Cultural History

Module code: HS2235

Module co-ordinators: Dr Deborah Toner, Prof David Gentilcore and Dr Olaf Jensen

Module Outline

As one of the pioneers of cultural history, Raymond Williams, once said “culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language”. Exploring what culture means, how cultures change and interact with one another, and the cultural dimensions of people’s everyday lives are the central questions that cultural history seeks to answer. Why, for instance, did many early modern Europeans believe that potatoes were dangerous and caused leprosy? The answer involves delving into beliefs about witchcraft, magic, diet and medicine and the cultural effects of colonialism: in this way, cultural history often explores historical oddities in order to develop a deeper understanding of how past societies and peoples understood themselves and the world around them.

Above all, cultural history is concerned with symbols and their interpretation, language, representations, and the meanings of cultural practices, from the everyday to the exceptional. It is also a very interdisciplinary way of doing history that draws on insights and approaches from anthropology, ethnography and linguistics to analyse a wide variety of primary sources in innovative and imaginative ways. This module provides an opportunity to explore a variety of history that leads you away from the beaten track, and to apply the methods and ideas of cultural history comparatively, across three different historical contexts.

Topics covered

The module concentrates on three key themes that are very important within cultural history: ritual, community and identity. We explore how and why cultural historians often explore such themes, and think about the unique insights that a cultural history approach can provide, while also evaluating the limitations of cultural history and the problems of using primary sources to find out about symbols, representations and meanings. We apply the cultural history approach to three case studies from different historical periods and places: Renaissance Italy, Early Modern Mexico and Modern Germany. 

These case studies illustrate the diversity and intellectual possibilities of cultural history, covering as wide-ranging phenomena as the cultural meanings of food during the Conquest of Mexico, commemorations of war in modern Europe, Carnival in Renaissance Italy, Mexican performances of the Corpus Christi  festival, nationalist celebrations like Bastille Day, and the Venetian Bridge Wars. Throughout the course we will consider the power dynamics involved in the expression, contestation and change of cultures and cultural practices, comparing the differences between these processes across our three case studies.


The module is taught by thematic sets of lectures and connected seminars looking at original documents (in translation where necessary). 


Assessment is coursework only, weighted 40:60. The coursework is two essays, one exploring a critical concept within cultural history by comparing two case studies, and one exploring a single case study in more depth.


  • W. H. Beezley, C. E. Martin, and W. E. French (eds), Rituals of Rule, Rituals of Resistance: Public Celebrations and Popular Culture in Mexico (Rowman and Littlefield, 1994).
  • P.Burke, What is Cultural History? (Cambridge, 2008).
  • P. Burke, The Historical Anthropology of Early Modern Italy: Essays on Perception and Communication (Cambridge, 1987).
  • D. Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge, 1985).
  • D. Gentilcore, ‘The Ethnography of Everyday Life’, in J. A. Marino (ed.), Early Modern Italy (Short Oxford History of Italy) (Oxford, 2002), pp. 188-205.
  • J.M. Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning. The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge, 1998).