Course Guide - MA in Cultural and Intellectual History 1300 – 1650

About the degree

The Warburg Institute MA in Cultural and Intellectual History aims to equip students for interdisciplinary research in the late medieval and early modern period, with a particular emphasis on the reception of the classical tradition. The programme combines the study of images and texts, art history, philosophy, the history of science, European literature and the impact of religion on society. Language skills are key and during this twelve-month, full-time course, students will improve their knowledge of Latin, French and Italian and will acquire the library and archival skills essential for research on primary texts.

Although it is a qualification in its own right, the MA is also designed to provide training for further research at doctoral level. It is taught through classes and supervision by members of the academic staff of the Institute and by outside teachers. The teaching staff are leading academics in their field who have published widely and are involved in research related to the topics they teach. For further details on the research interests of teaching staff please visit our Research and Teaching page




Degree overview

The MA programme aims to:

Act as an introduction to interdisciplinary research in the cultural and intellectual history of Western Europe from the late Middle Ages to the early modern period, with particular attention on the legacy of classical antiquity.

Cover aspects of cultural and intellectual history seldom studied in any depth in undergraduate courses, for example Renaissance philosophy, iconology, humanism and history. The main emphasis is on Italy, but consideration is also given to the rest of Western Europe.

Provide students with a solid grounding in current scholarship in the areas covered, largely through the study of primary source material in the original languages.

Provide training in reading medieval and Renaissance languages, particularly Latin, Italian and French, in Latin and Italian palaeography, and in the description of manuscripts and early printed books. 

Equip students to undertake research, and to give them experience of such research through the writing of a dissertation. The MA is a qualification in its own right but it also serves as an introduction to further research. Many students have progressed to PhD study at the Warburg and elsewhere and many are pursuing successful academic careers in institutions across the globe including at the Universities of Cambridge, Copenhagen, Notre Dame (US), Padua, UCL, Birkbeck, La Sapienza (Rome), Warwick, York and Yeshiva (New York). 



The course begins in early October with a Foundation Week, in which students are introduced to the main topics and themes to be covered over the year. All students take two core modules and two optional modules. Reading classes in Latin, Italian and French are provided to help acquire the necessary familiarity with those languages as written in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Students are also required to attend the weekly research seminar and encouraged to attend any of the other regular seminars held in the Institute that may be of interest to them. The third term and summer are spent in researching and writing a dissertation, under the guidance of a supervisor from the academic staff.

In addition to the core and optional modules offered in the first and second term, there is a regular series of classes throughout the three terms on Techniques of Scholarship, which include the study of manuscripts, palaeography, printing in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, editing a text, preparation of dissertations and photographic images. Some of these classes are held outside the Institute, in locations such as the British Library or the Wellcome Library. Students are given the opportunity to examine early printed books and manuscripts.

The core courses are taught in the first term and will vary from year to year. The optional subjects are taught in the second term and the options available vary each year. The courses listed below are those from which students may select in 2017-18. Note: The availability of optional modules will be dependent on student option selections.


Core modules

Core modules explore European early modern social and religious life, intellectual ideas and visual culture. Students develop skills in the analysis of primary texts, images and key secondary material in the field of cultural and intellectual history. An introduction to central debates on the writing of cultural and intellectual history involves students with methods of engaging with the historical record.


Optional modules (two to be chosen)

Artistic Intentions 1400 to 1700

The History of the Book in the Renaissance

Islamic Authorities and Arabic Elements in the Renaissance

Music and the Arts in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance

Italian Mural Painting and the Making of Visual Cultures

Mapping Worlds: Medieval to Modern

Renaissance Material Culture

Sin and Sanctity in the Reformation


Teaching, learning and assessment

The normal format for classes is a small weekly seminar, in which students discuss texts both in their original languages and in translation. In most courses, students also give short presentations of their own research, which are not assessed. The emphasis is on helping students to acquire the skills necessary to interpret philosophical, literary and historical documents as well as works of art. Each compulsory or optional module will be assessed by means of a 4,000 word essay to be submitted on the first day of the term following that in which the module was taught. A dissertation of 18,000–20,000 words, on a topic agreed by the student and supervisor, has to be submitted by 30 September. The course is examined on these five pieces of written work, and on a written translation examination paper in the third term. Students are allocated a course tutor and, in addition, are encouraged to discuss their work with other members of the academic staff.

Contact time: Because of our relatively small cohort, students have frequent contact, formal and informal, with their teachers (an average of ten to twelve contact hours per week in terms 1 and 2).


Course summary

Degree structure

Two compulsory courses and two additional courses chosen from a range of options, plus a dissertation of between 18,000–20,000 words.

Mode of study

12 months full-time

Fees 2018–19 (please see Fees & Funding section for full fee details)

Home and EU Students:  £6,965  full-time | Overseas students  £15,545

Course Handbook

The full course handbook is available here.


