History of the Book, 1500-1800

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THIS MODULE IS ALSO TAUGHT AT UNDERGRADUATE LEVEL.  Please see module HY42050+C91 for Undergraduate details and assessment.

In this module we will examine the history of the book from a variety of perspectives. 

In the past, the history of the book was a field largely dominated by English scholars and librarians, in particular analytical bibliographers.  They investigated and described the physical characteristics of books (paper supplies, binding, etc.) and their provenance (i.e. who were the previous owners?). 

A completely different approach arose at the end of the 1970's, which can best be described as the social history of knowledge.  Literary critics and cultural historians have become interested in readers’ responses to texts, for example. Readers do not swallow books (or manuscripts) whole, but construct new meaning(s) for themselves and others by means of selective appropriation (i.e. underlining, marginalia, cutting up of texts, creation of commonplace books, etc.).

Another hot topic is the production of knowledge. How did ideas circulate in the past? What are the connections between authors, scribes, printers, booksellers and readers?

We will examine both the ‘old’ and ‘new’ approaches to the history of the book and ask ourselves the question to what extent these have transformed other fields of study.

The Brechin Collection in the University Library, an outstanding collection of rare (pre-1800) books, will be used for presentations and tutorial discussion. In addition, we will watch two TV documentaries about how manuscripts and books were made in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period.

The module will include the following topics:

  • The Power of the Written Word
  • A Print Revolution?
  • Forbidden Books
  • The Materiality of Texts
  • Information Overload in Early-Modern Europe
  • Readers' Responses
  • Networks of Communication: Printers and Book Sellers
  • Do Books Make Revolutions?    


This module is assessed as follows:

  • Research presentation of 45 minutes (20%)
  • 7,000-8,000 word research essay (80%)


The format of this course is a weekly seminar of two hours over 11 weeks.