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The History of Freedom in Early Modern Europe (1348–1648)

The History of Freedom in Early Modern Europe (1348–1648)
by Jim Coons

Jim Coons is an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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DOI: 10.5040/9781474209465.003

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“Freedom” in the modern world often appears as an absolute, self-evident ideal—in many ways individual liberty defines modernity itself. The lessons outlined below are designed to encourage an historical understanding of liberty across the period of the Renaissance and Reformation (roughly, the fourteenth- through early seventeenth centuries). At the beginning of the fourteenth century, Dante Alighieri asserted that “freedom” is the capacity to master one’s passions—in other words, to not follow one’s desires. By the Age of Enlightenment, Diderot’s Encyclopédie more recognizably claimed that by virtue of their natural liberty, “all men take from nature itself the power to do what seems to them to be good, and to use their efforts and goods as they see fit.” But how did this striking reversal—redefining “freedom” from self-restraint to self-determination—evolve in the intervening centuries? In particular, how did the eras of Renaissance and Reformation inform conceptions of such a basic concept as freedom? This set of lessons will frame an interrogation of eight key issues—individualism, education, self-presentation, sex, gender, faith, law, and popular culture—that shaped “freedom” during the early modern era. Students will ask what “freedom” meant in a bygone era and what changes occurred that began to push its evolution to more recognizable forms. Above all, they will begin to consider the ways in which “freedom” in historical as well as contemporary society is a contingent and culturally constructed concept and how the factors that influenced changes in the past might still or again do so.

Unit Outline

This eight-lesson unit is intended for upper-level undergraduates. It may function as a self-contained presentation in a quarter (with some room for individualization) or as an intensive half-semester course; alternatively, it could be blended with a survey of the early modern era, pairing each topic with a general introduction to relevant issues.

The lessons are roughly chronological and successively build from micro- to macro-level issues, linking and recalling prior lessons at each step. In this progression, students should build a multivalenced appreciation of the factors that defined “freedom” in the early modern period.

Learning objectives

Upon completion of this unit, students will be able to:

  • Understand some of the key terms and issues that influenced ideas and practices of liberty.

  • Appreciate the role of historical contingency in shaping cultural and social structures.

  • Consider how experiences vary according to social status, gender and sex, or other categories of difference.

  • Analyze historical texts for their overt and implicit meanings, and interpret their use of concepts that differ from modern analogues.

  • Engage and critique the arguments of historians and scholars.

  • Synthesize multiple primary and secondary sources in an argumentative essay.

*All “short” essays are at the discretion of the instructor—prompts are designed to elicit responses of 500 words, though greater depth could easily be required, with or without adjusting the prompt. Suggested prompts mix analytical, reflective, and perspective-taking exercises in order to encourage skills specific to historical analysis and more broadly humanistic learning goals.

Lesson 1

Selfhood and Individualism

Texts to be read before the lesson

Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (any edition), Part II (all), Part IV (chs. 4–5).

Petrarch, Francesco. The Secret Book [sometimes The Secret] (any edition); useful, brief excerpt, in case assigning the complete work is not feasible: http://www2.idehist.uu.se/distans/ilmh/Ren/ren-pet-secretum.htm.

Healy, Margaret. 2010. “Fashioning Civil Bodies and ‘Others’: Cultural Representations.” In A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Renaissance, edited by Linda Kalof and William Bynum, 205–226. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350049741-ch-009?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory .

Discussion questions

  • What might have propelled the development of a new sense of individuality in the fourteenth century?

  • What would it mean to think of oneself less individualistically? Try to list examples, in history or in the contemporary world, of instances when groups or communities were more prominent in self-conceptions. What might that mean or what effects might that conception provoke?

  • How did conceptions of the body change in the Renaissance? How are ideas about a person’s interior self and their physical self intertwined? What kinds of “Others” served as foils for understandings of the self, and why did it matter which “Others” were chosen for comparison?


Write a short essay* considering one kind of “Other” that helped to inform the figures Burckhardt analyzes or one implied by Petrarch’s self-presentation in The Secret. How did distinguishing oneself from a figure seen as antithetical shape the sense of selfhood in that text?

Lesson 2


Texts to be read before the lesson

Erasmus, Desiderius. On the Education of Boys (any edition).

Vergerio, Pier Paolo. On Liberal Studies (any edition).

Bellavitis, Anna. 2010. “Education.” In A Cultural History of Childhood and Family in the Early Modern Age, edited by Sandra Cavallo and Silvia Evangelisti, 95–112. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350049659-ch-005?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory .

Discussion questions

  • What typifies a “Renaissance education,” based on these sources? Which features or ideas do the authors emphasize, and why might they highlight those?

  • Vergerio’s work defines the “liberal” studies or those appropriate to a “free” man, while Erasmus a century later deals more with self-control, restraint, and discipline. Are these simply two sides of the same coin? How are the agendas of these two humanist pedagogues similar or different in their aims and intents in terms of the student’s freedom?


