Studying a paper dated pre-18th century is what I dreaded the most. Having avoided the medieval and early modern period ‘like the plague’ as best I could in my first year, my tutor advised that in order to meet my geographical and date requirements going into my finals, I needed to take an early modern BIF paper. As an aside, it is really important that you liaise with your personal tutors about these requirements – you don’t want to find yourself going into the exam having not met the objectives that the History Faculty have outlined!
I chose BIF Paper 4 (1500-1700), which I had prematurely conceded would be my worst paper: interest in high courts, parliamentary structure and negotiations, and the monarchy has never come naturally to me, having only studied modern history throughout the whole of my school career. Although I virtually had no knowledge of this period, I did in fact thoroughly enjoy aspects and themes that were drawn out in my tutorials after I had gotten over the initial jargon ‘shock’!
Firstly, if you are like me and have not had much exposure or understanding of the structure of society of early modern Britain, the reading lists are demoralising to begin with. The material does take a lot of resilience (and yawns) to get through as you try to navigate the politics of the ‘Privy Chamber’, understand ‘supply and redress’ policy, read through old-English primary sources, and understand the power struggle that existed between monarchy and parliament – a novel concept to me because of my naive contemporary understanding of the British monarchy today! The reading lists are often long and the books heavy and daunting, but once I passed the first couple of weekly essays, I found that I was more immersed in the Tudors and Stuarts! To aid you through the early stages of this topic, I highly recommend “A Very Short Introduction” series, on ‘Stuart Britain’ for example, which gives broad outlines of the chronology and concepts of early modern Britain.
I found that this period covered a lot of ground I had a real zest for in my studies of modern European and World history, with themes such as religion, gender, masculinity, and social tensions taking the foreground of my essays. For example, I was surprised that studying Witchcraft drew on various social issues, such as the prevalence of superstition in a highly religiously dichotomised society, ideas of femininity and the status of women, as well as the legal system and the notion of community. Bringing in topics which I was familiar with in my other areas of study really helped bring this paper to life! Finally, I believe that this is an excellent paper to take as your BIF paper as it is a portfolio examined paper. This gives you more of an opportunity to write in greater depth, in terms of closer engagement with specific issues in the period, and allows you to engage with primary sources and historiography to a greater degree than in a timed-exam assessment (a lot happens over two hundred years – countless monarchs and wars, as well as difficult vernacular to remember – so having an open-book exam will work to your advantage to check the facts!
What I do find incredibly disappointing about this paper is its insufficient geographical coverage of the British Isles. I found very little engagement in the books on my reading list regarding regionality: the majority of my reading was focussed on South-East England, notably London. Studying the Restoration was interesting, as it drew distinctions between groups such as the difference between religious identity in rural in contrast to urban regions which also drew on economic issues and poor living conditions, but I really found it difficult to consistently make regional distinctions in my essays and tutorials.
The History Faculty also have totally neglected Wales in Paper 4. Past paper portfolio questions have had at least one question dedicated to Scotland and Ireland, but have never asked one specifically on Wales. Being from Wales myself, it is really disheartening to know that the Faculty deems Welsh history to be less important than other countries of the British Isles, highlighting an ingrained Southern English bias, but also does not align with their own geographical coverage requirements.
Focus on an English-centric narrative, with what comes across as an ‘added on’ history of Scotland and Ireland in this period, detracts from the transformative social, religious and landscape impacts in Wales. For example, the Reformation represented a milestone in the dwindling fight for Welsh independence and the stark English presence in Wales because she became more attached to the English crown. A competent, well-rounded analysis of the British Isles is therefore lost. Although I enjoyed elements in this paper which were drawn out in tutorial discussions, I feel let down by the Faculty its lack of Welsh and regional representation in Paper 4.
For more on Oxford’s approach to British history, click here.