History 239: Britain, c. 1485-1834: From Sceptred Isle to Satanic Mills

Susannah Ottaway
Carleton College


This course traces the political, intellectual, economic and social history of the British Isles from the Tudor era to the Industrial Revolution. As we move from the world of Shakespeare to that of Jane Austen, we will follow changing British identities, the development of Atlantic slavery (and the subsequent move to emancipation), and revolutions in the political world. At the same time, we identify the origins and consequences of the fundamental economic and demographic changes associated with the demographic transition and industrialization.

Course Size:

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution

Course Context:

This is an intermediate level history course that attracts both inexperienced first-year students and upper-class history majors. As such, it seeks both to challenge the students critical thinking abilities and primary source analysis, and to provide a basic narrative of the social, political and economic history of Britain from the Renaissance to the Age of Revolutions. About half of the students are currently, or will declare a history major.

Course Content:

This British history course covers the major religious and political developments from the onset of the Protestant Reformations through the Glorious Revolution and the near constant international warfare of the eighteenth century. We pay particular attention to Parliamentary reform, the growth and eventual abolition of the slave trade, and the economic developments leading to industrialization. Students write short papers based on primary source analysis nearly every week, honing their abilities to engage with early modern documents. We also consciously work to develop public speaking skills. Through a series of lectures and activities, students are introduced to quantitative analysis of historical demography.

Course Goals:

Students who complete this course should have mastered the basic time line of political, religious, social and economic developments in Britain from the beginning of the reign of Henry VIII (1509) to the Reform Act of 1832.

They should have enhanced their ability to critically engage with secondary sources, understanding how historiographical controversies develop. By the end of the course, they are expected to be able to express their own views relative to a historiographical debate, and to substantiate these views with reference to a detailed analysis of secondary sources.

Because primary source analysis represents the backbone of all historical inquiry, students will develop their abilities to analyze a wide range of primary source materials used in British history.

Students will be able to understand how to read and interpret visual representations of demographic changes in England. They will have a grasp of the methodological challenges of pursuing quantitative research, as well as an understanding of current debates in the field.

Course Features:

Students read and discuss both primary and secondary sources virtually every day that the class meets. Through guided discussions, individual conferences, and lectures, students hone their critical reading and thinking abilities. Weekly paper assignments allow them to practice writing short works of historical analysis. In addition, students write a research proposal in the last week of class, in which they must demonstrate their familiarity with both print and electronic sources.

Students are specifically trained in historical demography through a series of lectures and interactive exercises in class.

Course Philosophy:

Most aspects of the course are the "bread and butter" of any mid-level history course. What sets this course apart is its focus on historical demography and its explicit training of the students in methods of quantitative historical analysis. I chose to pursue this line of teaching because it builds on my own work in population history, the history of the family, and historical gerontology. I also have a treasure trove of primary sources that include unpublished early modern census-type material that is both engaging and challenging for students.


The students do a significant amount of self-assessment and peer-assessment in the course. I assign a lot of written work (ten assignments have some element that is assessed), and we discuss the material that I go over in lecture at the end of each class so that I can see what the students have been able to understand. In addition, I have an open-door policy for my students; many students take advantage of my office hours to ask questions or give me feedback on my lectures and assignments.


Syllabus (Microsoft Word 71kB Aug26 10)

Teaching Materials:

Power Point for first demography lecture (PowerPoint 2.3MB Aug26 10)
Second Demography lecture (PowerPoint 824kB Aug26 10)
Demography case studies (Microsoft Word 33kB Aug26 10)

References and Notes:

The readings for the class are listed in the attached syllabus. I also used several important works of historical demography in preparing the sections on quantitative history. In particular, E.A. Wrigley and Roger Schofields classic text The Population History of England, 1541-1871 (Cambridge, 1981), and works on late medieval demography by Zvi Razi, Martha Carlin and M.M. Postan all proved most helpful.