Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2019-2020 (archived)

Module HIST45630: The Four Horsemen: Pestilence, War, Famine and Death

Department: History

HIST45630: The Four Horsemen: Pestilence, War, Famine and Death

Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Available in 2019/20 Module Cap None.


  • None


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • To explore concepts and methodologies that are widely applicable across time and space
  • To develop the way students think comparatively and transnationally
  • To aid students in developing the appropriate skills for presenting their independent analysis of complex historical problems


  • This module explores the fundamental relationship between life and death in human societies, taking a deliberately global and long-run perspective to address some of the biggest questions in history. What has been the impact of disease and harvest failures upon human societies? How far can we see nature as ‘a historical protagonist’ as Bruce Campbell has recently argued? Why have some areas of the globe been able to escape the trap of ‘hunger and premature death’ in Robert Fogel’s words, while other areas have not? In doing so, we will consider human agency: both the extent to which people have contributed to the impact of these forces through factors such as global migration, but also how far humans have been able to triumph over nature. Historically, have famines been natural or man-made? How successful have attempts to eradicate disease been? And what role has technology, broadly understood, played in relation to these questions? At the core of this module is the most basic relationship in all societies: that between population and resources. As such, we will not only explore the role of the environment and climate change in shaping past societies, but also how conflicts over resources have led to crises, from overt wars of conquest to the marginalisation of social groups. The module will offer an in-depth focus on specific periods for which the questions above have been the subject of particular debate. We will study the impact of the Black Death, perhaps the greatest disaster in documented human history, and the turning-point of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution, when population growth, life expectancy, and technological innovation broke through all previous ceilings. However, the main aim of the module is to think critically about concepts and debates that are widely applicable across time and space. Students will thus be encouraged to think comparatively, transnationally and transhistorically, and will be free to explore any period and place in their essays as they wish.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • A comprehensive understanding of the importance of famine, disease and war in shaping human societies across a broad range of time and space
  • A critical knowledge of the role of played by primary sources, methodologies and research questions in determining historiographical debates
  • An ability to formulate independent enquiry-led research into a range of historiographical areas, from environmental to cultural history
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Subject specific skills for this module can be viewed at: http://www.dur.ac.uk/history.internal/local/PGModuleProformaMap/
Key Skills:
  • Key skills for this module can be viewed at: http://www.dur.ac.uk/history.internal/local/PGModuleProformaMap/

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 the medieval Liberal Arts traditions.
  • 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 medieval Liberal Arts tradition. 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 2 2 hour 20
Preparation and Reading 280

Summative Assessment

Component: Essay Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay 5000 words not including footnotes or bibliography 100%

Formative Assessment:

20 minute oral presentation 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