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The University of Southampton

HIST2215 The Age of Discovery? c.1350-c.1650

Module Overview

The Age of Discovery explores the maritime expansion of Europe from c.1350-c.1650 through the experiences of four European states: Portugal; Spain; England and the Netherlands. It therefore covers the transition of these states from medieval polities to Renaissance powers. The history of the Age of Discovery is a story of two halves. The first part (c.1350-c.1580) is told through the endeavours of the Portuguese and the Spanish. Here we encounter famous names such as Henry the Navigator and Christopher Columbus. This first phase saw the rapid enrichment of Spain and the end of great civilisations such as the Aztecs and Incas. The second phase (c.1580-c.1650) witnessed the growth of England and the Netherlands as maritime powers. England focused on North America and the Indian Ocean; the former as an area of colonisation and the latter as a place to trade. The Dutch initially concentrated on the Indian Ocean and in doing so competed with the Portuguese and the English in this area. The course begins by examining the reasons for European expansion and the tools and technology that permitted the ‘European Breakout’. Seminars will be supported by lectures and be based around discussions of primary and secondary sources. A study of contemporary works not only offers an opportunity to learn about the history of European maritime expansion over this period, but also provides encounters with people directly involved in all aspects of the Age of Discovery. Early Portuguese voyages along the West Africa coast and into the Indian Ocean will be examined through contemporary narrative accounts such as the writings of Gomes Eanes de Zuara and the anonymous author who described in vivid detail Vasco da Gama’s 1497-99 voyages to the Indian Ocean (A Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497–1499, ed. E.G. Ravenstein). The Spanish voyages and the impact these had on indigenous cultures can be explored through the writings of Columbus (Felipe Fernández-Armesto: Columbus on Himself), Bartolomé de las Casas (A Short Account of the Destruction of Indies) and Bernal Diaz del Castillo (The True History of the Conquest of New Spain). English maritime expansion is told through a series of texts collected by Richard Hakluyt (Principal Navigations), which include contemporary narratives of Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation in 1577 and Sir Martin Frobisher’s search for the Northwest Passage in 1578. The Dutch experience is partly told by Philippus Baldaeus and Dutch voyages to Asia can be explored through the use of an on-line database (Dutch-Asiatic Shipping in the 17th and 18th centuries).

Aims and Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

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

  • The causes, circumstances, and events of the Age of Discovery
  • Key primary sources (literary, documentary, archaeological) that permit and understanding of the topic
  • The role played by the four case study states in the story of the expansion of Europe
  • Different historiographical approaches, and their impact on our understanding of the Age of Discovery
  • The impact that the Age of Discovery had on indigenous peoples and Europe
  • Connections between maritime, economic, and social and cultural histories
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Organise and structure material to write clearly and confidently
  • Conduct research through print and digital resources including editions and translations of texts
  • Develop your own critical interpretation of primary sources and secondary literature
  • Develop skills in computer aided research
Cognitive Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Discuss the historical background of the Age of Discovery
  • Critically analyse primary sources relating to the Age of Discovery
  • Show yourself familiar with relevant historiography
  • Demonstrate awareness of scholarly trends and debates in the Age of Discovery
  • Develop and ability to use computer databases as a way to inform historical argument


Subjects which are likely to be covered as part of the module include: The Medieval ‘Inheritance’ and the reasons for European Expansion The Tools of Expansion: Ships, Navigation and Maps The Portuguese Early Voyages: Henry the Navigator, Bartholomew Dias and Vasco Da Gama The Portuguese trade ‘empire’ in Africa and Asia Christopher Columbus: Hero or Villain? The Spanish conquest and settlement of South America The Rise of England (1): The Development of Merchant Companies and the voyages of Drake and Frobisher The Rise of England (2): The Colonisation of America: Roanoke and James Town The Rise of the Dutch (1): The Dutch assault on the Portuguese ‘empire’ The Rise of the Dutch (2): The Story of the VOC The Impact of the Age of Discovery Wider Themes Shipping and Maritime Trade Early-Modern Naval Warfare Maritime Conflict in the New World Cartography and Navigation African Atlantic Americas Indian Ocean Health at Sea Shipboard Society and Culture

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Weekly lectures which provide knowledge and understanding of chronology, sources, and key concepts. Weekly seminars centred on the study of primary source material and secondary literature. Preparatory reading before each seminar; and participation in group and class discussion and debate. Independent reading and research of additional information relevant to the module. Self-study in preparation for the required assignments and revision for the final exam.

Follow-up work70
Wider reading or practice26
Preparation for scheduled sessions30
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

G.V. Scammell (1989). The First Imperial Age: European Overseas Expansion, c.1400-1715. 

J.R.S. Phillips (1998). The Medieval Expansion of Europe. 

C.R. Boxer (1965). The Dutch Seaborne Empire, 1600-1800. 

J. H. Parry (1966). The Spanish Seaborne Empire. 

R. Crowley (2016). Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire. 

C.R. Boxer (1969). The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415-1825. 

J.H. Parry (1949). Europe and the Wider World, 1415-1715. 

J.H. Parry (1963). The Age of Reconnaissance. 

D. Birmingham (2001). Trade and Empire in the Atlantic, 1400-1600. 



MethodPercentage contribution
Essay 50%
Source commentaries 50%


MethodPercentage contribution
Resubmit assessments 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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