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Beauty - HIS00139H

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Elizabeth Spencer
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2024-25
    • See module specification for other years: 2023-24

Module summary

Beauty - what is it? Who, or what, possesses it? Who defines it? Every society attempts to describe beauty and every society has different criteria which are elevated as constituting the beautiful. Beauty is culturally constructed and changes through time and place. By investigating the ideals of beauty this course therefore compares the systems of power and social concerns which predominated in many different societies. From ancient philosophers to profit-making plastic surgeons, what are the motivations of commentators who describe the beautiful in their age? The perceived locations of beauty are intriguingly varied. For example, some have argued that battles and warfare are scenes of beauty, whilst for others war is grotesque and peace was where beauty flourished. We find that in certain societies beauty is directly linked to human nature, sometimes inherent in woman but not in man, or manifest in the youthful but not in the aged.

Over time beauty has been defined as a quality endowed by Gods or by nature, and also as a quality that might be man-made. Within competing discourses over what comprises the beautiful we find that aesthetic theory, moral philosophy, and political ideals collide. In this course we will aim to define what past societies often claim to have been indefinable. Beauty, it has been said, is in the eye of the beholder. But, as historians, we will ask, who has been the beholder and what have they seen?

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2024-25

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To introduce students to the practice of comparative history;
  • To enable students to acquire skills and understanding of that practice by studying a particular topic or theme; and
  • To enable students to reflect on the possibilities and difficulties involved in comparative history

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Grasp the key approaches and challenges involved in comparative history;
  • Understand a range of aspects of the topic or theme which they have studied;
  • Be able to use and evaluate comparative approaches to that topic or theme; and
  • Have learned to discuss and write about comparative history

Module content

Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1, then a 1-hour workshop and a 2-hour seminar in each of weeks 2-4, 6-8 and 10-11 of the semester. Weeks 5 & 9 are Reading and Writing Weeks (RAW). Students prepare for and participate in eight 1-hour workshops and eight 2-hour seminars in all.

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

  1. Introduction: Defining and comparing beauty
  2. Philosophies of beauty
  3. Decolonising beauty
  4. Beauty and race
  5. Beauty, gender, and sexuality
  6. Beauty and the body
  7. Beauty and the face
  8. Beauty in beautiful things


Task Length % of module mark
Online Exam -less than 24hrs (Centrally scheduled)
Open Exam - Beauty
5 hours 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

For formative assessment work, students will produce an essay plan relating to the themes and issues of the module.

For summative assessment students will complete an Open Exam in the assessment period.


Task Length % of module mark
Online Exam -less than 24hrs (Centrally scheduled)
Open Exam - Beauty
5 hours 100

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive written feedback, which may be supplemented by the tutor giving some oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss their feedback 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 25 working days of the submission. For semester 1 assessments, the tutor will be available during student hours of the following semester for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For semester 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:

  • Bell Hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (London: Routledge, 2015 [1992]).
  • Peg Zeglin Brand, Beauty Matters (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).
  • Edith Snook, Women, Beauty and Power in Early Modern England. A Feminist Literary History (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

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.