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Constitutions Before Modernity: “The Law of the Land” in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe


Admission requirements

BSA norm and a pass for both first year Themacolleges.


In this seminar, we will explore pre-modern constitutional ideas and practice. For theoretical background, we will begin with a survey of the Greek and Roman origins of late medieval and early modern legalism, constitutionalism and republicanism. Then we will move to late medieval and early modern case studies. Our discussions will include famous instances of constitutional arrangements, such as Venice or England, as well as less known cases such as the elective monarchies of East Central Europe. We will analyze the right of resistance stipulated by the laws of England, Brabant, Transylvania, and Poland-Lithuania, as well as non-implemented ideas such as those put forth by Huguenot authors in sixteenth-century France. The new, “absolutist” constitutions of the seventeenth century will serve to show that “the law of the land” could be used either to resist rulers (as had been mostly the case until then) or to enhance their power and strengthen authority (from the seventeenth century onward).

The readings selected for this course are a combination of secondary and primary sources, mostly translated into English (for the cases of Brabant and Flanders some old Dutch will be used). In their final papers, students may either engage with a historiographical debate or choose a source-oriented approach (the topic and approach will be established in consultation with the instructor).

The seminars will be held in English but students may write their papers and do their presentations in the language of their choice (English or Dutch).

This course is connected to the kerncollege ‘De grenzen van de macht’ (sem. 1) insofar as it explores the ways in which laws and constitutions were used a) by estates to limit the power of rulers, and b) by rulers in order to legitimize their power.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student can:

  1. carry out a common assignment
  2. divise and conduct research of limited scope, including:
    a. searching, selecting and ordering relevant literature;
    b. organising and using relatively large amounts of information;
    c. an analysis of a scholarly debate;
    d. placing the research within the context of a scholarly debate.
  3. reflect on the primary sources on which the scholarly literature is based;
  4. write a problem solving essay and give an oral presentation after the format defined in the Themacolleges, including;
    a. using a realistic schedule of work;
    b. formulating a research question and subquestions;
    c. formulating a well-argued conclusion;
    d. giving and receiving feedback;
    e. responding to instructions of the lecturer.
  5. participate in discussions during class.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

  1. The student has knowledge of a specialisation, more specifically; in the specialisation General History the place of European history from 1500 in a worldwide perspective; with a focus on the development and role of political institutions.

  2. Knowledge and insight in the main concepts, the research methods and techniques of the specialisation, more specifically; in the specialisation General History the study of primary sources and the context specificity of nationally defined histories.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this specific seminar

The student has acquired:

  1. Familiarity with ancient and medieval influences in early modern European constitutional thought;
  2. Knowledge of the variety of ways in which constitutional thought was applied in practice in early modern Europe;
  3. Ability to engage with scholarly debates on the importance as well as the limitations of early modern constitutions in specific historical contexts.


The timetable is available on the History website.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours= 280 hours

  • Attending seminars: 26 hours

  • Study of compulsory literature: 52 hours

  • Assignment(s): 16 hours

  • Preparing an oral presentation (same topic as the paper): 28 hours

  • Writing a paper (including literature study): 158 hours

Assessment method

Please indicate below:
1. methods of assessment in this seminar, including the relationship between learning objectives and assessment. Please note the following: – Use the numbering of the learning objectives as stated above in the section ‘Course objectives’. – A number of learning objectives have already been assigned to certain assessment methods. Please do not alter these. – The assessments must cover all of the forementioned learning objectives, including a common assignment in which students are obliged to cooperate (in pairs or groups). – Instructors are free in establishing the number of assignments (but written paper & oral presentation are mandatory components).
2. the method of weighing the separate subtests for establishing the final grade, and any desired additional requirements for obtaing a sufficient mark. Within the History Department it is customary that the assessment of the written paper makes up 60 to 70% of the final grade.

  • Written paper (ca. 6000 words, based on historiography, including footnotes and bibliography. Students may write in English or Dutch)
    Measured learning objectives: 2-4, 6-7, 9-10

  • Oral presentation
    Measured learning objectives: 3-4, 9-10

  • Participation
    Measured learning objectives: 1, 5-10

  • Assignment 1 (Group exercise: constitution project)
    Measured learning objectives: 1, 6, 9


Written paper: 60%
Oral presentation: 20%
Participation: 10%
Assignment 1: 10%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Written papers should be handed in within the given deadline


The written paper can be revised. Revision should be carried out within the given deadline


Blackboard will be used for: - announcements;

  • grades.

Reading list

  • All compulsory literature will be made available online, via Blackboard.

  • Students will receive details about the plan for the first seminar and the schedule of classes before the beginning of the course.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


F. Roșu