Curiosity, Empire and Science in Eighteenth-Century Europe


Lecturer Dr Sarah Easterby-Smith (St Katharine's Lodge, room 11)
Credits 60  
Availability Semester 1 and 2, 2019-2020
Class Hour 9.30 - 12.30


The world was shrinking in the eighteenth century. Global travel increased exponentially and European society and culture transformed in response. This course examines how Europeans engaged with the massive influx of exotic goods and outlandish information that arrived from their empires. Focussing primarily on France (but placing its history within comparative context), it asks how exotic objects and texts inspired individuals to learn. These strange and marvellous things piqued European curiosity and strongly influenced the development of the sciences. But the democratisation of learning also engendered heated debates among Enlightenment thinkers. The course offers an opportunity to better understand how trade, travel and the rise of curiosity influenced major transitions in the period: science, Enlightenment and empire, to name just a few.

Basic Reading
  • Daniel Roche, France in the Enlightenment, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass., 1998)
  • Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (New York, 2001)
  • Krzysztof Pomian, Collectors and Curiosities. Paris and Venice, 1500-1800, trans. Elizabeth Wiles-Portier (Cambridge and Oxford, 1990)
  • Michael R. Lynn, Popular Science and Public Opinion in Eighteenth-Century France (Manchester, 2006)
  • E.C. Spary, Utopia’s Garden. French Natural History from Old Regime to Revolution (Chicago, 2000)
  • N. Jardine, J.A. Secord and E.C. Spary (eds), Cultures of Natural History (Cambridge, 1996)



    Part I: France, Europe, Empire, c. 1650-1800

    1. Science and Enlightenment
    2. Empire and approaches to imperial history
    3. Material culture studies: Analytical frameworks

    Part II: Collecting and collectors

    1. Curiosity, wonder and collecting
    2. The birth of the museum
    4. Sports of nature: exotica and monsters
    5. Science and the state
    6. Selling science
    7. Connoisseurs and amateurs (I)
    8. Connoisseurs and amateurs (II)


    Part III: Empire, curiosity and narrative

    1. Travel, voyages and exploration
    2. Empires and information
    3. Networks and power
    4. Narratives of Empire (I): Texts
    5. Narratives of Empire (II): Images and objects
    6. Non-European knowledge
    7. Museum visit [TBC]
    8. Science and religion

    Part IV: Conclusions

    1. The rise of the disciplines, c. 1800
    2. Collections and the French Revolution
    3. Conclusions and revision


40% Exam (2x 2 hour exams)

60% Coursework 
2x 2,500 word essays (20% total)
1x 5,000 word essay (25%) 
3x 500 word document commentaries (9% total)
1x 800 word exhibition review (6%)



This is a reading-intensive course designed to stretch curious students, leading to the development of expertise in both depth and breadth of historical knowledge.

By the end of the module, students will be able to:

  1. Deploy a range of textual, visual and material sources as historical evidence
  2. Demonstrate the relationship between European curiosity and empire in the ‘long’ eighteenth century
  3. Relate the history of learning to that of the global circulation of objects
  4. Produce accounts of the history of enquiry that are socially nuanced and situated within a comparative geographical context

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