Course structure

The overall structure of the History degree is set down by the History Faculty.  It is the History Faculty which determines the syllabus, the intended aims and outcomes of the degree, the exam regulations, the marking criteria and other specifications.  A summary of the degree structure is provided for prospective students on the History Faculty website:

Current students too should familiarize themselves with the Faculty’s documentation, as this shapes their whole time at Oxford:

However, while the Faculty sets the requirements, each College has its own way of meeting those requirements.  Although History students at every College will be following the same syllabus, there are a few quirks and variations in how it is delivered.  On this page we explain how History is taught at Hertford.  This doesn’t necessarily mean taught in Hertford: the History syllabus contains well over a hundred different options, and our aim is to ensure that whatever option you take, you’ll be taught by experts in that topic.  That means that it’s very likely that some of your teaching will take place in other Colleges, although in first year at least, most will take place in Hertford. 

Year 1

In first year you’ll be studying for your Preliminary Examinations which are held in June. 

Even in first year, you will be faced with a large choice of papers (the Oxford word for courses).  From this range you will take four papers: a paper on the History of the British Isles; a General History paper; a paper concerned with historiography; and an optional subject. 

At Hertford we start in the first term (Michaelmas) with one of the medieval or early modern British History papers.  It’s a Faculty stipulation that everyone has to do at least one medieval, one early modern and one modern paper over the course of the degree, and this way we know that at the end of the first term you’ll have ticked one of these boxes.  Also in first term we will start you off on your historiography course, although the teaching for this will carry over into the second (Hilary) term.  Historiography is less the study of what happened in the past and more the study of how people have interpreted that past.  The main historiography paper offered in Hertford is ‘Tacitus to Weber’ which looks at seven key thinkers about the nature of history: Tacitus, St Augustine, Machiavelli, Gibbon, Ranke, Macaulay and Weber.  However, we encourage students with a language A-level (or equivalent) to tackle one of the ‘Foreign Text’ papers. 

In Hilary term you’ll do your ‘General History’ paper, either the early modern or modern option.  General History is Oxford parlance for anything that isn’t the history of the British Isles; at prelims level these papers have a European focus.  In third (Trinity) term you will do an optional paper: these are more specialised papers which will introduce you to using primary sources — that is documents (including works of art, music, architecture...) from the period you’re studying.  There are numerous options including ones on witches, conquistadores, the French Revolution...

At the end of the year you will be examined in all four papers (one 3-hour exam in each), and only those people who pass this examination can continue to second year.  The vast majority of students pass, but we encourage our students to do rather better than just pass and to aim for distinction marks.

Year 2 and 3

Final Honours consists of seven papers taken over two years.  Again the course requirements are laid down by the Faculty, and details of the various options are available on the Faculty website:  The seven papers include: a further (and different) period of British History; a further (and different) period of General History, which now include options covering North America and the wider world; a historiographical paper ‘Disciplines of History’; a source-based Further Subject from a range of specialist options; an even more intensively source-based Special Subject from a range of specialist options (this counts as two papers); and a compulsory research thesis.  These are timetabled (normally, there can be slight variations) as follows:

2nd Year, Michaelmas Term

General History

2nd Year, Hilary Term

Further Subject

2nd Year, Trinity Term

British History


Research and reading for your Thesis; reading sources for Special Subject.  (Starting these in 3rd year is too late!)

3rd Year, Michaelmas Term

Special Subject

3rd Year, Hilary Term

Thesis writing

3rd Year, Trinity Term


The Disciplines of History paper is taught by seminar throughout the second and third year.

At the end of the year you will take 3-hour exams in five of these papers (General History, Further Subject, British History, Special Subject ‘gobbets’ paper, and Disciplines of History).  The Special Subject consists of two papers -- an extended essay of 6,000 words submitted at the beginning of Hilary Term of 3rd year, and a ‘gobbets’ paper (gobbets is Oxford parlance for source commentary).  The thesis of 12,000 words is submitted at the end of Hilary Term of 3rd year.  Aim high in these examinations: a First Class degree from Oxford is a very nice thing to have!