a pilgrim, an envoy, a migrant, or a slave on an Indian Ocean dhow? And last but not least, can we think of the Indian Ocean as a unified space, beyond today’s geographical understandings?

Want to delve into this topic? Try: Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Ibis Trilogy’: Sea of Poppies River of Smoke / Flood of Fire

Young Lives: Growing Up in Liverpool, London, Melbourne and Sydney, 1870-1970

From the late nineteenth century onwards, the imperial cities of London and Liverpool, and Britain’s newer outposts in the Australian colonies, were urban settings dominated by children and young people. In this module we use a thematic, life-stages approach to examine what it was like to be born and grow up in four different urban settings and across a century. Topics covered include housing, learning, courting, working, playing, belonging and navigating. Particular emphasis will be given to how the gendered, classed, racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds of young people of different ages influenced their experiences and enjoyment of city life. Sources used include personal memoirs, surveys and social investigations, photographs, fiction, and film.

Want to engage with this topic further? Try: Denis Mitchell’s 1959 documentary on Liverpool ‘Morning in the Streets’

The Sociology of the Middle Ages

Much sociological theory has developed in a bid to understand the modern – what is is, and how it came about. For this reason, it has tended to focus on a rather narrow range of societies. But sociological theory can be at its most useful when applied to societies that are very different from ours, by making them understandable according to the same analytical frameworks. This course uses these frameworks to understand the Middle Ages (arguably the period where European history seems at its most alien). It will explore issues central to social and political relations, such as: what makes people think well or badly of someone else? Why are some people listened to and not others? How is popular opinion shaped? How is it decided who will be at the top of a hierarchy and who at the bottom, and what purposes do these hierarchies serve? How far is social mobility possible, and on what basis? What makes certain groups of people more violent than others? Why are social norms and rules of behaviour so mysterious and so difficult to master, and what makes some people better at them than others? By asking these same fundamental questions both in past and present tenses, this course will exploit the power of both sociology and history to make our own world suddenly look strange and unfamiliar.

Want to look a bit deeper into this? Try: the podcast Medieval History for Fun and Profit, by Dr Alice Rio & Dr Alice Taylor.

Sexuality and Gender in Modern Britain

 Writing after the First World War, King’s alumna Virginia Woolf contended ‘on or about December 1910 human nature changed … and when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics and literature.’ In this module we explore just such reconfigurations of human relations – focusing on the ways in which women and men in twentieth-century Britain understood their roles, responsibilities, bodies and collectivities. Positioned at the interface of social and political history, the module charts protest movements and legislative change alongside broad transformations in family life, education, work, sexual identity and leisure. Through sustained engagement with rich primary sources (archives, film, literature and oral histories), students will interrogate the impact of ‘modernity’ on intersectional understandings of masculinities, femininities and queer and non-binary sexualities.

Want to explore this subject further? Try: the Sisterhood and After website.

Black in the Union Jack? Black Lives in Modern London

Through an innovative collaborative partnership with the Black Cultural Archives (BCA), this module investigates the lived experiences, political activism, forms of cultural production and diverse civic contributions of Black women and men in twentieth-century London. Through a combination of lectures, seminars, and hands-on, source-led exercises – delivered in alternate weeks at KCL and at the BCA in Brixton – students will critique Britain’s imperial past and postcolonial legacies and critically interrogate narratives of migration and multiculturalism that position the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush as the advent of Black Britain. Topics covered across the module include the mapping of Black spaces in the metropolis, imperial and transatlantic intellectual and cultural networks, anti-racist protest and resistance, and political organisations.

Want to learn more? Try: David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016)

‘The Good Immigrant’? Migration, Citizenship and the Nation in Twentieth-Century Britain

Since the passage of the Aliens Act of 1905, politicians of all stripes and the wider public have endlessly contested who ‘belongs’ and how inculturation into British society and its ‘values’ should be performed and expressed.  This module explores the historical modulations of the concept of ‘the good immigrant’ – through the lens of race and ethnicity, religion, gender, region and class. Drawing on the experiences and voices of those who migrated to and from Britain, students will deconstruct the interwoven histories of citizenship and race, as well as the mutating and enduring forms and practices of prejudice, discrimination and racism across the century. At the root of these debates are differing configurations of the ‘nation’ and Britain’s relationship to Ireland, Europe, the Empire/Commonwealth and the wider world.

Want to delve more into this topic? Try: Tony Kushner, The Battle of Britishness: Migrant Journeys, 1685 to the Present (2012), or Our Migration Story.

Globalization Since the 1970s:

As we summon the proper reaction to the cataclysmic events of this year, it is easy to conclude that the age of globalization is coming to an end. This world of free trade, cheap debt, big business, and small government seems ill-equipped, out of date, and inadequate to the stormy present. Yet, for 50 years the world embraced globalization as a policy goal, a public good, an ideology, a creed, and a destiny. This module investigates the globalization of the 1970s onwards as a historical phenomenon. It analyzes its characteristics, interrogates its origins, and assesses its significance and legacy for the world today.

