Teaching as an early modernist to non-historians: a brief reflection

The next post in our Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is by Christophe Schellekens (@Christophe_Fir). Christophe is a lecturer in Economic and Social History at Utrecht University, NL.

What can students of politics, philosophy, economics or modern history learn from studying the early modern period? I have had to confront that question directly thanks to my current position as a non-permanent lecturer mostly teaching students on the BSc in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at Utrecht University.

As a specialist in the sixteenth century, I contribute to the introductory module on early modern history. However most of my teaching is not situated in the BA or MA programs in history, but in the BSc PPE, which in Utrecht also has history as a fourth pillar discipline. I very much enjoy teaching in that program, as it challenges me on various fronts to become more self-conscious as a historian. In this short post, I would like to reflect on my experience of teaching as an early modernist in PPE, and in particular on which insights early modern history may bring to students working at the intersection of those four disciplines.

The students of the PPE program have rarely enrolled in that degree with a specific interest in the history of the period between 1500 and 1800. Quite a few have expressed their fascination for the period to me, but they are not studying to become specialists of the period. Instead, their encounters with historians like me come through team-taught modules such as ‘Major Debates in Global Economic History’ as well as ‘The Role of Corporations in Society’. What insights from early modern history can and should I then bring to the classroom?

Patent of the Dutch East India Company in which the Dutch Estates-General provides the Company a monopoly on maritime trade East of Cape Good Hope, 1602. Wikimedia.

Two core features of the pre-modern period that the historian Francesca Trivellato has often stressed in her work strike me as particularly relevant: first of all the encompassing force of practices and ideas that maintain, reinforce and increase inequality in a variety of domains, and second the much slower pace of communication and exchange.

I have come to believe that the first point in particular is a very useful entry into understanding European societies and the actions of Europeans elsewhere in the world prior to around 1800. According Giovanni Levi, pre-modern Europeans aspired for the “Perfect inequality”. This inequality can be observed in the economic sphere in data about rising capital inequality, but also in the political and judicial order. Based on their gender, race, religion, birth or acquired status as a citizen, noble or commoner, Early Modern people were assigned a particular place in the legal and political order. That position could offer extreme privilege or a condemnation to a life of hardship. Inequality offers an inroad to understanding dynamics in the sphere of work, of how families organized themselves, cities, kingdoms and empires were governed, how people of different faiths co-existed, and how Europeans thought about and treated people elsewhere in the world. It also allows to discuss the development and evolution of ideas that naturalize or question such hierarchies.

The pace of communication, which until the development of the telegraph in the middle of the nineteenth century was always that of human and animal travel, offers a second major inroad into the Early Modern world. It allows to discuss how the pre-modern period was not an era of almost complete stasis, as older scholarship at times has argued. Merchants, students, soldiers and diplomats travelled over vast distances. They carried with them a variety of news, knowledge, ideas and goods that led to growth and change. But commercial undertakings and political decision making had to consider the information gaps that came with this much slower pace of communication. This topic thus offers an excellent step-up to grasp how dealing with the uncertainty that came with this slower circulation played an important role.

Now how do I integrate these two points in my teaching? More than a predefined agenda, I notice that I felt the need to refer to them when I covered a variety of subjects. When I teach about the origins of the corporate form in the early seventeenth century, I touch upon them as I discuss how corporations received government privileges and how these were an integral part of the legal landscape. I also read scholarship with my students that brings up issues with decision making in corporations that operate over long distances, such as the Dutch East India Company. In ‘Global Economic History’, my colleagues and I discuss the timeline(s) of global economic integration, and how the speed of travel and communication is a factor in that.

I do not insert these two core points about the early modern period in these courses as central themes to which a whole seminar or lecture is dedicated. I rather return to them throughout my teaching as crucial contextual elements when we touch upon the early modern period. In doing so, I aim to avoid presenting the early modern world as a “foreign country” that is merely a mirror because of its alterity and is radically different from our own world. Nor am I keen to explicitly invoke parallels with contemporary dynamics. But I do hope that, among other elements they take away from the courses, students’ thinking about the interplay between philosophy, politics and economics is enriched by what they observe and analyse in the pre-modern world. I would be very interested in hearing from early modernists in similar roles how they see the value of pre-modern history in courses outside of BA and MA programs in history.

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