Visual Versus Written Sources in the Early Modern Period

Time Estimate
Three 45- to 60-minute class periods.

After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  1. engage in a discussion of how women perceived, or were perceived by their respective societies, during the Early Modern Period.
  2. understand how to “look” at objects, which do not have any words that could be clues, using the material culture process known as Fleming’s Model.
  3. explain how visual sources were perceived and understood by those that created them during the Early Modern Period.
  4. explain how other societies/cultures/people in world history might perceive these European visual sources.
  5. incorporate these findings into an essay format.
  1. Historical Background: The Early Modern Period (1400–1800), although a Western interpretive paradigm, marks new changes in the origins of global interdependence. As Europeans increasingly began to explore beyond their borders through the development of ocean travel, the Indian Ocean Basin and the traditional land routes of Asia continued to thrive and exchange commercial goods, religious ideas, and biological diseases that would forever change the world. Regular contacts by Europeans in the Americas and in Oceania did not signal immediate Western domination, as the great land empires of the Ming (China), Mughal (India), and several African kingdoms remained outside the reach of direct control.

    Before beginning this particular unit on women during this era, it would be an excellent idea to familiarize students with the intricacies of the origins of global interdependence, placing emphasis on the fact that, while Europeans were becoming more dominant in the Atlantic World region, they were not dictating how the world process of organization would work. Students should come away from this exercise with an understanding that, unlike previous eras that had only sporadic contact, the Early Modern Period squarely placed all kinds of men and women in direct contact with each other. Around the world, women were always at the center of changes in gender roles, and thus took an active part in a pivotal age of exchange.

  2. Day 1: Material Culture

  3. First, pass out copies of the Material Culture Handout. Spend time going over the quotes and explaining to the students that material culture is all around us.

  4. If possible, find an object that does not have any markings or words on it. This could be an artifact/object such as a shard of a pot or a piece of brick. The more simple and mundane looking the better. (I had a student who brought in a piece of cuneiform.) Next, pass the object around the room, and have everyone examine it. You may want students to write a short paragraph explaining what they see.

  5. Have the class now look to the bottom of the Material Culture Handout, and read out loud the process of artifact analysis known as Fleming’s Model.

    Now, go through each of the steps of the Model using the sample object or image and then list them on the board. Do not allow students to skip ahead. They will try to move past the identification stage, but inform them that this is the most important step.

    Once each of the steps is completed, explain to them that all objects are worthy of our examination, and that different groups of people across time have interpreted objects in different ways. Make sure they understand that having an open mind when approaching objects is absolutely crucial when we are trying to discover point of view (POV).

  6. Homework: Have the students examine the two visual sources: Source 6: Painting, The True Woman and Source 12: Painting, Susanna and the Elders. You may want to print out for them the annotations for these two sources in order to establish context for the period of study, but it is also useful to have them look at the sources alone.

  7. Day 2: European Sources

  8. Split the class into two groups. Have each group perform the Fleming’s Model on each source, and write it down. (15-20 minutes) Depending on the class size, you may want to give two groups one painting, and two the other one.

  9. Next, have each group present some of their findings to the class. (15-20 minutes) Your conclusions should lead you to surmise that each of these sources depict women in both similar and different ways. See the source annotations for some of these differences. Depending on the class level you might want to place an emphasis on more difficult concepts for comparison. Have students list these differences on the board.

  10. After this, pass out the second stapled packet that includes the non-European sources. Have the students chose one non-European source. Have the students fill out a Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts for their non-European source.

  11. Homework: Using this worksheet, write a one-page response on how their image from Europe compares in its depiction of women to the non-European source. They need a thesis statement and evidence from each source in order to support their points.

  12. Day 3: Non-European Sources, Conclusions

  13. Have a class discussion about the students' findings. Read some of the written non-European sources out loud during the class. Make a list of similarities and differences between these worlds. What in the end does it tell us about women during the Early Modern Period?

    Students should find some glaring similarities in the portrayal of women by men. For example, Greek philosophy conceived of women’s physical frailty as leading also to their irrationality and intellectual inferiority, while Confucian ideology implied that, just as emperors were to rule over subjects, men were to be lords over women. Grade the one-page reviews for content such as the use of Fleming’s Model, and their observations about the written sources.

  14. If you have time, end the discussion with how these sources impact the study of women. In the end, did students think that the visual sources were easier to examine and appraise than the written sources? Why or why not? You should conclude that visual sources are just as important as written sources, and should be examined with the same critical eye. Both kinds of sources need rigorous kinds of models for examination, if we as students of history are to attempt to understand their meaning.

    All too often we stereotypically think of European societies during this period as advanced (written and visual due to the Renaissance), and non-Western societies as simply image-bound in a language that we cannot understand. These kinds of distinctions need to be obliterated as we conceive of this period as one of diverse interactions.


Advanced Placement (AP) Students: Placing this particular unit after a discussion of global interdependence, but before the revolutions of the 18th century, would work very effectively. If you are looking for other supplementary materials and background, this exercise works well in conjunction with Kevin Reilly’s, Worlds of History: A Comparative Reader, Volume One: To 1550, “Gender and Family in the World: China, Southeast Asia, Europe, and New Spain, 1600—1750.” (Bedford: St. Martin’s Press, 2004.)