How do we know if something is true? It might seem self-evident: a thing is true if it really happened and we can prove that it happened. But over the last half-decade, especially in my home country, the United States, we’ve been presented with a seeming paradox regarding the nature of truth. Truth is apparently both subjective (some of us simply believe in “alternative facts”) and objective (everyone knows the 2020 presidential election was stolen). These shifting concepts can be very disorienting as we try to make sense of the present and plan for the future.
Early modern people, living through a time of rapid political and religious change, also experienced this disorientation. While both Protestants and Catholics believed in miracles, for example, they differed on how to verify them. People wondered if they could trust the historical record, eyewitness accounts, or even their own senses. In my work, I examine an especially contentious claim relating to the Holy House of the Annunciation, the building within which the Virgin Mary had received the Angel Gabriel and where she and Joseph had raised the infant Christ. It was claimed that after the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was returned to Muslim control the Holy House had flown from Nazareth to Italy in 1291. Looking at how early modern people attempted to prove this miracle can help us better understand our own complicated, changing relationship with proof and doubt.
This post is part of the Monster Carnival 2022 – Why Early Modern History Matters Now. Philipp Rössner is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Manchester and works on the history of commerce, capitalism, and economic thought in Britain, Germany, and Europe more broadly, from the late-medieval period to the present day.
Build(ing) Back Better – An idea developed a long time ago
As usual, history – whilst not exactly repeating itself – keeps coming back; often from unexpected corners; and things that may seem innovative, original or inventive on the surface turn out, upon second inspection, to be old wine in new bottles. The new UK industrial policy (Build Back Better) is, in fact, such an example. Based on “collaboration between industry, science and government,” focused on strengthening urban life (the 21st century global way of life, as it seems) and creativity, it centres on “Strong and active government investing massively in science and technology, coupled with a dynamic enterprise economy.” This paradigm echoes the “Cameralist” model of capitalism, occasionally also known as “mercantilism”: a model developed in early modern Europe, popularised and practiced in the German speaking lands, but widely adopted in Sweden, Denmark-Norway, Finland, even Portugal and Spain. Cameralism amounted to something like an early modern mainstream political economy and early ideology of growth. Radically pro-innovation, pro-market, pro-creativity and pro-government at the same time, it aimed at achieving lasting economic change and development through proactive government intervention; simultaneously enhancing the quality of economic activities (focusing on employment, adding value and raising productivity) and of economic life. This included, apart from mission orientated industrial policy, wider measures of public welfare including clean streets, safe roads, and sound quarantine rules in times of pandemics. The Cameralist model laid the foundations for the wealth of nations and significantly helped Europe undergo the crucial transitions toward industrialisation and modern economic growth.
The Political Economy of Transformation and Growth – The Case of Early Modern Cameralism
As I argue in a new book, early modern Germans were generally literate and well-trained; manufacturing was ubiquitous, and German entrepreneurs were involved in global trades. But in terms of living standards, income levels and trade connectivity Germany was hampered by a general crisis and the disastrous Thirty Years War, lagging behind France, Netherlands and England (after 1707: the UK). But the toolkit to move out of the development trap was there. Since the Renaissance but especially during the seventeenth and eighteenth century Cameralist political economy – extending far beyond the German-speaking countries covered under the unwieldy umbrella also known as ‘Holy Roman Empire’ – became increasingly focused on achieving economic growth through new outlooks on the open human future, proactively interventionist government helping the economy through providing well-designed markets, supporting manufacturing and other high value adding activities; well-regulated monetary systems, and strategies aimed at stimulating the level of circulation or – in contemporary economic lingo – increasing the “vivacity” of economic life. A centrepiece was the creation of productive and efficient manufacturing landscapes transforming nations from simple-life agrarian into increasingly literate, productive, urbanised and industrialised capitalist commonwealths.
Cameralist political economy thus made a signature contribution to the wealth of nations. During the nineteenth century Germany became one of the leading industrial powers.
This post is part of the Monster Carnival 2022 – Why Early Modern History Matters Now.Dr Kirsteen M MacKenzie is an academic historian and broadcaster who is passionate about early modern British, Irish, and French history. Her areas of interest are the Wars of the Three Kingdoms 1637-1660 and the Jacobites. Dr MacKenzie received a PhD in history from the University of Aberdeen in 2008. Her first monograph The Solemn League and Covenant of the Three Kingdoms and the Cromwellian Union 1643-1663 was published by Routledge in 2017. You can follow her on Twitter @kirsteenmm.
Kirsteen M MacKenzie
The relationships between Westminster and the devolved nations are at their lowest ebb for decades, with ongoing tensions between the centre and the periphery. These issues are not unfamiliar to those historians who study the three Stuart kingdoms between 1603 and 1707. The monarch’s ability to manage three very different kingdoms or four nations with different histories, laws, languages, and religious institutions, was key to the peace and stability of Britain and Ireland. During that century various efforts were made to try and find a union that worked for every nation. It could be said that Stuart Britain helps us understand the current parliamentary union and perhaps offers solutions to our constitutional impasse.
