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Early Modern Theories of Everything - ENG00010M

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  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Kevin Killeen
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22
    • See module specification for other years: 2023-24

Module summary

This course will explore the parameters of knowledge in the Renaissance and the ways in which the era grappled with and rejected systems of knowledge inherited from antiquity and the medieval era. We will look at early modern attempts to theorise the relations between different disciplines - the sciences, humanities and theology - and how this fed into the literature of the era. In particular, the course will pay detailed attention to Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), thinking about the shape and scope of knowledge in the epic: diabolic and Adamic conceptions of the world, Satanic rhetoric and Eve, the angelic narrations of Raphael and the incommunicable nature of everything he says. Thinking out from the classical and patristic pillars of Renaissance thought, including Plato, Augustine, Aristotle, Lucretius and Pliny, the course will look at some of the monuments of early modern knowledge theory, and its ideas of the encyclopaedic. Texts will include (in full or extract): Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620), Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) and Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646). You will be asked to think about the scope and permeability of early modern categories of knowledge and literary responses to the era’s natural philosophy, including, for example, the marvellous and bizarre scientific poetry of Phineas Fletcher's The Purple Island (1633), Margaret Cavendish’s Poems, natural philosophy and animal theory, creation in Lucy Hutchinson's works and John Donne’s Anniversaries, on the decay, theological and anatomical, of the world.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Spring Term 2021-22

Module aims

The primary aim of this module is to think about knowledge and the disciplinary parameters of the Renaissance - how theology related to science, how politics was implicated in religion or how humanist scholarship absorbed the classics. We will aim to develop a historicized understanding of these questions, looking at how literary and philosophical texts arrange their ideas. The module will enable you to think about the constructed and artificial antagonisms between 'science and religion' and to think through these questions in relation to some of the literature of the period, by Donne, Browne, Cavendish and others. You will also have the chance to engage, in detail, in the era's greatest piece of literature, John Milton's Paradise Lost, to encounter and be baffled by its unfathomably vast scope. 

Module learning outcomes

On completion of the module, you should be able to:
1. Show an advanced understanding of early modern thought and the relations between different disciplines, how theology and science, or literature and philosophy, were intertwined.
2. Engage with the intellectual history that underlies some of the era's literature - Donne, Browne, Cavendish and others.
3. Demonstrate an extensive understanding of Paradise Lost and the intellectual history that underlies the epic. 
4. Produce independent arguments and ideas which demonstrate an advanced proficiency in critical thinking, research, and writing skills.


Task Length % of module mark
4,500 word essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
4,500 word essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

You will receive feedback on all assessed work within the University deadline, and will often receive it more quickly. The purpose of feedback is to inform your future work; it is designed to help you to improve your work, and the Department also offers you help in learning from your feedback. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further you can discuss it with your module tutor, the MA Convenor or your supervisor, during their Open Office Hours  

Indicative reading

John Milton, Paradise Lost (ed. Alistair Fowler, Longman edition – this is by far the best, with brilliant notes)
Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy ed. William H. Gass (New York: NYRB Books, 2001) 
Thomas Browne, 21st Century Authors, ed. Kevin Killeen (OUP, paperback, 2018). 
Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, trans. Ronald Melville (Oxford, 1997), or another edition 
John Donne, Anniversaries (Oxford Scholarly Editions Online)
Margaret Cavendish, Poems and Fancies (EEBO)
Phineas Fletcher, The Purple Island (EEBO)

Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 
Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (Routledge, 2001)

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.