David Wootton
Anniversary Professor of History



MA, PhD (Cantab), FRHistS

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History. He works on the intellectual and cultural history of the English speaking countries, Italy, and France, 1500-1800. He is currently writing a book entitled Power, Pleasure and Profit based on his Carlyle Lectures at the University of Oxford in 2014.  His most recent book is The Invention of Science, published by Allen Lane.

In 2016 he will give the annual Besterman Lecture at the University of Oxford.

He was educated at Oxford and Cambridge, and has held positions in history and politics at four British and four Canadian universities, and visiting postions in the US, before coming to York.


David Wootton, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies (Yale University Press, 2010)     




David Wootton has published widely on the intellectual and cultural history of England, France and Italy in the period 1500-1800.

From 1983 onwards he published on a series of topics relating to the history of early modern unbelief, initially provoked by the work - denying the existence of 16th century atheism - of Lucien Febvre. The first publication in this series is his book on Paolo Sarpi, the first book to show how a pre-Enlightenment unbeliever might live the life of a public intellectual; this is a subject to which he has returned in his book on Galileo.

From 1986 he developed a second line of research, on early modern political theory, engaging with the work of Quentin Skinner. This series of publications begins with Divine Right and Democracy and continues through to his long essay "From Fortune to Feedback" (2006), on the origins of the American Constitution. This argues that eighteenth century constitutional theory cannot be understood until one comprehends the role played by metaphors of machinery, such as 'checks and balances'.

From 1992, beginning with his second essay on the Levellers, his work developed an increasingly interdisciplinary character, in response to the work of Stephen Greenblatt. Where Greenblatt had argued that radicalism in Shakespeare's day was always contained and controlled, David Wootton's analysis of the Levellers provides a striking example of a genuine egalitarianism. His most recent work in this field is a volume, jointly edited with Graham Holderness, on shrew plays in the Renaissance.

Most recently, beginning with Bad Medicine (2006), he has taken up topics from the history of science, topics which raise questions of rationality and relativism that are classically expressed in the philosophy of science of Thomas Kuhn. Bad Medicine is the first history of medicine to acknowledge that for more than two thousand years medicine was, like astrology, a fantasy technology.

At the heart of these four lines of enquiry there is a continuing engagement with the intellectual origins of modernity, and a post-Foucauldian defense of the Enlightenment project.

See also: www.inventionofscience.com

Resources available for research students at York

Research students working at York on English-language sources for the period 1475 to 1800 have access to the best sources in the world: Early English Books On-Line and Eighteenth Century Collections On-Line. This means they can read and search virtually every book published in English in this period. Students working on French and Italian sources are in a less enviable position: the York library provides a good collection, but for most topics they will need to spend research time either abroad, or at a major ancient collection (the British Library, Oxford, Cambridge). The library has a sound collection of modern secondary literature in print, and provides excellent access to on-line periodical collections. The Borthwick Institute for Archives has rich holdings including an extensive collection of ecclesiastical court material and some letter collections.

York has a major commitment to interdisciplinary research in early modern history. The Renaissance and Early Modern Studies Centre and The Eighteenth Century Studies Centre are part of the new Humanities Research Centre. There is a lively research culture and frequent seminars and conferences.


David Wootton welcomes research students on almost any aspect of intellectual (including history of political thought), cultural, and literary history in the period 1500-1800, providing the sources are in English, French, Italian, or Latin.


Selected publications

Most Recent Books

  • The Invention of Science (London: Allen Lane, 2015) pp. 784
  • Galileo: Watcher of the Skies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010) pp. 354
  • Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) pp. 320.

Most Recent Edited Books

  • [with Graham Holderness] Gender and Power in Shrew-Taming Narratives, 1500-1700 (London: Palgrave, 2010), pp. 256
  • Christopher Marlowe et al., Doctor Faustus and the English Faust Book, edited and introduced (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2005) pp. 192.

Most Recent Chapters in Books

  • “Galileo's Failures” in Causation and Modern Philosophy, ed. Keith Allen and Tom Stoneham (London: Routledge, 2011), pp. 13-30
  • "From Fortune to Feedback: Contingency and the Birth of Modern Political Science," in Political Contingency: Studying the Unexpected, the Accidental, and the Unforeseen, ed. I. Shapiro and S.Bedi (New York: New York University Press, 2007) pp. 21-53

Most Recent Articles

  • “Accuracy and Galileo: A Case Study in Quantification and the Scientific Revolution.” Journal of the Historical Society 10 (2010): 43-55.
  • “New Light on the Composition and Publication of the Sidereus Nuncius.” Galilæana 6 (2009): 61-78.
  • “Deities, Deviles and Dams: Elizabeth I, Dover Harbour and the Family of Love”, Proceedings of the British Academy 162 (2009): 93-122

Most Recent Review

  • A History of the World in Twelve Maps - Jerry Brotton. Times Literary Supplement, 12 October 2012

Most Recent Public Lectures 

  • The Carlyle Lectures, University of Oxford, spring 2014

To download a full list of David Wootton's publications, click here.

External activities


  • Council of the Royal Historical Society (2012-14)

Media coverage

Most Recent Radio Programme

  • “Machiavelli: Devil or Democrat?”, Jonathan Freedland, BBC Radio 4, 18 November 2013
  • Several appearances on Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time, Radio 4

Contact details

Prof. David Wootton
Vanbrugh College V/135
Department of History
University of York
YO10 5DD

Tel: Internal 2973, External (01904) 322973, Mob 07791596713