Crime and the Law in Early Modern England, 1500-1750

 This course examines the history of crime, disorder and law in early modern England between 1500 and 1750. It investigates a range of wrongdoing by early modern people, ranging from homicide to theft, defamation to treason, and the range of responses the authorities had to such crimes. The course also explores areas such as witchcraft and the policing of sexuality, behaviours that might seem strange to us as ‘crimes’, but which help to interrogate what ‘crime’ actually means and how it is shaped by the wider world in which it exists. Early modern England was a place of profound change, from the Reformation that shattered the religious consensus, to the rapid urbanisation and commercialisation of its society and economy, and all of these developments and more informed how crime was understood and punished, from the death penalty through to mercy and compassion, and how this changed over time. In this course, we draw on the rich records of early modern courts such as the Old Bailey of London, as well as contemporary legal advice, royal proclamations, and the popular literature of crime that flowed from the printing presses, with genres such as the ‘murder pamphlet’ both entertaining and educating ordinary people with their tales of misdeeds and inevitable comeuppance. The history of crime, therefore, is fascinating in its own right, but also offer us a window into a past society: crime was a disruption of the norm, and how people responded to that disruption can tell us a lot about how society worked more broadly. As such, this course is not only studies crime itself, but the social history of England more widely.

Want to investigate further? Try: James Sharpe, ‘Spoiling for a fight‘, Aeon; James Sharpe, Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman (2005); Old Bailey Online for original records of crime in London.

The History of Australia

This module provides an introduction to the long history of Australia from the creation of the continent to the present. It considers how different groups including artists, novelists and politicians have pictured Australia’s past and examines how the recent ‘History Wars’ have led to the reappraisal of Australian history. Topics including Indigenous history, convict society, the gold rushes, city life, the impact of war, youth culture and environmental concerns are explored to reveal the forces that have shaped this ‘Great Southern Land’. The course explores central themes in Australia’s past and equips students with an understanding of Australia’s place in the world.

Want to explore this subject further? Try: the Australian Journey from National Museum Australia.

British Imperial Policy and Decolonisation, 1938-1964

The collapse of European colonial empires after 1945 transformed the international landscape. This module uses primary sources to explore the British end of empire and to ask why Britain ceased to be an imperial power by the mid-1960s. The module begins with the widespread colonial unrest of the 1930s. It then traces the evolution of ideas and policy under the impact of war and reconstruction; communalism in India; the growth in anticolonialism; the emergence of violent uprisings in Malaya and Kenya; and developments in the Middle East that culminated in the 1956 Suez crisis. It concludes with the ‘wind of change’ and the Macmillan government’s reassessment of Britain’s imperial role. Important themes throughout include the Cold War, Anglo-American relations, race, and the British economy and politics. One half of the course is assessed via examination; the second by a 10,000 word research dissertation on any subject relating to British decolonisation.

‘Red, White and Blues: Jazz and the United States in the Twentieth Century’

What can historians learn from music, and from the lives, careers and activism of musicians? This module looks to jazz music to provide an alternative lens onto the twentieth-century history of the United States and its place in the world. Positioning musicians and their audiences in the foreground, and using sources ranging from blues lyrics to autobiographies, interviews and record reviews, the module explores histories of race, gender, migration and technology. From jazz’s relationship to the civil rights and black power movements to its use as a ‘sonic weapon’ in U.S. Cold War diplomacy, the module reveals how music not only reflects but also shapes identities, social relations and politics.

Want to delve into this topic? Try: the trailer for ‘The Jazz Ambassadors’; or Joe Nocera’s ‘Louis Armstrong, the Real Ambassador.’

Religion and Society in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

At the beginning of the first millennium the ancient world was full of different gods, worshipped through prayers, sacrifices and rituals that accompanied everything from making love to going shopping. By the end of the millennium, Europe and the Near East were dominated by two monotheistic faiths, Christianity and Islam, with all people within their territories increasingly expected to subscribe to uniform ‘orthodox’ beliefs. This module will introduce students to the massive changes in the relationship between religion and society in Europe and the Near East between the conversion of Constantine and the First Crusade.

Want to learn more? Try: Richard Fletcher, The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity, 371-1386 AD (1997)

Global Cold War:

The Cold War was more than just a conflict between the superpowers. Though much of its history has focussed on the USA, the USSR, and the “great men” – the Kennans, Khrushchevs, and Kissingers – who shaped it, the Cold War was, and always has been, a global phenomenon. This module examines Cold War as an experience of ideological confrontation, technological innovation, and social revolution. It asks how the Cold War was viewed by housewives, homosexuals, and holy warriors. It investigates how a struggle over the meaning of modernity seeped into every facet of life across every continent on the globe, the ramifications of which we still live with today.