Entry requirements

The normal minimum entry requirement is an upper second-class honours degree from a British university, or an equivalent qualification from a foreign institution, in any discipline in the humanities which is related to the course. The course requires a working knowledge of a European modern language and knowledge of Latin or a willingness to study it. All students whose first language is not English must provide recent evidence that their written and spoken English is adequate for postgraduate study. Applications should be submitted by: 31 August 2018.


Why choose this degree?

The MA is characterized by four distinguishing features: interdisciplinary openness, emphasis on linguistic competence, a view of scholarship as a process of apprenticeship and the belief that a most rigorous training is necessary to acquire all the specific skills required for doctoral research.

The interdisciplinary ethos of the MA course is a natural expression of the very character and history of the Warburg Institute and its Library. Aby Warburg, the founder of the Institute and the Library, is regarded as one of the fathers of the modern field of cultural studies, a legacy that is reflected in both his works and the library he established (which is organized according to his way of dividing the fields of knowledge according to disciplinary intersections: art, literature, religion, philosophy, science and history).

Developing a reading knowledge of languages is key to acquiring a more nuanced perception of the historical, cultural and national differences underlying established disciplinary divisions.

In addition to the MA course programme, there is a varied and exciting range of public lectures and conferences available to students at the Warburg Institute. They have the opportunity to consult and exchange ideas with the community of academics who use the Warburg as their base and provide access to networks which will support them in their future profession.

Located in Bloomsbury, we are at the centre of an academic and cultural hub and students can benefit from many other research institutions, including the British Library, the British Museum and the other research institutes of the School of Advanced Study, University of London.


Learn more

For details of entry requirements, tuition fees, funding opportunities, English language requirements, disability support, accommodation and how to apply, please consult the School graduate study webpages. Detailed course descriptions and information about assessment are available on the Institute’s graduate study webpages and School graduate study webpages:

Please note the information available here is correct as at October 2017, but the School of Advanced Study, University of London reserves the right to alter or withdraw courses and amend other details without prior notice as required.

The Warburg Institute is renowned across the world for the interdisciplinary study of cultural and intellectual history, particularly the role of images in culture. It is dedicated to research on the history of ideas, the dissemination and transformations of texts, ideas and images in society, and the relationship between images, art and their texts and subtexts. Its work is historical, philological and anthropological. The Institute houses a research Library of international importance, a photographic collection organised according to a unique iconographic classification system, and the archive of Aby Warburg, which also holds the papers of other major thinkers of the 20th century who were connected to the Institute. Situated in the heart of Bloomsbury, the Institute is a stone’s throw from the British Library, the British Museum, the Wellcome Institute and the National Gallery, providing students with access to a wealth of academic and cultural resources.

The School of Advanced Study at the University of London is the only institution of its kind in the UK nationally funded to promote and facilitate research in the humanities. The School brings together the specialised scholarship and resources of nine prestigious research institutes at the centre of the University of London to provide a unique environment for the support, evaluation and pursuit of research which is accessible to all higher education institutions in the UK and the rest of the world.

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Term 1 & 2 Core modules





This course offers an introduction to the iconological study of Renaissance art. It focuses on figures, themes and narratives depicted in paintings, sculptures, prints and other visual media, and will unpack what these subjects tell us about social, political, cultural and religious attitudes from the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries. The first three classes are devoted to religious art, and will involve critical analysis of the lives of the saints, the cult of the saints, and imagery based on the Bible; the remainder of the term is given over to secular art, with topics including portraiture, mythology, allegory and literature. Italy is the main storehouse of imagery but our paths of investigation will extend well beyond to the rest of the Europe.


The aim of this course is to explore the religious context and underpinnings of the cultural, political and social history of Italy from the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance.  In recent years, the study of material culture has greatly advanced the historical understanding of past events and belief systems. Any history of late medieval and Renaissance Italy must also, however, take into account the development of the religious beliefs and practices that have not only left their traces in material artefacts but that were also powerful motivating factors in contemporary policy-making, contributing to the formation of political identity and thought. In Italy between 1300 and 1650, politics and religion were inextricably bound together, and the Church was intimately involved in temporal matters. The concept of an ordered human society, in both its religious and secular aspects, as an expression of a divinely structured universe, was central to all forms of social and cultural expression. Religion was expressed both in rituals – liturgies, performances, pilgrimages – and in texts and works of art, thus forming a significant dimension of Italian culture and scholarship. The course takes the religious history of Italy as the point of departure for an in-depth investigation of the significant social and political changes that took place between 1300 and 1600.  The focus is on the primary sources (hagiographical, legal, literary, architectural and cartographical) which provide evidence for the reconstruction of religious customs and habits of mind and for the understanding of political events.



two to be chosen from :

ARTISTIC INTENTIONS 1400 to 1700  (Dr Paul Taylor)

This course will investigate what early modern art literature (mainly in Italian and French but also in Dutch, English and German), combined with a close analysis of pictorial practices, can tell us about the visual and artistic aims of painters in Europe. This assessment is intended to give an enhanced appreciation not only of the construction of early modern paintings, but also of issues connected with condition and conservation.


