Blasphemy, irreligion and the English Enlightenment c.1650-1720 HI3016- 03/05

This course examines and analyses the heterodox and clandestine literature published and circulated in England and the Low Countries in the later end of the seventeenth century by Hobbes, Spinoza and Toland.

It analyses and evaluates the main conceptual developments of a non-theological account of nature and society through a close critical reading of the primary sources.

Students will be able to read, analyse and reflect critically and contextually on primary source material and write a long essay using principally primary sources.


30 Credits

Topics covered

The course is based on a close scrutiny of the sources, the great majority of which in English.

  • Some texts will be studied in English translations, although the originals in French and Latin are available for discussion.

  • Term One engages with the intellectual sources of the two great clandestine texts Le Traité des trois imposteurs and De tribus impostoribus, by examining the writings of Thomas Hobbes and Spinoza. A number of minor pamphlets, ballads and trial records are examined.
  • Term Two is devoted to studying the life and thought of John Toland, focusing on his main texts – Christianity not mysterious (1696), Letters to Serena (1704) and Nazarenus (1718).
  • In both terms attention is paid to the thematic development of irreligion, anticlericalism and anti-scripturalism.

Learning outcomes

  • Students who successfully complete this course will be able to:

  • Understand the origins of historical controversy
  • Show an informed understanding of the concepts, rhetorics and intellectual strategies of the radical enlightenment
  • Show an informed understanding of the anticlericalism, materialism and irreligion of the philosophical texts of the period
  • Show an ability to analyse and deconstruct the printed and scribal source material and, in particular, engage with questions of audience and reception
  • Evaluate the strengths, limitations and meanings of primary sources
  • Write a well argued, clearly structured long essay (dissertation) using principally primary sources


  • HI3016-03 (10,000-word dissertation 100%)
  • HI3016-05 Exam (80%) Essay (10%) and Reflective journal and forum posts (10%)

Essential reading

  • J. Israel The Radical Enlightenment (2000)
  • J. Champion The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken (1992)
  • J. Toland Nazarenus 1718 (1999)
  • B. Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico Politicus (1670, 1689)
  • W. Stephens An Account of the Growth of Deism in England (1696)
  • Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)