Doctoral theses in early modern history: recent trends and not-so-new problems1

Nuno Gonçalo Monteiro2
Isabel dos Guimarães Sá3


Based on the list of the theses defended in Portuguese universities in the last eight years, a brief assessment is made of the recent developments in the field of Early Modern History Studies in Portugal, highlighting its recent trends and persistent problems


PhD theses; Portuguese universities; Early modern history; Trends; Problems


Tendo por base a lista das teses defendidas nas universidades portuguesas nos últimos oito anos, faz-se uma breve apreciação sobre os desenvolvimentos recentes no campo de Estudos de História Moderna em Portugal, destacando-se as suas tendências atuais e os seus problemas duradouros.


Teses de doutoramento; Universidades portuguesas; História moderna; Tendências; Problemas

The increased number of academic dissertations being produced in the field of History is a relatively recent phenomenon, since it was closely linked to the growing number of students attending university and to the increased spread of university teaching careers following the revolution of April 25, 1974. A brief analysis of this production has already been published (Monteiro, 1999, pp. 380-381). Between 1986 and 1994, when the effects of the new political context first began to be felt, 324 PhDs and master’s degree theses were presented in History. Early Modern History had the highest number of theses (145), well ahead of Late Modern and Contemporary History (100), with the latter focusing mainly on the nineteenth century, in detriment to the twentieth. Although many new topics of research had emerged, the History of the Portuguese Discoveries nonetheless maintained its sizeable share within the area of Early Modern History. The explosion of studies in Twentieth-Century History was to take place later.

A quarter of a century later, we can see that the evolution of the last ten years has been totally different. The time required for the elaboration and completion of PhD theses has been reduced to a maximum of four years, whereas, previously, a period of a maximum eight years was the legal rule. The number of teaching careers at universities has now been drastically curtailed, in contrast to the increased number of scholarships available together with the clear preference shown by PhD students for recent chronologies encompassing the contemporary world, with 186 PhDs dealing mainly with the twentieth century and 96 with the nineteenth century. Even though the figures relating to the period between 1986 and 1994 included master’s degree theses, there is no doubt that the number of PhDs in Late Modern and Contemporary History has increased. As a visible result of these changes, theses have become shorter, and, in general, tend to be supported by less documentary evidence.

External pressure and the growing emphasis on internationalization have contributed very positively to a greater focus on the comparative international dimension of theses as well as to the emergence of new topics. However, at the same time, in some cases, this situation has greatly enlarged the geographical areas of research because these now include a number of international contexts, which are sometimes incompatible with research schedules. On the other hand, international agendas have been forcibly introduced and have sometimes been followed acritically to the point where research has been transformed into a mere confirmation or illustration of general or global theses.

First of all, it should be noted that the categorization of history theses as falling under the scope of the Early Modern period is difficult to assert, because of the existence of certain transitional periods, such as the end of the Middle Ages as well as the end of the Ancien Régime, which spreads into the beginning of the nineteenth century.

From a geographical point of view, it should be pointed out that the majority of the 113 theses produced refer to territories beyond the boundaries of present-day Portugal. Of course, in the past, most of these areas belonged to the Portuguese intercontinental monarchy: Asia (23 theses), followed by Brazil (15), the Atlantic (8), and Africa (5). The importance of Asia, as well as the fact that the supervision of theses was concentrated in the hands of professors who specialize in the study of that area, and the lesser role ascribed to slavery, clearly demonstrate the predominance of topics that can be associated with the inheritance of traditional history of the Portuguese discoveries and overseas expansion. The study of this latter topic has mainly centered on sixteenth-century Asia, examining the role of historical characters connected to India and also focusing on missionary activity, mainly developed by the Jesuit and Franciscan religious orders. These research topics have continued to follow the main focus of academic history teaching and writing after 1974, although now they sometimes display entirely new approaches. The growth in the number of theses concerned with Brazil is, however, a recent development.

table 1: doctoral theses by geographical area

In chronological terms, almost half the theses (56) in the list that was supplied by the editors of the e-journal cover a period that begins in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and coincides broadly with the beginnings of the Portuguese overseas expansion. Two of these are even concerned exclusively with the fifteenth century. In any case, most of the doctoral research undertaken in the last ten years has been related to studies beginning in the sixteenth century (46 cases). Roughly one third of the doctoral theses begin in the seventeenth century and only twenty-four in the eighteenth century. There is even one thesis that begins in the nineteenth century.

