A Blast from the Past: A historiographical essay I wrote in 1997 for a hypothetical Early Modern European Cultural History survey course

August 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

The things I find when searching through old folders.  See if this course proposal sounds interesting to you.  I wrote this back in the Spring of 1997, when I was 22, almost 23 years old.

Cultural history, more than other subdisciplines in history, involves a wide variety of topics and a corresponding number of sources.  By necessity, culture itself is a very broad and amorphous term.  What is culture?  According to Peter Burke, in his introduction to his book on European popular culture, culture is “a system of shared meanings, attitudes, and values, and the symbolic forms in which they are expressed or embodied” (Burke xi).  In this sense of the word, culture reflects the society in which it exists.

The definition of culture as being the outward expressions of human behavior, whether articulated, as in conscious dialogue like books and stories, or non-articulated, as in rituals such as rough ridings and churchings, differs from older definitions which viewed culture as being only the recorded elements of everyday interactions among people.  In this syllabus, I intend to demonstrate the differences between these two points by including samples from each school of cultural thought.

The proposed course attempts to discuss cultural developments over a large span of European history.  Traditionally, the fourteenth century arguably has marked the beginnings of cultural self-analysis, as the humanists, beginning with Dante and continuing through Boccaccio, revived the study of classical Greek and Roman societies.  Although this period underwent rapid shifts, whether in terms of religious belief or political organization, I believe that there are certain trends that developed during this time that need to be addressed.

New cultural history has been heavily influenced by the writings of poststructuralists such as Michel Foucault.  Although I have not included Foucault in my syllabus, I intend to reviewing some of his more famous works, like his studies such as Order of Things, Human Sexuality, and Madness, as they have heavily influenced later discussions of early modern European cultural practice.  Earlier writers, like Jakob Burckhardt, have tended to place too much emphasis on the modernizing aspects of early modern European culture.  In doing so, they have often neglected to examine contemporary attitudes.  In include works by Dante and Bunyan not just to provide a glimpse into contemporary religious beliefs, but also to illustrate how these authors viewed their own societies in general.  Bunyan’s descriptions of the City of Destruction is not intended just to give hope to the average Protestant Christian, but also to condemn the perverseness of late seventeenth century English life.

In developing this course, I believed that certain themes in early modern European cultural life needed to be addressed.  These themes, some of which are listed in the syllabus, include the importance of cultural symbols, the interrelationships between people and their societies, religious beliefs, individual and collective structures, as well as the exportation and importation of cultural elements from differing cultural regions.  Related to these topics are such questions as whether or not cultural polarization occurred during this time, how did cultural groups view themselves, and what were the differences and similarities between Western European societies.  I believe that a seminar class, with its increased focus on specialized topics, addresses these issues in a better manner than traditional lecture classes.

Peter Burke’s book on early modern European culture is the best attempt that I have found to combine cultural events across Europe during this time in an attempt to provide a synthesis.  He was one of the first authors to try to analyze popular culture, or cultures, in relation to actions and inner expressions as well as outer expressions such as art and poetry.  Burke in his 1978 book championed the notion of cultural polarization, noting that throughout this period, there came to be a widening divergence between patrician and plebeian cultures.  In his article on seventeenth century London, Burke theorizes that popular culture by the end of this period was becoming more passive, as the elites managed, through their control of the printed media, to shape and alter popular attitudes and cultural symbols.  Although I disagree with many of his conclusions, especially about the increased passivity of popular culture, Burke’s book provides an excellent starting place for a discussion of cultural symbols and the interrelationships between the elites and the poorer classes.

With this in mind, I selected a variety of books and articles to provide not just detailed studies of cultural symbols like childbirth, but also in order to test Burke’s theories.  Although I did not include them in my course readings, Keith Thomas’s book on religion and the decline of magic and Keith Wrightson’s introduction regarding early modern English social life provide corroborating evidence for some of Burke’s theses, especially regarding the cultural divergence into elite and popular culture.  Some, like Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson, focused on the differences between popular and elite culture to such a degree that, as in the case of hill’s book on the radical ideas that developed during the English Revolution, all sense of interdependent relationships between the two were lost.  Natalie Zemon Davis in her book on the sixteenth century French pardon tales emphasizes the connection between plebeian pleas for royal intervention and the elite’s justification of their own privileges through the tacit acceptance by the peasants of their cultural and social superiority.

