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Early modern Europe: society and culture c.1500-1780

The early modern period from 1500 to 1780 is one of the most engaging periods for historical study. Beginning with the upheavals of the Reformation, and ending with the Enlightenment, this was a time of fundamental intellectual, social, religious and cultural change. At the same time, early modern Europe was rooted in and retained many of the customs of medieval times. You will explore this balance of change and continuity through documents written, and (for the first time) printed including diaries, pamphlets, legal documents, bureaucratic records and ballad songs, as well as the images and objects.

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Module code


  • Credits measure the student workload required for the successful completion of a module or qualification.
  • One credit represents about 10 hours of study over the duration of the course.
  • You are awarded credits after you have successfully completed a module.
  • For example, if you study a 60-credit module and successfully pass it, you will be awarded 60 credits.
Study level
To enable you to make international comparisons, the information provided shows how OU levels correspond to the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Northern Ireland and Wales (FHEQ).
2 5
Study method
Distance Learning
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements
See Entry requirements

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What you will study

Early modern Europe was a period of dynamic change in social, cultural, religious and intellectual life. In 1500, new ideas about learning associated with the Renaissance were spreading across Europe. The old order of the feudal system was still firmly in place over large parts of the continent and the Catholic Church held huge power and authority over many aspects of life. By 1780, Enlightenment ideas of a greater political accountability were taking hold. Towns and cities played an important role in culture, politics and industry, and society became increasingly mobile – all before the fundamental social and political changes brought about by the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.

While this module covers the period 1500 to 1780, it moves away from the focus of many early modern history modules to focus on everyday life and explore major events such as the Reformation through their effects on people and communities. The narrative of the module is driven by an expanding scope of study.

Book 1 explores social and cultural life from the point of view of individuals, families, and households, ending with a unit that examines how individuals saw themselves and reflected on their lives. Book 2 examines early modern history at the level of groupings such as parishes, guilds, schools and other institutions as well as transient and informal groups such as rioters. Book 3 explores developments on a larger scale at the level of the states and international contacts, including the movement of money, goods and new ideas across Europe.

A recurring issue across the module is the balance of change and continuity. The early modern period offers examples of rapid and far reaching change, most notably around the Reformation, but it is also a period characterised by continuity, for example in economic and social life. This module aims to show the complexity of patterns of change and continuity: how peasant subsistence agriculture survived alongside specialist industrial production of goods.

The module is structured around five themes:

Society and social order 
This broad theme covers topics such as the cause and response to poverty, the identity and role of elites, prescribed gender roles and how men and women behaved, the role of institutions such as churches or guilds in providing identity and maintaining order, and the challenges to social order made through popular protests.

Religion: Reformation and Counter-reformation
The history of religious life in the early modern world is dominated by the Reformation - the rise of new Protestant churches and the reaction of the once dominant Catholic Church. The impact of the Reformation is explored in the broadest sense. You'll cover the changing patterns of faith and worship, as well as the changing role of Protestant and Catholic churches in welfare and the political conflicts around the adoption of Protestantism. You'll also explore current historical debates around the shift to Protestantism, and whether the shift to the new faith was as rapid or complete as previously thought.

Bodies, health and disease
Disease and death had a huge impact on early modern people as it shaped families by taking away parents and children, and robbed individuals of their ability to earn a living. This theme explores how the body and disease was understood in early modern Europe, the impact of lifecycle on health, the effects of disease on peoples’ lives, and efforts to control disease

Work and trade
This theme explores the world of work at many levels: from patterns of work found among individuals – who worked at what occupations, and where and when work was carried out – to the organisation of occupations conducted by groups such as mining, to world trade and changing patterns of consumption and the organisation of banking and finance that underpinned global trade.

Knowledge and ideas
The early modern period is bookended by intellectual movements – the Renaissance and Enlightenment – that spread across Europe. The module explores the spread of ideas through an exploration of developments in education and literacy, case studies of the development of ideas in the scientific revolution, and the impact of Enlightenment thinking on society.

Throughout the module, you will explore a wide range of source materials that provide the evidence for historical change. Printed documents such as pamphlets and ballads, and manuscript sources including letters, wills, and rules for guilds give direct insights into the thoughts and actions of people living five hundred years ago. Images – from grand portraits to cheap prints – and videos of building and places help you visualise life in the early modern world. The module also features images and audios of early modern objects, large and small, exploring what they can reveal about early modern history.