The aim of the course is to provide an understanding of the history of the printed book from its invention to c. 1600, with special focus on the learned book, the material aspects of its construction, and the cultural and intellectual context of this history, particularly the relationship between the principle players in the field: authors, editors, publishers, printers, proof-readers, etc.


Starting from selected Renaissance texts, this course will explore, on the one hand, the continuing importance of the texts in Arabic philosophy, science and magic translated into Latin in the Middle Ages, and, on the other hand, the beginnings of the study of Arabic itself and the production of new translations. Topics will include the problem of translating from Arabic, attitudes towards Islam, the Arabic contributions to philosophy, mathematics and medicine, and the ‘Antarabism’ of the humanists. No knowledge of Arabic is required.


This course takes up some musical themes in the arts and sciences in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.  Musical concepts are explored in themselves, and in relation to different arts and sciences.  The class will include practical sessions as well as the reading of original texts.  No prior knowledge of music theory or practice is required.


The art of wall painting in Italian churches, palaces and streets reached new heights across the fifteenth century. From the single-point perspective of Masaccio’s Trinity in Florence and the astrological scheme in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara to the grand typological scheme of the Sistine Chapel, the monumental proportions and architectural character of this art lent presence and authority to religious and political ideologies. It equally gave expression to ideas of learning, culture and pleasure. To step inside their constructed and performing worlds was an embodied experience that played upon all the senses, creating connections with other objects present, such as glass, altarpieces, metalwork, furniture or tapestries.

This module focuses on sacred and profane wall paintings in central and northern Italy, exploring their role in the making of visual cultures. It begins with materials and modes of production, utilising artistic treatises, contracts and visual sources to enhance knowledge of theory and practice. This lays the foundations for case-study seminars dedicated to meaning in context: from sacred to domestic, interior to exterior, urban to rural. Students will explore the significance of works created for key sites and patrons, including those adapted according to shifts in taste or regime. With an eye on displacement or destruction, the latter weeks will focus on ideas about permanence, originality and function of murals during the Renaissance but also in modern times with the museum- like environment (e.g. Padua, Arezzo) and the real museum (e.g. Castelfiorentino). Visits to London sites (National Gallery, Eton College Chapel) will help contextualise the connection between objects and belief, the life spans of artworks and display strategies.


The aim of this course is to explore how maps have served to order and represent physical, social and imaginative worlds from around 1200 to 1700. The focus is on the iconographic character of maps and the complex relation between art and science that is found in mapmaking throughout history. Students will be introduced to a wide range of images from different time periods and made for a variety of purposes, with the intent of drawing together art history, literature, philosophy and visual culture. Theoretical issues will be approached concerning, for example, the association of word and image, the definition of maps and their difference from views and diagrams, but the background and purpose of individual examples will be also discussed. These include medieval world maps produced as independent artefacts or drawn as book illustrations, mural map cycles of the Italian Renaissance, early modern prints made to identify and describe lands mentioned in the Bible or the archaeological mapping of cities.  The course will investigate the creative and projective power of maps and their value as historical testimonies. Mnemonic, thematic, allegorical and pilgrimage maps will be also approached. This module is supplemented by visits to London museums and galleries.


The aim of this course is to offer a perspective on Renaissance art that is at once much wider and much more focussed than most traditional accounts. Much wider in the sense that it covers a broader range of artefacts – from lead pilgrim’s badges to pieces of goldsmith’s work and from wax ex votos to gold-brocaded fabrics. And much more focussed because it discusses works of art as material objects with an economic and social value, dealing not with the intricacies of individual styles but with the social and economic mechanisms that caused styles to differentiate, not with the details of specific commissions but with the larger trends in the production and consumption of art within different social classes. Using a series of case studies and documents such as inventories, accounts and anecdotes recorded by chroniclers and travellers, the course will offer an insight into how art functioned within the material world of the Renaissance and among a variety of patrons, including not just the usual male oligarchs of art-historical convention, but also poor people, artisans themselves, and women.


This course is intended as an introduction to some of the main issues which came to the fore at the time of the Reformation in Protestant and Catholic Europe.  The survey will range from the Middle Ages to the early seventeenth century, and the emphasis will be on the standard teaching on sin and salvation before the advent of Protestantism, humanist ideals of human perfection, Protestant views of the justified sinner, heretical adaptations of such views in Southern Europe, and the Catholic reaction.