Knowledge, Technology and Economy from the Middle Ages to Modernity

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Jordan Claridge SAR 5.05 and Prof Max-Stephan Schulze SAR 6.14


This course is available on the BSc in Economic History, BSc in Economic History with Economics and BSc in Economics and Economic History. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.

Course content

How has technology changed the way we live? How have humans managed to raise levels of productivity under a range of different circumstances and in an array of environmental conditions? This course addresses these questions through an exploration of the production and diffusion of knowledge and how this has affected technical change and economic growth in the very long run, from the Middle Ages to modernity.

The course will explore, both theoretically and empirically, how economists and historians have accounted for technical change. Social scientists have for decades tried to parse the respective contributions of capital, technology and labour to economic development. To what extent do the differing roles ascribed to technical change account for divergent interpretations of the key factors in long-run economic development and productivity growth? How can we explain shifts in the locus of technological leadership and dynamism over time?

These themes will be expanded upon throughout the course with case studies drawn from across place and time. We will look closely at paradigm-changing innovations and their economic effects from, for example, the introduction of the heavy plough, the clock and the printing press in the Middle Ages to more recent technologies like steam, railways, telegraphs, electricity and shifts in production technology towards automation.


This course is delivered through a combination of classes and lectures totalling a minimum of 40 hours across Michaelmas Term and Lent Term. This year, some or all of this teaching will be delivered through a combination of virtual classes, short online introductory lectures and (when and where possible) small group ‘in-person’ seminars.

The course includes a reading week in Week 6 of Michaelmas Term and Lent Term.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 essay in the MT and 1 essay in the LT.

Students are also expected to give one presentation to class.

Indicative reading

Edgerton, David. The Shock of the Old : Technology and Global History since 1900 (London: Profile, 2008).

Landes, David S. The Unbound Prometheus : Technical Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to Present (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

MacKenzie, Donald A. Knowing Machines : Essays on Technical Change. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998)

Mokyr, Joel. The Gifts of Athena. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

Rosenberg, Nathan. Inside the Black Box: Technology and Economics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983). 

White, Lynn, Medieval Technology and Social Change. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962).


Essay (30%, 3000 words) in the LT.
Take-home assessment (70%) in the ST.

The take home exam will cover all topics of the course and take place during the Summer examination period.

The 3,000-word summative essay is an opportunity for students to explore some of the themes of the course in greater depth. More detailed guidance on the essay will be disseminated early in Michaelmas Term.

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2020/21 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the situation of students in attendance on campus and those studying online during the early part of the academic year. For assessment, this may involve changes to mode of delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: Economic History

Total students 2019/20: 9

Average class size 2019/20: 10

Capped 2019/20: Yes (18)

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Application of numeracy skills
  • Specialist skills