You will learn

This module gives you the skills required for the study of history. It builds on your reading and writing skills developed at OU level 1, teaching your how to analyse more complex contemporary documents, to get to grips with historical debates and understand why historians differ in their interpretation of the past. The module will guide you through to the rich archive of documents and information, once limited to scholars, but now available to all students through the internet and accessible through The Open University Library.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. You will be taught through a blend of methods that may include online tutorials and moderated online discussion forums. This blend of methods is designed to help you benefit from tuition whatever your circumstances.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper

Future availability

Early modern Europe: society and culture c.1500 - 1780 starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2021. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2027. 


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the academic regulations which are available on our Student Policies and Regulations website.

    Course work includes:

    6 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
    No residential school

    Entry requirements

    This is an OU level 2 module and you need to have the study skills required for this level, obtained either through OU level 1 study, or by doing equivalent work at another university.

    If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.


    Start End England fee Register
    02 Oct 2021 Jun 2022 -

    Registration now closed

    This module is expected to start for the last time in October 2027.

    Additional Costs

    Study costs

    There may be extra costs on top of the tuition fee, such as set books, a computer and internet access.

    If your income is not more than £25,000 or you are in receipt of a qualifying benefit, you might be eligible for help with some of these costs after your module has started.

    Ways to pay for this module

    Open University Student Budget Account

    The Open University Student Budget Accounts Ltd (OUSBA) offers a convenient 'pay as you go' option to pay your OU fees, which is a secure, quick and easy way to pay. Please note that The Open University works exclusively with OUSBA and is not able to offer you credit facilities from any other provider. All credit is subject to status and proof that you can afford the repayments.

    You pay the OU through OUSBA in one of the following ways:

    • Register now, pay later – OUSBA pays your module fee direct to the OU. You then repay OUSBA interest-free and in full just before your module starts. 0% APR representative. This option could give you the extra time you may need to secure the funding to repay OUSBA.
    • Pay by instalments – OUSBA calculates your monthly fee and number of instalments based on the cost of the module you are studying. APR 5.1% representative.

    Joint loan applications

    If you feel you would be unable to obtain an OUSBA loan on your own due to credit history or affordability issues, OUSBA offers the option to apply for a joint loan application with a third party. For example, your husband, wife, partner, parent, sibling or friend. In such cases, OUSBA will be required to carry out additional affordability checks separately and/or collectively for both joint applicants who will be jointly and severally liable for loan repayments.

    As additional affordability checks are required when processing joint loan applications, unfortunately, an instant decision cannot be given. On average the processing time for a joint loan application is five working days from receipt of the required documentation.

    Read more about Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).  

    Employer sponsorship

    Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU courses are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to complete. They also value the skills that students learn and can apply in the workplace.

    More than one in ten OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the module you’ve chosen is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could approach your employer to see if they will sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. 

    • Your employer just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.
    • You won’t need to get your employer to complete the form until after you’ve chosen your module.  

    Credit/debit card

    You can pay part or all of your tuition fees upfront with a debit or credit card when you register for each module. 

    We accept American Express, Mastercard, Visa and Visa Electron. 

    Mixed payments

    We know that sometimes you may want to combine payment options. For example, you may wish to pay part of your tuition fee with a debit card and pay the remainder in instalments through an Open University Student Budget Account (OUSBA).

    Please note: your permanent address/domicile will affect your fee status and therefore the fees you are charged and any financial support available to you. The fees and funding information provided here is valid for modules starting before 31 July 2022. Fees normally increase annually in line with inflation and the University's strategic approach to fees. 

    This information was provided on 28/09/2021.

    What's included

    All teaching material for this module is delivered via three printed books and online via the module website which includes:

    • a week-by-week study planner
    • module materials
    • audio and video content
    • assessment guide
    • access to online tutorials and forums.

    You will need

    You may find it useful to have access to a large public or university library.

    Computing requirements

    You'll need a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of 64-bit Windows 10 (note that Windows 7 is no longer supported) or macOS and broadband internet access.

    To join in spoken conversations in tutorials we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

    Our module websites comply with web standards and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

    Our OU Study mobile App will operate on all current, supported, versions of Android and iOS. It's not available on Kindle.

    It's also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook, however, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you'll also require a desktop or laptop as described above.

    Materials to buy

    Set books

    • Kumin, B. (ed) The European World 1500-1800: An Introduction to Early Modern History (3rd edn) Routledge £32.99 - ISBN 9781138119154 This item is print on demand, please allow 3 weeks for receipt following order

    If you have a disability

    The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying A223 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

    To find out more about what kind of support and adjustments might be available, contact us or visit our Disability support website.