In a short essay*, compare (and/or contrast) the archetypal student(s) the curricula of Vergerio and Erasmus would shape. What qualities do they impart? For what career or purpose does each seek to train its students? Could their programs apply equally to boys and girls—why or why not?

Lesson 3

The Self as a Work of Art

Texts to be read before the lesson

Castiglione, Baldassare. The Book of the Courtier (any edition), I:12–18; 24–53; II: 7–28.

Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Artists (any edition) Prefaces to Parts II & III; plus selection of artists (recommend assigning one artist of student’s choice from each of II and III).

Richardson, Catherine. 2017. “Status.” In A Cultural History of Dress and Fashion in the Renaissance, edited by Elizabeth Currie, 117–134. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474206419.ch-006?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory .

Rogers, Mary. 2010. “Beauty and Concepts of the Ideal.” In A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Renaissance, edited by Linda Kalof and William Bynum, 125–148. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350049741-ch-006?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory .

Discussion questions

  • What were the standards or ideals of beauty by which they judge? What word or phrase do you believe encapsulates the core idea of beauty for them?

  • What do they each believe is the point of beauty? Why does it matter, to the artist/performer or to the world at large, to create beauty or perform civilly?

  • Do these standards of beauty liberate or constrain the people who operate under them? Does beauty create opportunities for individualism and independence or fetter self-expression, imagination, or performance?


In a short essay*, write an “update” of either Vasari’s principles and framework for judging artistic merit or Castiglione’s rules of proper conduct for the digital age. What guidelines, cautions or prohibitions, or examples might you include?

Lesson 4

Women’s Roles: Domesticity and/or Liberty?

Texts to be read before the lesson

Siena, Bernardino da. “Two Sermons on Wives and Widows,” from Fordham Internet History Sourcebooks (or any other edition/source for these texts) https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/bernardino-2sermons.asp.

Strozzi, Macinghi and Alessandra. 1997. Selected Letters of Alessandra Strozzi, translated by Heather Gregory. Berkeley: University of California Press (selections at instructor’s discretion).

Cavallo, Sandra. 2010. “Family Relationships.” In A Cultural History of Childhood and Family in the Early Modern Age, edited by Sandra Cavallo and Silvia Evangelisti, 15–32. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350049659-ch-001?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory .

Clarke, Danielle. 2013. “Public and Private.” In A Cultural History of Women in the Renaissance, edited by Karen Raber, 115–142. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350048188-ch-005?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory .

Discussion questions

  • What, then, were the prevailing beliefs about women in the Renaissance, and how were they justified?

  • To what extent does Alessandra Strozzi seem to adhere to those norms? How might women use ideas or beliefs about their sex to their advantage? How could women find ways to achieve a measure of freedom in the midst of widespread prejudice?

  • More broadly, how did views of women fit, or not, with the ideas we’ve encountered about autonomy, education, or beauty?


In a short essay, imagine that Alessandra Strozzi has just attended these sermons by San Bernardino and composed a letter to the famous preacher in response. How do you think she would react to his message about women in this age?

Lesson 5

Gender, Power, and Political Theory

Texts to be read before the lesson

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince (any edition).

Hurlburt, Holly. 2013. “Power.” In A Cultural History of Women in the Renaissance, edited by Karen Raber, 163–182. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350048188-ch-007?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory .

Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel. 1999. Fortune Is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolò Machiavelli. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Introduction, Chapter 1.

Discussion questions

  • How was power gendered in this age? What traits or expectations of manliness or femininity came with its possession? From whom did such ideas flow, and how might they be enforced?

  • How did the particularities of power’s gendering affect its exercise? Were kings and/or queens freed or limited by these standards? Do you think subjects benefited, or believed they did, from the gendering of authority?


Write a “lost” chapter of The Prince, addressed to women leaders and rulers—what advice might Machiavelli offer to such Renaissance viragos? How might Machiavelli counsel such a person to maintain the “liberty” of her state?

Lesson 6

Faith and Belief

Texts to be read before the lesson

Ignatius of Loyola. Spiritual Exercises (any edition).

Luther, Martin. The Freedom of a Christian (any edition).

Evangelisti, Silvia. 2010. “Faith and Religion.” In A Cultural History of Childhood and Family in the Early Modern Age, edited by Sandra Cavallo and Silvia Evangelisti, 153–170. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350049659-ch-008?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory .

Milner, Matthew. 2014. “The Senses in Religion: Towards the Reformation of the Senses.” In A Cultural History of the Senses in the Renaissance, edited by Herman Roodenburg, 87–106. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474233217.ch-004?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory .

Discussion questions

  • How did ideas about the practice of religion encourage or hinder individuals’ liberty in the era of the Reformation? How did this differ with Roman or Reformed faith?

  • How did disciplining perception and feeling affect the practice of religion? How did it reflect the beliefs of Roman and Reformed faiths?


Write a short essay* analyzing the ways in which Luther’s theology uses or references the senses and/or how Ignatius’ religious “boot camp” functions to promote Roman theological principles. How did Luther’s “freedom” play out in a tangible world; how did Ignatius’ sensory regimen engage with its adherents’ freewill?

