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Ph.D. Columbia University, 1981

Karl J. Weintraub Professor Emeritus
Department of History and The College
The University of Chicago
1126 East 59th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
Phone (773) 339-6574



On this page I have posted syllabi and other documents reflecting my teaching until I retired in 2017. For information about my research and publications go to my home page

My teaching was evenly divided between undergraduate and graduate courses. On the undergraduate level, I taught courses in the College Core Curriculum as well as upper-level undergraduate courses on the history of Europe and European social and political thought from medieval to early modern times. Occasionally I offered courses focused on particularly important texts, such as Jean Bodin's Six Books of the Republic, Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, and Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. On the graduate level, I usually taught seminars and colloquia on one of three subjects: medieval legal and political thought, early modern legal and political thought, and the Protestant Reformation. I also offered courses focused directly on the nature and significance of historical thinking. No matter what the subject, however, I always asked students to devote attention to the place of that subject in European history as a whole and to reflect not only on the historiography specific to the subject but also on the significance of historical work as such.


Now that I am retired I have no plans to keep on teaching. At least not for the time being. But since some of this material may prove useful quite apart from the question whether or not I am still using it, I have left this page mostly as it was. I did add some material and revised some of the text. I may make more changes in the future. But I have made no effort to update bibliographies and dates.


First, I put together a few guides that are meant to introduce graduate students of history in general and early modern European history in particular to the most important things they need to know: one is called Basic Advice to Graduate Students of History (compiled in 2008) and deals with things to do and things to avoid if you want to succeed in graduate school (things like meeting deadlines, keeping a bibliography, taking notes, and such); the second is a brief introduction to the historiography of early modern Europe that is intended to help you get on top of the state of the professional art in early modern European history (such as it was in 2011); and the third is a schematic roadmap through the PhD program in early modern European history at the University of Chicago (such as it was in 2011), which explains what you need to do in which year and quarter of your program in order to avoid wasting time and effort while maximizing your chances of success.


I also put together a Guide to the Study of Early Modern European History for Students Preparing their Oral Examination. The first time I did this was in 1991. Since then, I have revised it on a more or less regular basis, most recently in 2011. This guide explains my understanding of the purpose and scope of the oral examination, and how I used to conduct such examinations. It also includes advice on how to prepare yourself effectively for the exam and a list of books that have shaped my understanding of European history in basic ways. The bulk consists of lists of books and articles that will guide you to the more advanced literature in the various subfields of early modern European history (intellectual, social, economic, military, and so on) and to some of the basic tools of research (encyclopedias, handbooks, dictionaries, journals, paleography, chronology, and so on). I have annotated some titles, particularly in the section on the tools of research, so that you will be better able to tell what each of them is useful for. Don't let it disappoint you that some of these items were published long ago. Old though they may be, some of them are unsurpassed, and much of the information they provide is unlikely to go out of date.

By 2011 this guide had grown too long. I cut it down to size and called it Short Guide to the Oral Examination for Students of Early Modern European History. The short version doesn't contain as long a list of books and articles, nor does it contain any commentary on particular books, handbooks, journals, dictionaries, and other important points of reference. For that, you will have to go to the long guide. What it does contain is information from the long guide about the purpose of the oral examination, advice on how to prepare for it, and a prefabricated reading list of primary and secondary sources that you can use as a starting point for designing your own reading list. It ends with three lists of three different kinds of books: books that can really change your mind (for a broad perspective on the place of early modern European history in the discipline); books that count as standard authorities in early modern European history (books with which other scholars in the field will expect you to be familiar); and books that were published during the years from about 1995–2011 (so you'll have some sense of the state of the field such as it was in 2011). These lists are not meant to limit your choices. On the contrary, they are meant to make you consider which of these books you would or would not like to focus on, and to give you ideas about books you might want to put on your reading list for the exam even if I did not mention them. 

