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David Wootton
Emeritus Professor in 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 to 1800. He is currently writing a book on Voltaire.  His most recent book is Power, Pleasure, and Profit published by Harvard University Press. He has given the Carlyle and Besterman Lectures at Oxford, the Raleigh Lecture at the British Academy and the Benedict Lectures at Boston.

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





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:

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 Online and Eighteenth Century Collections Online. 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 online 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.

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

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