Fact checking the Flying House of Loreto: Early Modern Truth and Doubt

This post is part of the Monster Carnival 2022 – Why Early Modern History Matters Now. Dr Emily Price is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Newcastle University. She tweets at @dremilyprice.

Emily Price

‘Truth isn’t truth.’ Rudy Giuliani on Meet the Press, 19 August 2018

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.

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Building Back Better – A Rather Old (and Rather Successful) Early Modern (German) Hat

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.

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Understanding the Anglo-Scottish Political Union within the United Kingdom 

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.

Cromwell at Dunbar, 1886, Andrew Carrick Gow (Wikimedia Commons)

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.      

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Race and Slavery in Early Modern England: The ‘Inadvertent’ Apprenticeship of Robert Johnson

This post is part of the Monster Carnival 2022 – Why Early Modern History Matters Now. Urvashi Chakravarty is Associate Professor of English at the University of Toronto and works on early modern literature and the history of race and slavery. She tweets at @UrvashiChakrav.

Urvashi Chakravarty

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?’).

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