Next, there are syllabi of four different graduate seminars I have taught over the years. The first of these was devoted to the history of early modern European legal and political thought, for which I have included an older version last taught in 2000–01 and a more recent version I taught in 2014–15. The second seminar focused on the Protestant Reformation, which I taught most recently in 2011–12. These two seminars were the main staples of my graduate seminars. I co-taught the third seminar with my colleague Tamar Herzog in 2002–03. We called it Early Modern European Orders because it was meant to deal with a whole range of structures and institutions underlying early modern European society. And I co-taught the fourth seminar with my colleague David Nirenberg in 2010–11 under the title Christian Politics in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. It was focused on a series of classic texts in the history of political thought from antiquity to early modern times.  

These seminars were mainly designed for graduate students in their first or second year of the program, but they were also taken by more advanced students as well as by students in our Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS). They were taught in two consecutive quarters intended to introduce graduate students to a particular field of study and guide them towards the completion of a major research project. During the autumn quarter the seminar met on a weekly basis because the emphasis was on gaining familiarity with the field and developing a subject suitable for research; during the winter quarter the seminar met less frequently because the emphasis was on giving students time to complete their research and write their paper or thesis, which involved a good bit of drafting and revising away from the class room, and meetings that took place when it was time to discuss each student's drafts and solicit constructive criticism from other participants in the seminar. In the case of first year students and MAPSS students the seminar usually culminated in the writing of an M.A. thesis. Graduate students who had already completed their M.A. thesis and their second-year seminar as well as graduate students whose main interests lay outside of early modern European history often took only the first quarter of the seminar, as a graduate colloquium.


Besides the seminar syllabi, you will find here syllabi for three courses I organized for a mix of beginning graduate students and advanced undergraduates. All three of these courses were intended to offer a combination of broad coverage with at least some detailed investigation, but they did so in rather different ways. The first was a survey of early modern European history from 1450–1650 that I taught in the winter of 2003. I have never liked teaching survey courses, and I can't say I was satisfied with this one. I never taught it again. The second was a colloquium on the Protestant Reformation in Germany that I last taught in the winter of 2015. Like the graduate seminar I used to teach on the same subject, it began with a systematic review of classic writings about the Reformation from Hegel to Lucien Febvre and went on from there to an introduction to the views taken by professional historians in the last fifty years or so. The third was a course on European social and political thought from the early Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. I first taught this course in two quarters at the University of Chicago in 1998–1999, and for a second time in two semesters in 1999–2000 during a year I spent as a visiting professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The first semester covered the period from the early Middle Ages till about 1300; the second semester covered the period from the later Middle Ages to the beginning of the Enlightenment.  

Finally, you will find here a syllabus that reflects my current interests more closely. It is for a course entitled Philosophical Introduction to the Study of History that I taught for the first time in the winter of 2007. The purpose of this course was to confront students with the morass of metaphysical assumptions confounding the study and theory of history, especially as it has developed since the nineteenth century, and pointing them into a different direction by introducing them to my understanding of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations—which is not to be confused with the familiar, but superficial understanding that focuses more or less exclusively on Wittgenstein's famous claim that the meaning of a word can be explained by its use in the language (almost always omitting that he did not consider this to be valid for all cases but made it perfectly clear, in Philosophical Investigations par. 43, that it was valid only "for a large class of cases" and added that the meaning of a name "is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer"); the concept of "language games" he introduced in Philosophical Investigations par. 7; and his constant emphasis on the importance of context. (More recently I taught an undergraduate course focused exclusively on Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations.) This course was emphatically not intended to introduce students to the "philosophy of history" or "theory of history." Most of the writings that can be classified under those heading share the very assumptions—or at least some of them—that I wanted students to examine with a deeply skeptical eye, as for example the belief that there is some such thing as "the past"; that it has gone from the present; that knowledge of the past accordingly amounts to reconstructing the past or representing the past; that such reconstructions and representations should be founded on the systematic study of evidence and nothing but the evidence (as opposed to the meaning of the evidence and the judgments without which any such study cannot be carried out); and that the systematic study of evidence ought to trace past economic, social, and cultural conditions ("social science") and/or enter into the minds of past people in order to understand them in their own terms ("hermeneutics" and "intellectual history").

