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The University of Southampton

HIST2091 Underworlds: A cultural history of urban nightlife in the 19th and 20th centuries

Module Overview

“On 13 December 1838, on a cold and rainy night, a man of athletic build, dressed in a shabby jacket, crossed the Pont au Change and penetrated into the Cité […]. That night the wind was blowing violently through the alleyways of this dismal neighbourhood.” The opening scene of Eugène Sue’s 1842/43 novel ‘Les Mystères de Paris’ gives an urban topographic image to the idea that beyond and below the modern and illuminated city there is a ‘dark side’, an ‘underworld’: full of danger and temptation, and in need of being penetrated by the forces of order and light. Taking this text as a starting point you will explore the various facets of the 19th century urban underworld. Using documentary sources produced by journalists, scientists, missionaries, and policemen you will investigate and analyse a secret world of mysteries, populated by gangsters and prostitutes, drunkards and runaways, and maybe by ghosts.

Aims and Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • Be familiar with class and gender relations in the modernizing city
  • Have an understanding of cultural practices related to urban nightlife
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • analyse a wide variety of primary sources and think critically about the production of sources
  • identify and interpret secondary sources and the intellectual positions from which they were written
  • critically approach concepts such as ‘underworld’ or ‘nether world’
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • find and analyse primary source materials and integrate them in your written work
  • develop your time management skills
  • develop your communication skills and present and discuss your findings and ideas in class
  • Have greater knowledge of the social processes of urbanisation and their reflection in literature and art
Subject Specific Practical Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • identify and interpret different historiographical approaches
  • produce essays relevant to the topic by using both primary and secondary sources


This module will trace the idea – between fact and fiction – of the ‘underworld’ in modern cities from the mid-19th century until today and reconstruct, based on primary sources, a cultural history of urban nightly activities and the specific ‘attraction of repulsion’ they evoke. In addition to lectures and seminars providing introductory sessions, essay tutorials and revision classes, topics likely to be covered include: - Edgar Allen Poe, Eugène Sue, and the discovery of urban mysteries - The development of artificial illumination - ‘La déambulance nocturne’: Pleasures of the nightwalk - ‘Les classes dangereuses’: Who inhabits the urban night? - Homelessness: ‘People of the Abyss’ - A moral challenge: Prostitution - Going underground: detectives and missionaries - Working underground: a history of tubes and sewers - ‘Le ventre de Paris’: Les Halles and nightly consumption - Urban legends about nightlife - Hiding places: nightlife as escape - Images of the early morning

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include:  mini lectures and seminars  short presentations by students  detailed examination, analysis and discussion of sources  group discussions including feedback from the tutor The mini lectures will provide you with a general overview and understanding of chronology, sources and key concepts. This will be consolidated through readings and seminar discussions of primary and secondary sources. Presentations and subsequent group discussion in seminars will help you to develop your own ideas about topics, to analyse a range of source material and to articulate a critical argument. Learning activities include:  preparatory reading, individual research and study prior to each class  preparing and delivering short presentations relating to specific aspects of the module  studying primary sources, including textual, visual and material evidence  participation in group and class discussion In this module, learning and teaching activities focus on helping you to explore and investigate the ideas and themes outlined above. Throughout the module you will also engage in directed and self-directed study, for example through pre-seminar reading and through library research. The presentations (by you and your fellow students) and your reading will provide you with a broad overview of the secondary literature, using the bibliography provided at the start of the module. The discussion generated by these presentations will provide you with the opportunity to explore the relevant major historical debates on a weekly basis. In addition, you will study in depth a range of primary written and visual sources, as well as surviving material culture. These sessions will allow you to prepare for the assessment exercises. Feedback on your progress and development will be given via seminars and group discussions. Responses from tutor and your fellow students to your presentation will also give you formative feedback.

Completion of assessment task20
Follow-up work45
Preparation for scheduled sessions45
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

Eugène Sue (1846). The Mysteries of Paris. 

Josh Allan Friedman (2007). Tales of Times Square. 

Timothy J. Gilfoyle (1992). City of Eros. New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920. 

Steve Humphries (1988). A Secret World of Sex. Fordbidden Fruit: The British Experience 1900-1950. 

Lynda Nead (2000). Victorian Babylon. People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London. 

Mel Gordon (2000). Voluptious Panic. The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin. 

Joachim Schlör (1998). Nights in the Big City. Paris, Berlin, London 1840-1930. 



MethodPercentage contribution
Essay 50%
Written assignment 50%


MethodPercentage contribution
Resubmit assessments 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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