Imagining London: The City in Early Modern Literature

Module code: EN3164

Module co-ordinator: Dr Mary Ann Lund

This module examines the central place that London held in the literary imagination from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Through readings of a wide range of texts and genres, it considers how writers depicted the rapidly expanding metropolis and identified a defining set of characteristics for it, including noise and crowds, crime and jurisdiction, sex and prostitution, epidemic disease, the suburbs, religious and political debate, and finance and trade.


The module will take a broadly chronological approach to the changing views of London in literature, while identifying important ongoing and developing themes. It will start in the mid-sixteenth century with William Baldwin's bizarre and brilliant Protestant fiction Beware the Cat, in which the narrator uses magical means to eavesdrop on the conversation of cats on the rooftops of London. The harassed scholar of John Donne's Satire I will be our second literary tour guide to the early modern urban experience, as he leaves his study to walk the streets and pretends (at least) to be horrified by the frivolous and amoral characters who populate it. Other Elizabethan and early Jacobean writing will include the emerging genre of city comedy, which seeks to display both the chaotic vibrancy and the dangers of urban life. The module will pay close attention to important public spaces such as the public playhouses and the city pulpits, giving students an understanding of the city's topography and of its key sites of controversy and debate. A study of literature in civil war London will examine the role of pamphlet publication in shaping the city's changing political and social identity. In later weeks, the module will move on to consider the depiction and mapping of the new city after the Great Fire of 1666, looking at Restoration poetry, including the Earl of Rochester's infamous 'Ramble in St James's Park', and periodical literature. It will finish at the River Thames with Alexander Pope's satire on London hack writers, The Dunciad.


The module will be taught in weekly seminars. Discussion will focus on a selection of primary texts (which students will be expected to prepare beforehand), supported by secondary reading and visual material. 

Students will be encouraged to use web resources, including Early English Books Online and The Map of Early Modern London. Each student will give a ten-minute oral presentation on a primary text as the basis for group discussion.

By the end of this module, students will have...

  • Gained an awareness of the topography of early modern London and its changing social, political, and moral identities over two centuries
  • Demonstrated knowledge of a range of early modern literary genres: poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction 
  • Developed skills in interdisciplinary research and in the use of electronic resources, including text databases and online maps
  • Presented their ideas and arguments in a cogent and well-structured way through oral presentations and written work


  • One 5,000-word essay