The novels are included for a number of reasons.  As they are written records documenting the attitudes and prejudices of those individuals who wrote them during the early modern era, more so than secondary accounts they can provide clues to a variety of questions regarding culture.  Boccaccio’s stories in The Decameron were drawn from a rich pool of popular folk tales.  Although Boccaccio himself belonged to the privileged classes, he was able to use a common cultural tradition of storytelling that transcended class in order to provide common cultural traditions.  In this sense, Boccaccio, as Burke notes in his revised introduction, acts as a mediator between patrician and plebeian cultures.  Chaucer, even more than Boccaccio, ties the elite and popular traditions together.  The pilgrims in his Canterbury Tales were a motley group that included the nobility (the Knight and his son), the peasants (the Miller), and the nascent bourgeoisie (the Wife of Bath).  Along with the religious orders present among them, the pilgrims told stories that ranged form the courtly to the bawdy.  Chaucer’s skill in integrating these elements into a coherent narrative structure demonstrates his ability to move between the two cultures.

Elements of popular culture that this proposed course will examine include social interactions, like gender relations, as well as some intellectual developments, primarily in the field of political theory.  I have included these topics because during this period there was a shift away from an emphasis on the collective to a focus on the individual.  The concept of a nuclear family emerged during this time and although the village still exerted a strong pull on familial relations, it steadily declined as a social force.  This emphasis on individuality is reflected in someo f the writings of the time, namely The Pilgrim’s Progress, where the valiant Christian, with the help of only a couple of like-minded souls, struggles against the iniquities of his social world.  In the intellectual writings of the time, individuals like Machiavelli and Galileo implicitly challenged earlier conceived notions of authority, whether it was a belief in the divine approval of royal authority or in a geocentric universe.  This increased focus on the centrality of the individual played a major role in the Reformation, which was unfolding during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Many authors like Hill would argue that the Reformation marked a major break with the past.  They would argue that the Reformation, especially in its Calvinist guise, placed stress upon the individual, who was to be the cultivator of his own religiosity.  Although this is in a sense true,  the continuities with the past are often overlooked in these authors’ works.  Some, like Martin Brecht, are so immersed in their studies of the major Protestant figures like Luther that they sometimes neglect to analyze the sources of his religious ideas.  I include selections from the multi-volume collection of Luther’s works because I believe that by examining Luther’s own writings in the context of previous religious movements like the German Mystics, one can see a continuation of certain religious trends such as an inward focus on the individual, marked by Luther’s call for a “priesthood of all believers” where one would be saved by faith, as opposed to the earlier emphasis on outward forms of piety, such as the veneration of the saints.

In discussing the impact of the Reformation, I have taken a nation by nation approach, since each nation, whether Protestant like England, Catholic like France, or mixed like Germany, reacted to the Reformation in different ways.  In the case of France, the course readings do not directly discuss the rise of religious turmoil, but in Davis’s Return of Martin Guerre, there is a sense from the readings that many of the individuals present in her story seem to be Protestants, like the presiding judge and Martin’s wife.  Combined with Davis’s other book on the pardon tales, the case of Martin Guerre illustrates some of the aspects of French cultural life during the early modern era.

In the case of England, I use a number of different documents, like Bunyan’s novel, Burke’s article on seventeenth century London, David Underdown’s case study of Dorchester, and Hill’s account of the religious radicals during the English Revolution.  Each of these is designed to discuss different aspects of English religious life.  Bunyan’s book, as mentioned earlier, deals with the struggles of a pious Calvinist in a harsh world.  His use of allegories to explain theology resembles in many manners Langland’s book, who also used allegories to tell his story of redemption.  Although Bunyan’s emphasis on inner piety stands in marked contrast to Langland’s concentration on sacramental observation, the two have enough in common that they combined can present the changes that occurred in English religious life.

