Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2019-2020 (archived)

Module HIST44530: Serious Fun: A History of Sport from the Late Middle Ages to the Present

Department: History

HIST44530: Serious Fun: A History of Sport from the Late Middle Ages to the Present

Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Not available in 2019/20 Module Cap


  • None


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • To introduce students to advanced debates and case-studies in the history of modern sport
  • To help students gain a deeper understanding of the role of sport in modern cultures and societies


  • Sports, from their earlier manifestations in late medieval and early modern Europe to their current role in occupying much of the leisure time of the populations of an increasingly globalized world, are an exceptionally rich subject of historical investigation. The history of sport allows students to focus on a wide variety of topics. These range from the educational, moral, religious and political discourses that have surrounded sport, to the history of the body, of bodily practices and individual sports, to sport’s role in mirroring and shaping narratives of class, gender, ethnicity, ideology, nation, empire, trans- and internationalism. Special attention will be dedicated throughout to sport’s semi-autonomous status between following its own rules and functioning as a sub-system of society. This module will explore the writings on sport by Richard Holt, Alan Guttmann, Norbert Elias, Henning Eichberg, Peter Burke and Pierre Bourdieu among other historical and theoretical approaches. It will proceed both chronologically and thematically and focus on specific examples from different epochs by making extensive use of primary sources and the relevant literature.
  • The initial sessions will be dedicated to analysing late medieval and early modern sports when sports were largely the preserve of a predominantly male political and ruling elite, notwithstanding the sports of ‘commoners’ about which we know relatively little. The module will investigate various callisthenic, competitive or recreational physically participative games, activities and sporting recreations, as well as the discourses they elicited from Renaissance educators, early modern religious groups like the Puritans as well as the agencies of political power. Departing from Guttmann’s thesis of the seven key characteristics of ‘modern’ English sports (secularism, equality, specialisation, bureaucratisation, rationalisation, quantification and obsession with records), the module will then discuss the hotly-debated question of their emergence from the 18th century onwards. The module will then focus its attention on sport’s role in Victorian Britain. It will among other factors look at the importance of associativity in the establishment and codification of English sports and their diffusion beyond the British Isles to the Empire and other parts of the world. In this context special attention will be dedicated to the creolization of individual sports and the emergence of partially overlapping and divergent sports cultures.
  • The second half of the module will concentrate on the role sports played in the formation and shape of modern mass culture by investigating its symbiotic relationship with commercial forces and the media from the late 19th century onwards. Moreover, the module will discuss the exploitation of sport for ideological and political purposes by democracies and dictatorial regimes from the eve of World War I to the post-Cold-War world. The juxtaposition of massed and ‘trend’ sports with 20th-century global sport spectacles such as the Olympic Games and Football World Cups will provide opportunities to study a host of further issues: from the rise of INGOs like FIFA and the IOC in the post-World-War-II era, to urban renewal and sustainability in an age of commercialization, from campaigns for national fitness to the increased individualization of leisure practices from the 1970s onwards. The module will end with an investigation of the rise of association football as the most popular and globalized sport.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • advanced knowledge and understanding of key issues and historiographical debates in the modern history of sport
  • advanced knowledge and understanding of key methodological challenges associated with study in this field
Subject-specific Skills:
  • The ability to identify and analyse historical evidence in a sophisticated manner
  • The ability to appreciate, assess and apply advanced historiographical and conceptual approaches to Modern History
  • The ability to manage bodies of historical evidence and historiography, including the gathering, sifting, synthesising, marshalling and presenting of such information
  • The ability to use advanced skills of historical analysis, including posing questions, assessing interpretations, assembling evidence and arguments to enable the evaluation of a hypothesis, which may involve exploring the current limits of knowledge
  • The ability to present historical findings in clear and appropriate written forms
Key Skills:
  • discrimination, judgment and autonomy
  • familiarity with appropriate means of identifying, finding, retrieving, sorting and exchanging information
  • research capabilities, including the ability to pose, consider and solve complex problems
  • structure, coherence, clarity and fluency of written expression
  • intellectual integrity, maturity and an appreciation of the validity of the reasoned views of others

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Student learning is facilitated by a range of teaching methods.
  • Seminars require students to reflect on and discuss: their prior knowledge and experience; set reading of secondary and, where appropriate, primary readings; information provided during the session. They provide a forum in which to assess and comment critically on the findings of others, defend their conclusions in a reasoned setting, and advance their knowledge and understanding of modern sports history.
  • Structured reading requires students to focus on set materials integral to the knowledge and understanding of the module. It specifically enables the acquisition of detailed knowledge and skills which will be discussed in other areas of the teaching and learning experience.
  • Assessment is by means of a 5000 word essay which requires the acquisition and application of advanced knowledge and understanding of an aspect of modern sports history. Essays require a sustained and coherent argument in defence of a hypothesis, and must be presented in a clearly written and structured form, and with appropriate apparatus.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Seminars 10 Weekly in Term 1 2 hours 20
Structured Reading and essay preparation 280
Total 300

Summative Assessment

Component: Essay Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay 5000 words 100%

Formative Assessment:

Formative: 20 minute oral presentation and a 2000-word primary source commentary

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University