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Francis Bacon: Myth, Magic & Morals - HIS00081H

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Sophie Weeks
  • Credit value: 40 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22

Module summary

In recent decades there has been a resurgence of interest in the philosopher-statesman Francis Bacon (1561-1626), and he continues to be revered and reviled in equal measure. In this module we read Bacon's The Wisdom of the Ancients (1609) alongside other primary and secondary literature. This work, which proved extremely popular in the seventeenth century, comprises Bacon's interpretation of thirty-one classical myths, including Dionysus, Prometheus and Orpheus. In his explanation of the myths, Bacon deals with all the major components of his vast project of reform: nature, magic, ethics, politics, and religion. As such, it is an invaluable resource for getting to grips with Bacon's project as a whole, and has been described by one historian as ‘unquestionably one of the most significant contributions to philosophy in the history of English thought.’ Yet scholars remain divided over the meaning and significance of The Wisdom of the Ancients. Is it an entertaining literary exercise, an engagement with humanist thought, or something far more substantial—namely, the deft concealment of secrets pertaining to nature, politics, and religion? By reading The Wisdom of the Ancients alongside sections of other Baconian texts such as the New Atlantis, we will analyze Bacon's interpretations of the myths and explore their significance in the larger context of his visionary project to reform nature and society. In so doing, we will consider whether Bacon set us on the road to modernity and debate his contribution to the current technological and environmental crisis.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Autumn Term 2021-22 to Spring Term 2021-22

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To introduce students to in depth study of a specific historical topic using primary and secondary material;
  • To enable students to explore the topic through discussion and writing; and
  • To enable students to evaluate and analyse primary sources.

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Grasp key themes, issues and debates relevant to the topic being studied;
  • Have acquired knowledge and understanding about that topic;
  • Be able to comment on and analyse original sources;
  • Be able to relate the primary and secondary material to one another; and
  • Have acquired skills and confidence in close reading and discussion of texts and debates.

Module content

Teaching Programme:

Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1 of the autumn term, and a 3-hour seminar in weeks 2-5 and 7-9 of the autumn term and weeks 2-5 and 7-10 of the spring term. Both the autumn and spring terms include a reading week for final year students and so there will be no teaching in week 6. Students prepare for and participate in fifteen three-hour seminars. One-to-one meetings will also be held to discuss the assessed essay.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

1.        The Baconian project

2.        Reading Bacon

3.        Introducing The Wisdom of the Ancients

4.        A slippery character: ‘Proteus, or Matter’

5.        The ‘torture’ of nature?

6.        From chaos to cosmos: ‘Cupid, or the Atom’ and ‘Coelum, or the Origin of Things’

7.        The promise and perils of invention: ‘Daedalus, or The Mechanic’ and ‘Atalanta, or Profit’

8.        The quest for immortality: ‘Deucalion, or Restoration’ and ‘Proserpina, or Spirit’

9.        A complex beast: ‘Sphinx, or Science’

10.      The unity of the sciences: ‘Orpheus, or Philosophy’

11.      A Holy War? ‘Perseus, or War’ and ‘Diomedes, or Religious Zeal’

12.      Resisting temptation: ‘Dionysus, or Desire’ and ‘The Sirens, or Pleasure’

13.      Science and religion: ‘Actaeon and Pentheus, or Curiosity’

14.      Technological providence: ‘Prometheus, or the State of Man’

15.      The reception of The Wisdom of the Ancients


Task Length % of module mark
4000 Word Essay
N/A 50
Online Exam
Online Exam
8 hours 50

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

For formative assessment, students will be given the opportunity to do practice gobbets and then required to write a 2,000-word procedural essay relating to the themes and issues of the module in either the autumn or spring term.


For summative assessment, students complete a 4,000-word essay which utilises an analysis of primary source materials to explore a theme or topic relating to the module, due in week 5 of the summer term.


They then take a three-hour closed examination for summative assessment in the summer term assessment period comprising: one essay question relating to themes and issues, but showing an awareness of the pertinent sources that underpin these AND one ‘gobbet’ question (where students attempt two gobbets from a slate of eight).


The essay and exam are weighted equally at 50% each.


Task Length % of module mark
4000 Word Essay
N/A 50
Online Exam
Online Exam
8 hours 50

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive written feedback that will include comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission.

Work will be returned to students in their seminars and may be supplemented by the tutor giving some oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their procedural work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline unless submitted in week 5 of the summer term, in which case these are available within 25 working days. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

Henry, J. Knowledge is Power. Cambridge: Icon Books, 2002.

Peltonen, M (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Bacon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Rossi, P. Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science, trans. S. Rabinovitch. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968.

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.