Table 2:Initial chronology of doctoral theses

As to the time span, most theses cover periods of less than a century (66). Within this group, some theses relate to a specific moment or a single event and many to periods of less than fifty years. The dissertations that span periods of up to two hundred years amount to little more than one third of the total. Lastly, a significant number of theses deal with very long periods (17), sometimes reaching 700 years. As a whole, there are seventy-two theses whose title includes a reference to the sixteenth century, whereas only fifty-four refer to the eighteenth century. It is clear that the most widely studied chronological periods focus on the beginning rather than the end of the Ancient Régime.

Table 3: Doctoral theses by university

The two Lisbon public universities (UNL and UL) clearly outnumber the others in what concerns the number of awarded PhDs in Early Modern History, and those of Portugal’s capital city represent over half of the total. Surprisingly, the University of Minho comes third, surpassing the University of Porto and distancing itself from Coimbra, which is far from these figures and at the same level of Évora. The majority of doctorates in the Universidade Nova are in the field of History of Discoveries and Expansion, also with a remarkable presence of the University of Lisbon, although the latter has also awarded half a dozen PhDs at its Faculty of Sciences. Finally, it must be stressed that most doctorates at the University of Minho are related to assistance to the poor and the institutions connected with it.

The classification of theses by topics is always a difficult task to achieve with any precision: in most cases, these can be classified as having multiple subjects and it would be risky to choose between them. As previously mentioned, a little less than half of the dissertations refer to subjects that fall under the scope of non-European or “imperial” matters. A new emerging area is the history of science, with roughly fourteen dissertations. However, this theme lags behind subjects that are associated with religion (missionary activity, biographies of members of the clergy, religious institutions, etc.), which can be traced in twenty theses.

Alternatively, if we choose to classify the dissertations according to only one category or subject, those that are concerned with religion and science/technology are the most frequent, amounting to more than a third of the works altogether. These are followed by three well-established areas (each numbering around a dozen dissertations), such as political and diplomatic history, social history, and cultural history. Relatively new and more specific topics can be observed, such as the history of social welfare (roughly ten theses) and, in smaller numbers, theses on archives and material culture. Last but not least, topics relating to military history, civil institutions, economic and financial history, or historical demography are also to be found, albeit in smaller numbers but sometimes exhibiting entirely new and innovative conceptual and methodological approaches.

Before 1974, theses dealt mainly with the major themes in Portuguese national history and the ideological rifts that pervaded it (apologetic or critical views of colonial expansion, the role of the Church and the Inquisition, the origins of the delay in the country’s social and economic development [origens do atraso], etc.). A little after 1974, those concerns were rapidly surpassed by a renewed and different agenda, which, in many cases, broke away from the former legacies and created new areas of research, above all in the fields of social and institutional history, sometimes being shared by several researchers and supported by a vast international comparative bibliography. This same agenda also resulted in new interpretations of the major topics. The same cannot be said, however, about the dissertations that have been presented in the last ten years. Many of these share similar sources and methodologies (drawn from international or Portuguese historiography) but not the same questions. This result is, in part, a consequence of internationalization and one of its effects has been the inevitable disappearance of the former commonly shared Portuguese research areas. At the same time, however, this evolution has frequently had the perverse effect of preventing the formation of shared research questions. Without in any way wishing to suggest rigid research agendas, we have to recognize that some old and recent research issues have not lost their relevance since renewed answers are still missing, in spite of their insertion into Iberian and imperial contexts.