Blood & Iron: The Forging of Modern Germany, 1806 to 1914

Germany evolved in the course of the nineteenth century from a loose collection of territories under French domination into a unified state that by 1914 was Europe’s premier industrial and military power. Yet Germany’s stunningly swift progress towards modernity was not all that it seemed. The very speed of industrial development produced a social and political order that in many respects deviated from the pattern followed by Britain and France. This module analyses the viability of the concept of a ‘normal’ path to ‘modernity’, and of Germany’s ‘deviation’ from it. In particular, it considers whether it is fair to conclude that Germany’s parliamentary institutions were unviable, and whether this was a product of Germany’s belated national unification and rapid industrialisation.

Interested? Try BBC’s Bismark.

Dictatorship, Democracy, and Human Rights in Latin America since 1945

What rights do we have as humans? What happens when those rights are violated? Can governments protect both individual liberty and socioeconomic rights? What do we mean when we talk about democracy? This module examines how politicians, intellectuals, and ordinary people from Latin America have struggled to answer these questions over the past eight decades. We use a diverse set of primary sources to explore historical contests over the meaning of citizenship, focusing especially on Argentina, Cuba, and Guatemala. Ultimately, students will develop their historical reasoning abilities in order to better understand and engage with Latin America today.

Want to get a taste of this subject? Try: Greg Grandin’s ‘It Was Heaven That They Burned: Who is Rigoberta Menchú?

The Never Ending War: Britain and the Second World War, 1939-Present

As the debate over Britain’s EU membership highlighted, the Second World War might have ended in 1945, but beliefs about the conflict continue to shape contemporary Britain. During the referendum campaign, frequent references were made to how Britain ‘saved Europe from tyranny’, ‘stood alone in 1940’, and managed to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. But where did these and other ideas about Britain’s so-called People’s War come from? What does their prominence (or lack of) tell us about British society both during and after the Second World War? And were they the only ways in which the war has (or can) be understood? To answer these questions, this Special Subject examines the Second World War not just as a military conflict but also a political and cultural battle, where the meaning of the conflict was fought over from day one. Divided into two parts, the first half of the course looks at the way in which the meaning of the war was made during the war by examining sources like speeches, newspaper articles, propaganda films, and election manifestos. The second part of the course picks up the story in 1945 with the end of the war and looks how ideas about the conflict and who fought it and why have changed over the succeeding 75 years. Here we examine everything from episodes of the TV sitcom Dad’s Army to Tweets from Brexiteers to look at the way in which ideas about ‘Britain’s War’ have become integral to both British national identity as well as a variety of different political projects from Social Democracy to Thatcherism.

Looking for a place to start? Try: ‘Britain’s obsession with the second world war and the debates that fuel it‘ by Kit Kowol.

Imperial Britain? Britain and Empire c 1860-1964

Britain had the largest empire the modern world has ever seen, but historians are divided as to the impact the empire had on Britain itself, provoking lively debates about the place of empire in British history. Was Britain ever an ‘imperial’ country, or was the empire something that passed most British people by? What exactly did the empire mean to the British? Was the empire profitable for Britain? To answer these questions this module considers the impact of empire on British politics and the economy, on elite and popular culture, and how British peoples’ experience of empire varied with gender, race, class, and region. The course also explores the cultural and social consequences of decolonisation in Britain, including around race and immigration.

Electric Cities: The Experience of Modernity in London, Melbourne, New York and Paris, 1870-1929

The module explores a tension of extremes: between the city filled with prospects and the city as the terminus of hope. Focusing on four cities where the possibilities and pitfalls of modernity were felt especially keenly, weekly readings and discussions seek to comprehend what it was like to experience profound transformations in urban living. Rather than try to understand the four case study cities in totality across more than half a century, Electric Cities offers specific excursions into the social and cultural histories of London, Melbourne, New York and Paris. We will explore the pathways carved out by different social groups and bring their experiences in comparative focus.

Want to get a taste of this subject? Try: ‘Urban modernity, networks and places‘ by Richard Dennis.

Europe in the Age of Revolution and Napoleon, 1780-1815

This module examines one of the most dynamic periods of change and upheaval. The revolutionary principles of liberty, equality and fraternity that emerged in France in 1789 posed an ideological challenge to the rest of the World. Following the outbreak of the revolutionary wars in 1792, the French exported these new principles by force. The initial idealism of the Revolution was quickly superseded by French imperialism; by 1810 Napoleon’s Grand Empire stretched from Iberia to Poland. The states of this vast European empire adopted French-style reforms, whilst Napoleon’s remaining enemies embarked upon ‘defensive modernisation’ programmes of their own in preparation for the final show-down.

Want to find out more? Try BBC’s Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow.

Read More:

For more information on studying History at King’s, see the Department of History.

Check out Gabrielle’s Day in the Life of a History Student for a student perspective.

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