Selfhood in History: 1500 to the present

(Class leaders: Lyndal Roper, John-Paul Ghobrial, Selina Todd, Ruth Harris, and Nick Stargardt)


How have people understood the self in the past? How have they conceptualized emotions? Is there a self before 1700? How do different cultures conceive of the self and how do they understand spirituality? What is the relation between the individual self and the collective? This course seeks to understand ways of approaching the self and psychology in different times and places. It also seeks to explore ways of incorporating subjectivity and emotions of people in the past in how we write history; and to question the sociological, collective categories of analysis that historians often employ. Each session will take a particular example of a cultural context and explore how historians could write the history of subjectivity. The sessions will draw on different types of source material – diaries, letters, visual sources, material objects, travel writing, memoirs, court records, micro-historical material, oral history – and consider the problems and possibilities they offer. Four of the sessions will be on the early modern period; four will be on the modern period; however, in their assessed essay, students may concentrate on either the early modern or the modern period. The course deliberately bridges the early modern and the modern because the historiography itself does. This enables productive comparisons.

Assessment will be by one essay of between 6,500 and 7,500 words. The essay  may EITHER be based on secondary material and involve consideration of the historiography OR it could be a study (informed by issues of theory and method raised by the course) of some primary material, printed or otherwise.


Four of the five teachers listed would offer sessions in any one year. Each would offer 2 sessions running for 2 hours.

1. Psychology and the Seven Deadly Sins: medals, personifications of emotions, 7 deadly sins, emblem books and the material culture of emotions (LR)
2. Friends and enemies: Luther’s letters (LR)
3. Is there a self before the nineteenth century?: Inscriptions, marginalia, colophons as sources for the self in the Ottoman World (JPG)
4. Travellers between cultures: Arab strangers in Europe (JPG) OR
5. Microhistory as a source for the self (JPG)
6. East-West religious revival: diaries, religion and the self between Europe and  South Asia (RH)
7. Religion and moral re-armament in South Asia: the ‘self’, nationalism and the anti-imperial struggle (RH)
8. Feminists writing themselves into history: (ST)
9. The mid twentieth-century self (ST)
10. The holocaust and the self (I) (NS)
11. The holocaust and the self (II) (NS)
12. OR War and the Self in the Twentieth Century (NS)

Preparatory reading                                                              Bibliography