The choice of research topics has also changed. In recent years, we have witnessed the very positive and much-needed appearance of studies in the History of Science, addressing such important problems as the reception of specific Portuguese scientific works and/or the impact of new scientific trends in Portugal. Similarly, the mechanics of governance and social and political elites are now being studied in greater depth, as is the presence of the Church in early modern times in Portugal. In contrast, other research areas have received less attention, partly because these may require the development of quantitative approaches, which have fallen out of favor in the last few decades, except in economic history. However, other important topics have not yet received the attention that they deserve. For instance, in the case of social history, although a number of studies have been produced in some areas and chronologies in this specific field, there is still much work to be done. There is also a lack of renewed studies in rural history relating to the dynamics of emigration, gender and social identities, and also the study of particular groups such as the poor and destitute. Furthermore, we need a fresh focus on specific working groups, such as skilled labor in industry, corporations, and, in general terms, popular uprisings in either urban or rural areas. The recent interconnection with Brazilian and Spanish historiography, and, for comparative purposes, with other international bibliographies (the Anglo-American one in particular) have been decisive for the renewal of History PhDs in Portugal.

Our reading of abstracts, thesis plans, and, in some doubtful cases, of introductions, has suggested that most PhDs do not discuss wider issues related to their topics or that they at least fail to stress these in crucial parts of their text. Similarly, many PhDs cannot be considered as theses in the strict sense of the word because they do not have a central argument.

This article has sought to survey the theses that have been approved in the last ten years. However, if there had been a list of unfinished theses, a very different picture would have emerged, as there is a large number of PhD students who do not finish their doctorates on time. This problem is particularly serious in the many cases where students have been supported by grants. The duration of doctoral research in Early Modern History must be questioned because it has copied the pattern of research in other areas, such as Economics, Political Science, or Social Psychology. The compilation of information that is to be found in predominantly manuscript sources is patently more painstaking and time-consuming than in other areas of research in the Humanities and, above all, the Social Sciences.

However, the main problem with dissertations in Early Modern History derives from the increasingly scattered nature of the information available in this field and the lack of definition of its own identity. Even if the same might be said about historiography in general and the fact that, in the last decade, the connection with Brazil has considerably expanded its territory (something that the theses reflect only partially), research into the Early Modern period in Portugal is conditioned by the absence of institutions and the lack of specific and inter-university publications that might help to circumscribe the field, in contrast to what happens in other countries and other sub-areas. In Portugal, apart from a very traditional Academy of History, there are only two or three associations concerned with the discipline. One is an association of medievalists, another consists of art historians, and a third one, although most members are social historians, is generally led by economic historians. Also, young early modernists organize a meeting every two years. However, this is not enough to define a field that is highly dependent on changeable financial support or fashionable trends taken up acritically from other disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences.


Please see the (Accompanying Annex)




“M.A. Programs and Dissertations in Modern and Contemporary History at Portuguese Universities,” e-Journal of Portuguese History, Vol. 1, no. 2, Winter 2003.

Monteiro, N. G. (1999), “A historiografia portuguesa recente sobre Portugal no período da dinastia de Bragança (1640-1807): algumas notas.” In: Palenzuela, Vicente Á. Álvarez (Eds.) Jornadas de Cultura Hispano-Portuguesa, Madrid, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid.




1With an accompanying annex prepared by the editors of e-JPH with the assistance of Elsa Lorga Vila (Graduate of University of Evora; Master’s Degree in History-Nova University of Lisbon).
2 Institute of Social Sciences, Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal. E-Mail: [email protected]
3 Department of History and Communication and Society Research Centre (CECS), University of Minho, Braga, Portugal. E-Mail: [email protected]



Received for publication: 2 October 2019
Accepted in revised form: 20 October 2019
Recebido para publicação: 2 de Outubro de 2019
Aceite após revisão: 20 de Outubro de 2019

Copyright 2020, ISSN 1645-6432
e-JPH, Vol. 17, number 2, December 2019




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