Corpus Christi College Oxford

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We typically seek to admit 9 students across History and its joint schools.


We asked Prof John Watts to tell us a little about studying History at Corpus.

1. What does the History course cover?

The Oxford History course is fantastically wide-ranging, covering all of human history from the later centuries of the Roman Empire through to the present, across all six continents and featuring every variety of historical exploration from traditional themes in the study of power, political economy and social relations, to more modern questions of race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, emotion and the environment.  At Corpus, we offer the main History course, but also three of the joint schools with History – Ancient and Modern History, History and English and History and Politics.

2. What do students typically find most rewarding about the course?

Students particularly enjoy the opportunity to write their own extended projects – theses – which they research and write for themselves in the third year of the degree.  They welcome the chance to develop their own particular interests while also being presented with periods and problems they have never studied before.  Over the course of the degree, they typically find their own voices – their own ideas about what was important in the past and how things worked, the issues that matter to them, and their own strategies for writing, talking and arguing about them.

3. What do you see as the benefits of studying History at Corpus?

Corpus has a really amazing collection of History books, running along one whole side of the main floor of the old Library, with plenty more material downstairs and online – so finding books is never a problem here.  History is a large subject in a small college, and the historians are a lively and prominent community.  The History tutors believe that undergraduate historians should be able to choose freely from the options available to them (we don’t prioritise the papers that are taught in College), and our aim is to support our students in developing their own independent understandings and approaches.  We provide support through tutorials, classes and skills-based training, but we encourage our students to pick up the ball and run with it.

4. Who teaches History at Corpus

Later medieval History – John Watts; American History to 1870 – Katherine Paugh; Late Roman History – Neil McLynn; Roman History – Anna Clark; Greek History – Sam Gartland.  Besides the tutors, there are several other historians at Corpus, notably the chaplain, Canon Dr Judith Maltby, who works on early modern religion, and Professor Jas’ Elsner, who works on Roman Art

5. What have students from the least few years gone on to do after their degree?

Historians do many things, because history encourages analytical and expressive skills and teaches us about how people and groups behave.  From Corpus, students have gone into law, consultancy, investment banking, small business and entrenprenurship, NGOs and the civil service, charities, heritage work, the armed forces, teaching and academic research.

6. What do tutors look for in the History application process?

The selection criteria for History are available at, and we use these in making decisions at Corpus, just as our colleagues do at other colleges.  Indeed, the admissions process at Corpus forms part of a larger process which is the same for all applicants across Oxford, and even though we are a small college, offering just 9 places a year in History (usually 5 in the main school, 1 in History and English, 1 in Ancient and Modern and 2 in History and Politics), our applicants have the same chances of a place at Oxford as they would at any other college.


We also asked a couple of our Historians to tell us a little about what they think History is and why a degree in History is worth having:

History is a series of attempts to understand and explain the past. It's a collective discipline, in that historical understanding is composed of the efforts of many historians (lots of them now dead); but it's also an individual one, since each historian learns to understand things in his or her own unique way. In a rough and ready way, we could say that History is scientific, in that it involves rigorous thinking, deductions from data, application of concepts and theories, and debate about one's findings; but it's also interpretative, subjective and rhetorical - people have sometimes compared historians to artists or poets, noting that they often try to capture the truth of the past in a few inspired brush-strokes or well-chosen phrases. For me, it's about looking for patterns in human behaviour, and thinking about the relationship between the past and the present. To that extent, it's a kind of social science, and therefore full of relevance for how we live now. It's not a very precise one, because historical evidence is always incomplete and open to interpretation, and because things do not happen the same way twice; but the present did come out of the past, and we can see the links, if we look for them; it's also clear that, while human society and human behaviour continually change across time and space, the human animal itself doesn't change much, and it's therefore not surprising that individuals, societies and their practices tend to echo one another. To my mind, History is the ideal degree subject. For one thing, anyone can do it: the technical training is very limited; all you have to do is be prepared to read, and think, and communicate with others - the rest is experience and learning, which everyone can build up. For another, History helps to develop all sorts of useful skills - the formation of understanding from a mass of data; the presentation of understanding in a clear and effective way; a capacity to write well and argue persuasively. And finally, I believe that History teaches you about humanity, how to read human behaviour, and how to understand the different ways that others think and act. (John Watts)

A History degree is about understanding processes of change. What drives them? You will be asked to consider whether the answer lies in deep-seated economic and demographic forces, the coining of new ways of seeing the world, the material interests of political and social elites, the aspirations of 'ordinary' people, geographical and ecological imperatives, and/or a whole range of other pressures. Over the course of the degree, tutors will push you to develop your own interpretations of how these different factors fit together to produce historical change. Several of your papers, especially the third-year thesis, will require you to engage closely with considerable quantities of primary source material in order to forge your arguments. But a History degree is also about understanding why historians have written the things they have, in the way they have. So you will be strongly encouraged to interrogate the intellectual, cultural, and political reasons why historiography changes over time as well. In all these ways, a History degree is the perfect way to develop high-order skills of critical and analytical thinking. A History degree is also worth having, of course, for the simple reason that spending three years immersed in the past is immensely enjoyable. (Alex MIddleton)

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