Lesson 7

Law and Politics

Texts to be read before the lesson

Richelieu, Armand-Jean du Plessis (Cardinal de). Political Testament (any edition) Book I, Chapter 3.

Grotius, Hugo. The Law of War and Peace (any edition—recommend https://oll.libertyfund.org/people/hugo-grotius ) Book I: Preliminary Discourse and Table of Contents (plus other selections at instructor’s discretion).

Nye, Robert A. 2014. “How the Duel of Honour Promoted Civility and Attenuated Violence in Western Europe.” In Honour, Violence and Emotions in History, edited by Carolyn Strange, Robert Cribb, and Christopher E. Forth, 183–202. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474210751.ch-010?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory .

Bryant, Michael. 2016. “Making Law in the Slaughterhouse of the World: Early Modernity and the Law of War.” In A World History of War Crimes: From Antiquity to the Present, 71–106. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474219129.ch-003?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory .

Discussion questions

  • How did experiences of violence affect the course of state centralization, authority over subjects, and the growth of the state’s own ambition to exercise a monopoly of legitimate violence? How did war between states—especially in an era of religious conflict—serve to shape the principles by which they would interact?

  • To what extent are violence and freedom related? How did the growth of the state’s power to prevent or ameliorate strife promote, limit, or change subjects’ potential for autonomy, security, or liberty?


In reading Richelieu, Grotius, and the analyses by Nye and Bryant, it quickly becomes clear that not everyone believed peace or nonviolence was desirable. So why do you believe some people, groups, or institutions might have seen lessening or limiting violence as bad?

Lesson 8

Popular Culture

Texts to be read before the lesson

Rabelais, François. Gargantua (any edition).

Amussen, Susan D. and David E. Underdown. 2017. “Performing Inversion in Civic Pageantry and Charivari.” In Gender, Culture and Politics in England, 1560–1640: Turning the World Upside Down, 103–128. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350020702.ch-004?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory

Raber, Karen. 2010. “The Common Body: Renaissance Popular Beliefs.” In A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Renaissance, edited by Linda Kalof and William Bynum, 99–124. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350049741-ch-005?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory .

Discussion questions

  • What do you see as the hallmarks or major features of Renaissance popular culture?

  • How did Rabelais’ “carnivalesque” story, with its focus on the “lower bodily stratum,” suggest what liberties or limitations applied to the common people of the Renaissance? What moments or potential existed for liberty for those who normally or formally had very few?


Rabelais’ writings can often be obscure, confusing, or difficult to appreciate from the perspective of a modern reader whose sensibilities and sense of humor are very different from those of a sixteenth-century reader. In a short essay*, identify a passage, joke, or theme in Rabelais that you struggle to understand and propose an interpretation or analysis of it that helps it to make sense. (Also, if possible, rewrite this item in a form that would be more comprehensible to today’s audience.)

Assessment Options

For a final, summative assessment, students could identify a figure or event from the readings and assess its relationship to ideas of freedom using a combination of the frames of analysis covered over the unit. (Example: How did Luther’s reformation intersect with popular culture in the sixteenth century at the level of politics, theology, and individual self-concept?)

Further Reading

Dooley, Brendan. 2016. Angelica’s Book and the World of Reading in Late Renaissance Italy . London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474270342?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory .

Hitchcock, David. 2016. Vagrancy in English Culture and Society, 1650–1750. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474296212?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory .

Ilmakunnas, Johanna and Jon Stobart, eds. 2017. A Taste for Luxury in Early Modern Europe: Display, Acquisition and Boundaries . London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474258265?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory .

Articles in Bloomsbury Cultural History

Beattie, Cordelia. 2010. "Economy." In A Cultural History of Childhood and Family in the Early Modern Age, edited by Sandra Cavallo and Silvia Evangelisti, 49-68. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350049659-ch-003?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory.

Ben-Amos, Ilana Krausman. 2010. "Community." In A Cultural History of Childhood and Family in the Early Modern Age, edited by Sandra Cavallo and Silvia Evangelisti, 33-48. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350049659-ch-002?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory.

Cavallo, Sandra, and Silvia Evangelisti, eds. 2010. A Cultural History of Childhood and Family in the Early Modern Age . London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350049659?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory .

Davidson, N.S. 2011. “Sex, Religion, and the Law: Disciplining Desire.” In A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Renaissance, edited by Bette Talvacchia, 95-112. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350049710-ch-005?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory.

Stephens, Walter. 2011. “Sex, Popular Beliefs, and Culture: ‘In the Waie of Lecherie.’” In A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Renaissance, edited by Bette Talvacchia, 137-156. London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350049710-ch-007?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory.

Talvacchia, Bette, ed. 2011. A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Renaissance . London: Bloomsbury Academic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350049710?locatt=label:secondary_bloomsburyCulturalHistory.

Enrichment Material

Film—The Return of Martin Guerre (Vigne, 1982)