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The city through history

The City Through History project brings together academics from Durham University and Pembroke

College, University of Oxford. This course is only open to students residing in the north east of England.

We live in a world that is ever more urban – on every inhabited continent, the proportion of people living in cities has grown in the last two centuries. Cities are not a new thing – and this course will help you understand their history, and to understand why they have become so central.

The course will begin with a key question: what is a city? We will look at examples from across the globe, over two millennia - and at the end we will come back to that question.

To apply for the City Through History course, there are two steps. Both of these are compulsory.

1) Fill in this application form

2) Answer one of the following questions in response to the prompt. You must write a one-page essay (one side of paper) using size 12 font. 

You must submit your completed essay to before 9am on 1st November.

Late submissions will not be considered.

Before proceeding to the extracts in the theme you are interested in, you should read the following:


REMEMBER: This is simply a device to allow us to get (a) a sense of your understanding and approach to an unfamiliar exercise that you are unlikely to have encountered at school or college  and (b) find out your approach to writing or/and problem solving. 

What is a Gobbet?  

It is a short commentary relating to a piece of primary evidence, a passage of literature, an ancient image, an artefact etc. or (included in this instance) a science or mathematics-based question.  

A response to a gobbet is an analytical commentary on a brief extract from texts that you are probably not encountered before based on the themes of our intensive courses.

It should not be a wide-ranging essay and should be no more than a page in length. It does not require an introduction and a conclusion in the way an essay does. However, it should have a narrative arc; that is, the reader should note a structure and shape to what you have written. 

What you need to do above all is to extract as much meaning as you can from the text. Squeeze it until the pips squeak! In the case of science, what is the essence of the problem under review and how might it be solved. 

What is its purpose?  

The idea of a gobbet is for you to show that you less know something about the extract but that you can display curiosity, imagination, and enough intellectual independence to tackle material that you would have not necessarily have encountered before. It is a chance for you to show the examiner you can work critically, deploy the relevant knowledge that you do have and feel able to either assess the value of what they tell us or answer the problem with some flourish.  

No extract will be without bias of some kind, and none will give you the complete picture, so it is your job to identify that bias, establish the limits of the picture it gives us, and to extract information accordingly shaping it as you will.  

How do you write a Gobbet?  

Approach a gobbet like an upturned pyramid: start with the more general information and work toward the more specific. 



1. DON’T write an essay about the subject the piece relates to. If you are shown an extract, say from and eighteenth century ‘economist’, don’t just write an essay about she/he was. Say a little bit about him but also talk about the WHEN, WHERE and WHY the source was created.  

2. DON’T just paraphrase what is already in the piece. You need to evaluate that information as well, that is the point of a gobbet.   

3. DON’T get carried away writing a short biography of the author or the extended background to the scientific of mathematical problem: only include information on the author that is relevant to assessing the value of this particular piece; for example, don’t write a gobbet about a passage from Hume by writing down all you know about his life. The gobbet is about THIS PASSAGE, not Hume in general. Aspects of his life will be relevant to evaluating the information contained in the passage, so keep it to that.  

4. DON’T write an introduction and conclusion as you would with an essay.  


1. DO include cross-references to any other sources, written or otherwise, that you are aware of that contrast or corroborate with what is said in this piece 

2. DO be PRECISE, CONCISE and STRICT about only sticking to relevant information:  you’ve a limited time on each response 

Make one response from each extract in your chosen subject. You may seek to answer the accompanying ‘guide question’ or challenge it. 

Respond to one of the extracts and questions below. Submit your response to before midnight on the 8th of November 2021.

1) If Homer had produced myths of gods and heroes because his age needed explanations about origins and causes but was unprepared for a more ‘scientific’ or systematic approach, what changes had taken place in Greek society which required a new way of thinking about the past? Between c.800 and c.500 BCE the Greek world altered dramatically. The polis emerged as the city-state, governing itself and a rural hinterland and became the characteristic political unit over the area. Cities like Athens and Sparta provided the context for energetic social, economic and political development. Greek traders, adventurers and colonists spread across the Mediterranean world, bringing Greeks into contact with a wide range of non-Greeks, or, to use their term, ‘barbarians’ (a word that merely meant ‘non-Greek speaker’ and does not have the pejorative element that it has today). This awareness of others sharpened their own sense of their identity as Greeks, not just as citizens of their particular city-state but as part of a Hellenic, Greek-speaking world. Awareness of these differences, often coupled with a sense of their own cultural superiority, fed into their art, poetry and, most critically for our purposes, philosophy, thereby encouraging a more critical sense that there were different trajectories of historical change. 

  • Peter Claus and John Marriott, History: An Introduction to Theory, Method and Practice (2017) 

From what is written here, what can we say distinguishes the ancient city from the modern city? 

2. ‘But we know nothing of the East End. It is over there, somewhere’. And they waved their hands vaguely in the direction where the sun on rare occasions may be seen to rise. 

‘Then I shall go to Cook’s,’ I announced. 

‘Oh, yes’, they said, with relief. ‘Cook’s will be sure to know’. 

But O Cook, O Thomas Cook & Son, pathfinders and trail-clearers, living sign-posts to all the world and bestowers of first aid to bewildered travellers – unhesitatingly and instantly, with ease and celerity, could you send me to Darkest Africa or Innermost Thibet [sic], but to the East End of London, barely a stone’s throw distant from Ludgate Circus, you know not the way! .. we know nothing whatsoever about the place at all’.. 

‘.. Nowhere in the streets of London may one escape the sight of abject poverty, while five minutes’ walk from almost any point will bring one to a slum; but the region my hansom was now penetrating was one of unending slum. The streets were filled with a new and different race of people, short of stature, and of wretched or beer sodden appearance. We rolled along through miles of bricks and squalor, and from each cross street and alley flashed long vistas of bricks and misery. Here and there lurched a drunken man or woman, and the air was obscene with sounds of jangling and squabbling. At a market, tottery old men and women were searching in the garbage thrown in the mud for rotten potatoes, beans, and vegetables, while little children clustered like flies round a festering mass of fruit, thrusting their arms to the shoulders into the liquid corruption, and drawing forth morsels, but partially decayed, which they devoured on the spot’.  


Jack London, The People of the Abyss, 1902) 

Is this about geography or class? 

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