The Cromwellian Foundations of British Parliamentary Representation
In July 1650 Oliver Cromwell marched towards Scotland with an army, declaring his love for the Scots as neighbours and friends. Cromwell and his army regarded themselves as the liberators of an oppressed nation, bringing religious liberty, enlightened political ideals, and English Common law. This reflected the sense of English superiority that was felt during the English Republic. In essence, Cromwell and his men had headed north to conquer Scotland and incorporate it into the English Republic. Scottish contemporaries rightly feared the loss of Scottish identity and sovereignty. The Cromwellian Incorporative Union was the first to abolish the Scottish Parliament and offer the Scots parliamentary representation at Westminster. This was not an act of benevolence. It was a forceful act where acceptance of the union was mandatory. This was not a British Parliament, it was an English Parliament forcefully incorporating Scottish members into English political structures.
The Act Union of 1707 created a British political union and unlike the Cromwellian Union it protected the independence of Scots Law and the Scottish church after a period of negotiation and consent. However, similar to the union in the 1650s, the Scottish Parliament was abolished and Scottish members were incorporated into English Parliamentary structures, which became the British Parliament. Therefore the weight and distribution of British parliamentary representation in Westminster can trace its origins to the Incorporative Cromwellian Union of the 1650s rather than the Act of Union of 1707.
Under these arrangements English votes outweigh those from the other parts of the United Kingdom and is a major cause of the current constitutional tension between England and Scotland within the United Kingdom.
What is the history of race, and what is the history of class? How are they interwoven and when and why are they rendered separate? We often think of these two genealogies as fundamentally opposed, and certainly current cultural discourse frequently treats them that way (‘But what about class?’ is a familiar rejoinder to those of us who speak and write on race in the past and the present). In particular, we might imagine these histories—of race and class—as converging most explicitly around the sites of slavery, but as I explore in my work, they are in fact deeply interwoven in the literary and cultural texts of early modern England, and in the documentary evidence around labour that persists: if we want to recover a labour history and a class history, I argue, we need to understand the history of race.
In this piece, therefore, I want to think about an early modern fragmentary document, what it might reveal about the entwined relationship between race and labour, and how we might use such documentary evidence to recover and complicate a premodern English history of class and labour.
To begin, then: what is the place of slavery in early modern England, how and why is it racialised, and what might forms of early modern labour have to teach us about the construction of race in the premodern period and its enduring legacy today? These are the central questions that have been consuming my work and thinking for over a decade, and so it’s no surprise that they lie at the heart of my recently published book Fictions of Consent: Slavery, Servitude and Free Service in Early Modern England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022, published as the first book in its new series on ‘RaceB4Race: Critical Race Studies of the Premodern’). Fictions of Consent argues that forms of household service, apprenticeship, indenture, and liveried retainership in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England are on the one hand pervasive and everyday, and on the other hand are vexed sites of consent and contract that are paradoxically implicated in the development of racialised slavery.
The two questions that come up frequently when I speak or write about this topic are: was there slavery in early modern England? And what does ‘race’ mean, particularly in an early modern context – and can we even talk about race in this historical period? (‘Don’t we want to talk about class instead?’).
Towards the end of the summer, Disney launched a trailer for its new version of The Little Mermaid, starring Halle Bailey as Ariel. The launch generated much excitement on social media. Parents of young Black girls posted videos of their daughters’ faces lighting up when they saw a heroine that looked similar to themselves. And then came the inevitable pile-on by racists. According to some commentators, the casting of a young, Black actress as Ariel was a distortion of the original, ‘authentic’ and necessarily white Ariel. To turn Ariel into a Black mer-girl was yet another egregious example of ‘wokeness’.
Hans Christian Anderson wrote The Little Mermaid in 1836 and the best-known adaptation is Disney’s 1989 film. In both versions Ariel is portrayed as having white skin – ‘delicately fair’ – with long flowing hair and blue eyes. There is nothing politically neutral about this physical description. These images are deeply embedded in racialised concepts of beauty and femininity that were being developed in the long eighteenth century in the context of European colonial expansion. A brief look at the history of mermaid sightings, capture and display during this period offers some insights into this history of racism and anti-blackness that resurfaces continuously in our own times.
Earlier this year while writing my undergraduate dissertation about how eighteenth-century London polite society treated the physically disabled, the most common reaction from friends, family and fellow students was ‘oh, it must have been really terrible for disabled people back then’.
I understood what people were getting at, partly because my view had been similar before starting the research, and it is certainly hard to disagree that life back then was much more difficult than it is now. But the early modern period was tough whoever you were, and I doubt many people today would willingly swap their life now for that of anyone, rich or poor, disabled or not, back then.
