The European World Lecture: week 1 x. 2010) The Historiography of Early Modernity Professor Steve Hindle



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The European World Lecture: week 1 (7.x.2010)
The Historiography of Early Modernity
Professor Steve Hindle


  1. Terminology & Periodisation

  1. early modernity’: by definition implies a definition of ‘modernity’; so what is the threshold of modernity? The enlightenment? The French Revolution? The English Revolution? The Russian Revolution? The Chinese Revolution? The Industrial Revolution? The Black Death? Modernity looks different in varying geographical and historiographical contexts

  2. A relatively recent coinage: what was once called ‘Tudor-Stuart’ history in the English context; ‘ancien regime’ history in the French or European context; and still is called ‘Ren-Ref) (Renaissance and Reformation History) in North American Universities. 1st coined in the 19thc. But common usage only from the 1970s: Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (1975); Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (1978). Implies a history that moves beyond constitutional and political developments to social and cultural issues.

  3. A paradoxical term: the phrase ‘early modern’ captures the ambiguity of a period that was somehow familiar, somehow alien. The past is a foreign country, but sometimes we speak the same language as they did.

  4. This lecture designed to get you to think about how the study of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have developed over time, emphasising in particular new methods and approaches. Thesis: that the ‘early modern period’ has been a fruitful testing ground for changing historiographical approaches more generally. So what follows is a history of historical thought about the early modern period . . .


2. Ranke and the Empiricist Tradition (c.1820-1930)

a) A German tradition: Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886); founding father of history as a professional discipline (archives; footnotes; source criticism; seminars); emphasis on high politics and diplomacy; History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations (1824): wie es eigentlich gewesesen (=’how it really/essentially was’); reputation for factual narratives of orthodox political history; focus on states and great men (‘world historical figures’); allegedly ‘scientific’ (verification; objectivity); in reality much more complex: key role for empathy (imagination and intuition) and for art/drama/style (pen portraits, flashbacks).

b) Legacy: the tradition of high political narrative history (Elton 1953).

3. The Annales School and History as a Social Science (c.1930-1980)

a) Phase 1: Marc Bloch (1886-1944); Lucien Febvre (1878-1956); Annales d’Histoire Economique et Sociale (1929-46); Annales: Economies, Societies, Civilisations (1946-) ; Phase II: Fernand Braudel (1902-85); The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World (1948); influence spreading especially to the USA.

b) Profound hostility to German empiricism; rejection of political history and of exclusively archival sources; aimed at l’histoire totale, drawing on the methodologies of the new social sciences (sociology, demography; geography). Emphasis on continuity (la longue duree), enduring structures of geo-history landscape, climate: ‘the Mediterranean was 99 days long’. Three modes of historical time (structure; conjuncture; event). Team-based field-work and quantification; human studied collectively in their natural environment

b) Legacy: the tradition of demographic history (Wrigley & Schofield 1981); but also histories of everything (landscape; dress; diet; menstruation; literacy)



4. Thompson, Davis and ‘History From Below’ (c.1965-1990)

a) In England E.P. Thompson (1924-1993); ‘The Moral Economy of the Crowd’ (P&P 1971) in the US N.Z Davies (1928-) ‘The Reasons of Misrule’ (P&P 1971); ‘The Rites of Violence’ (P&P 1973). Frustration with the ‘structuralism’ of the Annales school; desire to recover the agency of subordinate groups (the poor, the governed, women), esp. the popular mentalities of subordination. Partly inspired by the Marxism of Eighteenth Brumaire (‘men make their own history . . .’), but their socialism was decidedly humanistic; despite theoretical influences, methodology very empirical, speaking with (for?) the dead in the ‘archives of repression’ (the law courts). Emphasis still on collective mentalities (crowds, youth groups)

b) Legacy: the ‘new social history’; the history of experience (esp. of poverty, illiteracy).
5. Thomas, Ginzburg and Historical Anthropology (1965-?)

a) In England K.V. Thomas (1933-); Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971); in Italy Carlo Ginzburg (1939-) The Cheese and the Worms (1976); both scholars heavily influenced by anthropology (the study of man in ‘primitive’ society), especially in seeking to understand the strange in the apparently familiar (‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differentlythere’). Interpreting the alien or the bizarre in its own cultural context (i.e within the system of beliefs/symbols/practices with whih contemporaries were familiar). Tradition headed in two directions: i) Thomas remained interested in collective mentalities and was frustrated that witch beliefs were not amenable to quantification (‘fell back on the intellectual equivalent of the bow and arrow in the nuclear age’): took his questions from anthropology but his answers from the archive, piling up examples of witch accusations, ghost beliefs, astrological practices; ii) Ginzburg turned away from the quantitative, and refracted the empirical evidence through literary criticism; sought to explore individuals in their own cultural context; micro-histories of individual mentality (‘the cosmos of a 16th c. miller’); the historian should both ask anthropological questions of the responses to the anthropological questions of the inquisitors; and enter into an explicit dialogue with the reader about the silences/ambiguities of that evidence.

b) Legacy: ‘the new cultural history’: from macro-history to micro-history
6. The Linguistic Turn and Post Modernism (1990-

a) Much more influential in the historiography of the modern than of the early modern period (early modernists might argue that micro-history is their own version of post-modernism, esp. because it retreats from macro-historical meta-narratives). A broader intellectual movement of the 1980s/90s, rejecting grand historical schemes or meta-narratives; emphasising the role of language in structuring social action; hence the need to focus on representation and on discourses; particularly good example Stuart Clark, Thinking With Demons (1997); emphasises the languages in which witchcraft was described and analysed (by judges, by theologians, by monarchs), seems uninterested in the reality of thousands of women being burned at the stake; morally disengaged?

b) Legacy: histories that mean whatever historians want them to mean
7. Conclusions: Is ‘Early Modernity’ a Viable Category of Historical Analysis?

a) The early modern period has been a peculiarly effective testing ground for new approaches to the discipline of history; problems of evidence are more acute; questions of methodology more pressing. This is where the action is!

b) Most of the innovations on the intellectual history of the discipline have been imported from other disciplines (history as a net consumer of ideas from the social sciences)

c) A wide range of historiographical approaches are now available: histories of power; of resources; of experience; of meaning; or representation. No agreed methodology, though some methodologies more fashionable than others. No agreement even within the Warwick History Department (no single ‘Warwick school’).



d) Over the coming weeks and months you will encounter wide variety of historiographical approaches to ‘early modernity’—political, religious, social, economic, cultural, intellectual. The key question is whether, having encountered all these, you think ‘early modernity’ is still a viable category of historical analysis?



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