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Francis Bacon: Myth, Magic & Morals - Semester 1 - HIS00211H

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

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 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 Wisdom of the Ancients. Is it an entertaining literary exercise, an engagement with humanist thought, or something far more substantial and subversive—namely, the deft concealment of dangerous secrets pertaining to nature, politics, and religion? By reading 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 environmental crisis.

Related modules

Students taking this module must also take the second part in Semester 2.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2024-25

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

Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1 and a 3-hour seminar in weeks 2-4, 6-8 and 10-11 of semester 1. Weeks 5 & 9 are Reading and Writing Weeks (RAW). Students prepare for and participate in eight three-hour seminars in all.

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’


Task Length % of module mark
Portfolio : Text Commentaries and Essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

For formative work, students will produce a text commentary.

The summative assessment will consist of two parts, to be submitted together:
a) Two text commentaries of 500-750 words; and
b) One 1,500-word essay.

The commentaries comprise 50% and the essay 50% of the overall mark for this module. Summative assessments will be due in the assessment period.


Task Length % of module mark
Portfolio : Text Commentaries and Essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Following their formative task, students will typically 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 formative work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For summative assessment tasks, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 25 working days of the submission deadline. 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 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:

  • J. Henry, Knowledge is Power (Cambridge: Icon Books, 2002).
  • D.C. Innes, Francis Bacon (New Jersey: R&R Publishing, 2019).
  • M. Peltonen (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Bacon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

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.