During these conversations I always asked that people suspend most of what they thought they knew and consider a couple of things unearthed during my research, things that might help them towards a view that was more nuanced than ‘life was terrible’. One was the different use of language; the terms ‘disabled’ and ‘able-bodied’ were in use but did not divide people into categories based on their ability to participate equally in society. Early modern society did not see a distinct group of ‘disabled’, and the sources reveal a great degree of community acceptance, support and simply living alongside those with physical impairment or mental illness. Continue reading →
“How are your dead Florentine merchants doing today?” A friend and fellow PhD-researcher regularly asked me that question when we ran into each other in the corridors of the European University Institute. In that institution, where we both did our doctorate between 2013 and 2018, a small but vibrant group of early modern historians (at the time five faculty members) was often confronted with such questions about their topic from colleagues working in other disciplines.
Why did my doctoral research on (absolutely certainly physically very dead) Florentine merchants in sixteenth century Antwerp matter to my friend, who studies EU administrative law? What did I have to share with my EUI flat mate researching contemporary welfare state regimes, or with one of the many other colleagues at the institute who were tackling topics that are more readily considered as socially or policy relevant? How dead or alive is the early modern world that I study?
The EUI’s Villa Salviati, a Renaissance building where lawyers inquire about the dead subjects of historians. Photo by Sailko on wikimedia.
The question how early modern history matters can be approached from a variety of angles and experiences. As I later worked as a postdoc in a EU Horizon 2020 project with a strong focus on societal impact, and then started to work as a lecturer in a PPE-program, my take on it is strongly shaped by working over the past decade as an early modernist in environments where early modern history is not at the institutional and intellectual core of the agenda of my direct workplace. In that sense it is thus a take from the margin. Continue reading →
Three years since the start of the pandemic seems like an apposite time to see what lessons we can learn about the experience from a closer examination of early modern history. We have seen how widespread illness can effect profound change in society, as it has many times before. We have yet to understand the lasting effects of the current pandemic, however, and may benefit from a closer examination of similar occurrences throughout history.
Over the last few years it is likely that you or someone you know has had Covid-19. One of the common side of effects has been loss of taste or smell, so much so that often when someone tells you they had Covid it may be one of the questions you ask. Could you smell anything? Could you taste anything? While the thought of not being able to taste your food is dreadful, how often have we really thought about how our sense of smell affects our daily lives? How did smell affect those who lived before us? How did smell help people decide between what was good or bad? The early modern witch offers an unexpected case study.
Throughout history the sense of smell has been viewed as nothing more than average. Even Aristotle put it in the middle of his hierarchy of the senses, behind sight, and hearing, but before taste and touch. When we think of the early modern witch we similarly often privilege how she looked or sounded. But smell mattered too. Early modern medical texts, plays, demonological texts and trial records all show that the witch’s foul-smelling qualities permeated society. This influenced early modern individuals to suspect and accuse others of witchcraft based merely on their personal odour.
This post is part of the Monster Carnival 2022 – Why Early Modern History Matters Now. Misha Ewen (@mishaewen) is a Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Bristol, and has published on gender, colonialism, and trading companies in The Historical Journal, Gender & History, and Cultural and Social History. She has just published The Virginia Venture: American Colonization and English Society, 1580-1660 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022).
Since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, we have witnessed renewed scrutiny of British involvement in colonialism and the transatlantic trade in enslaved people. Many of the names and institutions at the centre of debates (and the manufactured so-called culture war) are early modern, from Edward Colston and Tobias Rustat to the Bank of England. It’s through the lens, and understanding, of the early modern period that apologies have been issued, new findings about institutional complicity have been made, and statues have been torn down. Calls for reparations, from private individuals like Richard Drax MP and institutions like the British monarchy, are also distinctly early modern in their basis and legitimacy.
With good reason, recent action and debate has focused on these particularly prominent individuals and institutions, but this narrowing of attention does mean that we often don’t discuss the wider public interest in and support for colonisation that permeated society in early modern Britain. My impression is that our general understanding about early modern colonisation does not extend to knowing how ordinary women, men, and children encountered and engaged with colonial activity in myriad ways, how they profited from it and upheld it. There were those who shaped policy in the Houses of Parliament and meeting rooms of trading companies, and then there are those who outfitted ships and provided food and lodging to colonists in the days leading up to their departure: women like Elizabeth Hibbert, who earned fifteen shillings providing this service to Virginia colonists departing aboard the Margaret from Gloucestershire in 1619.
Participation in the colonial project operated on a spectrum like this, from what could be considered more passive or fleeting, to active, deeper, engagement. For those individuals and institutions which were more tightly involved with colonial policy and projects, we sometimes have ample evidence of their outlook and activity, and this is where our focus usually lies, rather than on others like Elizabeth Hibbert, who contributed at the margins and remain there. Their imprint on the archive is much lighter, and their interaction with the colonial project appears short-lived. How does evidence of this kind, however fragmentary it is, not only impact how historians understand histories of colonisation and empire, but potentially challenge engrained narratives about our heritage?