The Making of the Modern Mind

Manchester University, January 2017 (IDIV 240)    Instructors: Greg Clark & Steve Naragon





Course Objectives

In this course, we will investigate the wide-spread shift in Europe from a pre-modern (pre-16th century) to a modern world view (as it matured up through the 19th century), with a special focus on the rise of modern science as a way of understanding nature, and on the radical shift in how humans understand themselves and their relationship to this nature. 

Course readings will consist of brief essays and book chapters drawn from the sciences, philosophy, history, and literature. We will begin with a lively book by Ian Mortimer: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England. A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. (Simon and Schuster, 2011); originally published in 2008.

Some of the Topics to be Explored

The Copernican Revolution: Moving from a view of the universe that placed humans at the physical center (well, just a few floors up from the Pits of Hell) to a view of the universe where humans (on their earth) moved around the sun, and where the sun was just one of countless stars, moving in a centerless universe. [Two Revolutions] [Science, Old and New] [Galileo’s Telescope] [Hobbes on the Mechanical World]

The Gutenberg Revolution: The invention of the printing press and moveable type led to an explosive growth in the availability of the printed word, and with that the emergence of a “Reading Public.” [The Golden Age] [Spreading the Word] [Gutenberg’s Printing Press] [Silent Reading] [The Manuscript Culture]

“Man tends to regard the order he lives in as natural.

The houses he passes on his way to work seem more like rocks rising out of the earth than like products of human hands.  He considers the work he does in his office or factory as essential to the harmonious functioning of the world.  The clothes he wears are exactly what they should be, and he laughs at the idea that he might equally well be wearing a Roman toga or medieval armor.

He respects and envies a minister of state or a bank director, and regards the possession of a considerable amount of money as the main guarantee of peace and security.  He cannot believe that one day a rider may appear on a street he knows well, where cats sleep and children play, and start catching passersby with his lasso.

He is accustomed to satisfying those of his physiological needs which are considered private as discreetly as possible, without realizing that such a pattern of behavior is not common to all human societies.

In a word, he behaves a little like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, bustling about in a shack poised precariously on the edge of a cliff.”

— Czeslaw Milosz,
from The Captive Mind (1951)

The Universities and Public Education: Beginning in early 13th century Paris, the idea of the university spread across Europe.  By the early 18th century, the idea of public schools took shape, and with it the move toward a near-universal literacy. [The Rise of the Universities][Students and Masters]

The Family and the Home: The arrangement of family-life, childhood, and the home as a space in which these flourish, has not always existed.  Not until the 17th century do we find them in a common and recognizable form. [The Study] [The Chimney] [The Industrial Revolution: From Home to Factory]

The Modern Individual: The centrality of the individual human being is well captured by Descartes’ famous slogan: I think, therefore I am.  The first half of the 17th century saw the individual move to the center of our thinking about ourselves and society, perhaps culminating in the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” canonized at the end of the 18th century. [The Rights of Man and of the Citizen] [Man’s Place in Nature] [Kant on Enlightenment] [The Individual in Art] [Petrarch finds Eternity in the Individual] [Milton on Satanic Freedom] [Hobbes on the Atomistic Self] [Question Authority!]

The Public and the Private: The emergence of a newly affluent middle class led to the formation of a new public sphere in which, for the first time, private citizens took part in a conversation that had previously been confined to the aristocracy. [A New Meaning of Public] [The Bourgeois Public Sphere] [London Coffee-Houses] [Social Mixing at the Palais-Royale] [Pubs and Taverns] [From Church to Tavern] [Shopping as a Way of Life]

Technology and Industry: What technological innovations shaped the course of human life throughout the European medieval and early modern period?  Clocks and ploughs and waterwheels, shifts in transportation — these innovations marked significant changes in the way we ordered our daily lives. [The Chimney] [The Industrial Revolution: From Home to Factory] [Blake’s Jerusalem] [White on the Plow] [External links: Technology Timeline / Spinning the Web]

Religious Reformations: Seismic shifts in the way we understood ourselves with respect to the divine — how religious texts should be read, how we understood God and God’s role in the world, how “the order of creation” was understood — all of this underwent profound changes during the course of these few centuries. [Mythos and Logos] [Theological Origins of Modernity] [Mysticism and the Reformation] [God the Clockmaker] [From Church to Tavern]


By the end of this course, we all should be able to:

(1) articulate the general shifts from the pre-modern to the modern world in European culture, in particular:

(2) explain the emergence of modern science, and its principal features, and

(3) explain the shifts in our understanding of self and society.

In addition, we will be able to:

(4) articulate some of the cultural similarities and differences encountered during the course (Midwestern US vs British vs French — beyond the level of French fries vs chips vs pommes frites),

(5) recognize and discuss many of the landmarks of London and Paris, and

(6) easily navigate the streets and public transportation systems of these two world-class cities.


(1) Daily journals: This should be viewed as informal responses to prompts, as well as your initial responses to what you saw and experienced that day. This is where you should write down your thoughts on the various themes for the course, and from which you can draw when preparing your short essays at the end of the course. The professors will review these journals while traveling, as well as at the end of the term. [The travel journals will be supplied for you.]

(2) Daily Quizzes on activities and themes of the day, both while on campus and while exploring London and Paris.

(3) Short essays: You will need to write three essays (about 600-800 words each) on three of the themes or topics for the course listed above. You will want to take notes for these essays in your journal while in London and Paris and then write up the essays after you return home. These essays should incorporate information from the course readings as well as from what you experienced abroad.

(4) Cultural Markers: These involve a paragraph and photo of ten “Cultural Markers” — items of interest encountered in London and Paris and related to one of themes you are studying — reviewed while traveling (with a first draft entered into your journal), and completed after returning home.

(5) Participation: Absolutely crucial for this course to go well, and for you to benefit fully from it.  Be on time for meals and other group events and keep your eye on the rest of the group when we’re out in the city — crucial for group dynamics. Listen carefully, observe closely, and take lots of notes and photographs — crucial for learning all that you can from these two cities.

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