In addition to the syllabi, there are a few guides to further reading on this site. I put them together over the course of many years in order to help students find their way through the amazingly rich literature on the various subjects that showed up in my teaching. One of them is an annotated guide to secondary literature on medieval European social and political thought. This was written in a narrative style in order to give readers a sense of the reasons which books I think are good and why. I compiled a similar guide to the secondary literature on early modern political thought, but that is much briefer, for various reasons, chiefly lack of time and the fact that a more extensive guide would have duplicated much of what I had already included in my Guide to the Study of Early Modern European History for Students Preparing their Oral Examination. Finally, I drafted two lists of some of the most important books available in the two fields on which I concentrated most of my professional attention. One is a guide to early modern legal and political thought with special reference to Germany. It is subdivided into sections listing reference tools, surveys, sources, and major interpretive works, but it does not have any annotations. The other is a short guide to research in early modern European history with special reference to the German Reformation that is largely drawn from the Guide to the Study of Early Modern European History for Students Preparing their Oral Examination I have already mentioned twice. It is divided into corresponding sections and has similar annotations.


Most of my undergraduate teaching from the time I arrived at Chicago in 1983 until I retired in 2017 consisted of courses in the University of Chicago's Core Curriculum. The most important was the year-long "History of Western Civilization" sequence, which dealt with the whole range of history from antiquity to the present in three quarters devoting roughly equal attention to ancient history, medieval history, and modern history. But for a few years I also taught a Core course known as "Classics of Social and Political Thought," where students read Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Politics, St. Augustine's City of God, Machiavelli's Prince, Hobbes's Leviathan, Locke's Second Treatise of Government, Rousseau's Social Contract, and later works of comparable stature.


In the late 1990s the College made two significant changes to the Core Curriculum. One was to replace the requirement to take three quarters of courses in a foreign language with a requirement to demonstrate competence in such a language. The other was to give students the right to exercise some discretion over the number of quarter courses they wished to take in the several parts of the Core Curriculum and to take more elective courses, on condition that they took at least two quarter courses each in humanities, civilization studies, physical sciences, and biological sciences, and at least one quarter course each in the arts and mathematical sciences. That made it possible for students to replace one quarter of the Western Civilization sequence with an elective course or another course in the Core Curriculum. Most of the students who took advantage of that opportunity decided to take the first and the second quarters of Western Civilization sequence and drop the third quarter. These students were going to be taught a version of the history of Western Civilization that began in antiquity and ended roughly with Descartes and the wars of religion. They were going to hear nothing about the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of mass societies, the rise of socialism, communism, and nationalism, not to mention World War I, the Russian Revolution, Hitler, and World War II—but they were going to graduate from the College of the University of Chicago with a transcript saying that they had studied the history of Western Civilization. That was obviously untenable.


A group of faculty therefore designed a two-quarter version of the "History of Western Civilization" sequence that omitted most of ancient history but led all the way to the present. It was of course not easy to teach the history of Renaissance and Reformation to students who had not been taught the history of ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and early Christianity. But omitting ancient history made more sense than omitting modern history, or compressing a three-quarter course into a two-quarter course that would have left students with their heads spinning and blurry memories of, not so much the history of Western Civilization as something rushing by too quickly for them to get a grip on. Since the three-quarter version of the "History of Western Civilization" course continued to be offered side-by-side with the two-quarter version, the two-quarter version came to be called "History of European Civilization" in order to avoid being confused with the three-quarter version.


From that time forward I taught the first quarter of the "History of European Civilization" sequence. But I continued to begin the course with (some of) the same readings from ancient history I had used ever since I began teaching it in the 1980s. In order to be able to include those readings but still arrive at the point where the second quarter of "History of European Civilization" began, I had to cut a certain number of readings from medieval and early modern European history, including some of which I had grown very fond because they served the course's purpose so well. But I found it easy to make those cuts, and for a very simple reason: I do not believe that the chief purpose of a Core Curriculum course about the history of Western Civilization is to give students an overview of ancient, medieval, and modern history. It rather is to open their eyes to two things that are more important than that.

One is the existence of historical change, why it matters, and how it can be understood, not just in western Eurasia and the Mediterranean, but in any place. The other is that historical change affects the study of history just as much as it does politics, science, and religion. The history of Western Civilization is therefore not only a source of information about Western Civilization but also an ingredient in Western Civilization. Grasping the significance of that ingredient depends on understanding what it means to know something about the past; why the knowledge provided by textbooks and secondary literature must not be taken on faith; and how to subject such knowledge to critical examination. It does precisely not depend on having an overview of the history of Western Civilization. That is why the "History of Western Civilization" course and the "History of European Civilization" course both place so much emphasis on a close reading of original historical documents (translated into English) and so little on textbooks and secondary literature. If in the process students do get an overview of the ancient, medieval, and modern history of Western Civilization, so much the better.

My syllabus for the first quarter of "History of European Civilization" therefore consisted of a tightly compressed schedule of relatively short ancient, medieval, and early modern historical documents that was explicitly designed to highlight how sharply human beings differ in how they think and what they do over time; how radically their thoughts and their behavior sometimes change; and how much of their thoughts and their behavior depends on what other human beings have thought and done before, nearby or far away, recently or many centuries ago. It juxtaposed the Hebrew Bible with the Gospel of Matthew and St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians, Aristotle's Politics with Epictetus's Enchiridion, St. Augustine's Confessions with Beowulf, and so on, all the way down to Montaigne's essay On Cannibals and John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration. It placed special emphasis on readings from medieval Europe for three main reasons: first, medieval Europe furnishes some of the most dramatic, illuminating, and momentous instances of historical change; second, few students in America know anything about medieval Europe; and third and most important, the collapse of medieval structures of governance in the wars of religion furnishes the most recent example of a truly profound historical change in the history of Europe that can actually be judged from a historical perspective. The changes that began in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries will surely turn out to be more profound. But they are going to increase for some time to come, and they have not yet gone far enough to lend themselves to sound historical judgment. 

Reading original documents and drawing lessons about the past from them is of course no easy task. It is doubly difficult if you have to read as many of them in as little time as students did in my section of "History of European Civilization." It does certainly not provide students with any kind of seamless narrative. It merely equips them with something like a map that is blank except for a few very carefully drawn places here and there. But it also teaches them how they might fill in the blanks on their own. And that is the crucial point. That is the knowledge students need in order to emancipate themselves from the tyranny of the contemporary common wisdom.


In order to make that task as simple as I could, I did two things. One was to offer comments on the readings and their historical context—sometimes lengthy, sometimes brief, but always spontaneous—whenever the discussion in class revealed that students were lacking a certain piece of knowledge or a certain perspective they needed in order to make sense of what we were reading. As one of my colleagues once put it, I did not need to assign them a textbook because I was the textbook. The other was to put together a Guide for Students of "History of European Civilization" in which I tried to explain what I consider to be the elementary assumptions behind this course, what I expected students to accomplish in my class, and what they had to do in order to succeed. It is written for undergraduates. But I am sure that many graduate students could benefit from it as well. 

Not all of my undergraduate teaching was in the Core Curriculum. Some of it consisted of the mixed graduate/undergraduate courses about early modern Europe, the Protestant Reformation, the history of medieval European social and political thought, and the history of early modern European social and political thought that I mentioned above. I also taught courses that were entirely reserved for undergraduate students. They dealt with subjects like Martin Luther, early modern political thought, and the history of early modern Germany as viewed from the perspective of a single city, namely, Leipzig. One of them was devoted to Calvin's Institutes. In that course students read the whole of the 1559 edition of the Institutes, about 1,500 pages. You may ask: how interesting can such a course be? And what does it have to do with history? Isn't that theology? Well, it stands out in my memory as one of the most interesting and enjoyable courses I ever taught. I think the students liked it just as much—and "theology" did not play much of a role in it. But my favorite undergraduates-only course was devoted to Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, a book far more important for a sound understanding of history, not to mention a host of other matters, than people realize, including many people who say that they do realize. The purpose of this course was simply to make the Philosophical Investigations intellectually accessible to undergraduates without any special training in philosophy. I don't believe I have ever taught a course that turned out to be more fruitful than this.

Constantin Fasolt
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