David Underdown in his book on Dorchester took a case study approach toward discussing the impact that Calvinism had on English society.  Although he at times appears to be too enthusiastic about the benefits of Calvinism, his book provides a detailed account of the adjustments, albeit temporary, that Calvinism made on venial actions like drinking and premarital sex.

Christopher Hill’s book is included in part that it is written from an older perspective.  Unlike most of the previous authors, who in passing discuss the internal mechanics of cultural interaction, Hill focuses on the relationship between the radical ideas of reformers like Gerald Winstanley and the development of later modern political and social thought.  His book, with its attempt to demonstrate a strong connection between the past and present, is the only Marxist literature included in my reading list.  Although there are many problems with it, Hill’s book gives one perspective of how to view the past.

Germany is tougher to analyze than either France or England due to the fragmentary nature of the German Reich during this time.  Germany was divided not only politically, but also culturally and religiously.  The doctrine of cuius regio, eius religio established as imperial law the division of Germany into armed camps, a situation which destabilized during the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648.  In discussing German cultural life, I have included Thomas Brady’s article because it provides a background for the other two books included in the section.  David Sabean’s book on popular culture in Württemberg covers a long range of time and his emphasis on the interrelationships between person, community, and Herrschaft, or authority, fits well with one of my themes, that of the relationships between individuals and their societies.  H.J.C. von Grimmelhausen lived through the turmoil of the Thirty Years’ War and his novel Simplicius Simplicissimus gives in his chapter on the Order of the Marauder Brothers a tongue-in-cheek account of his experiences in the last stages of the fighting in the 1640s.  As in the case of the other novels, I believe that the adventures of Simplicissimus gives a graphic account unfettered by historical analysis of the experiences that many Germans went through during this destructive conflict.

The last segment of the course, on heretics, is devoted primarily to discussing the works of Carlo Ginzburg.  His book The Cheese and the Worms, which provides an account of the heretical opinions of an Italian miller, has proved to be a very influential work.  His emphasis on detail over analysis is reflected in other accounts like that of Martin Guerre.  The relevance of Menocchio’s religious theories is overshadowed by Ginzburg’s storyteller approach to presenting the Inquisition’s two trials of the miller.  Ginzburg, more so than Davis, takes a microhistorical approach to analyzing ideas and beliefs.  This approach reflects a trend present in many recent historical works toward de-emphasizing the role of the author in presenting the story.  Although one may question whether or not Ginzburg provides counterfactual evidence to critique or bolster his own implicit selection of the archival material, Ginzburg’s book signals a shift away from direct historical analysis toward a more personalized approach, where the reader takes the evidence present and draws his or her own conclusions.

As mentioned earlier, this course presumes to discuss certain themes like the importance of cultural symbols, change, and cultural polarization.  These questions are very difficult to answer, and I believe that these questions should be addressed by the students themselves.  That is why I have purposely included the novels in the reading requirements.  I believe that the novels give not only contemporary attitudes, but by examining the material without the benefits of historical analysis, students can draw their own conclusions as to the connections between the readings that the questions posed at the beginning of this paper.  Likewise Ginzburg and Davis, although they are separated by centuries and cultural differences from their subjects, attempt to describe the cultures that they have studied without coloring their accounts with too much analysis.  However, I do believe that some historical analysis is necessary in order to understand adequately some of the problems facing historians studying this era of European history.  Therefore I have included works by authors like Christopher Hill and Martin Brecht, who despite their flaws, try to place their writings in a certain school of thought.  Although I realize that this course structure can be very challenging to most undergraduate students, I believe that those who are dedicated to attempting to discuss the changes in early modern European culture will leave the class better able to critique their own culture and their roles in it.

Although I cringed a few times as I typed this out, I thought perhaps a few might be interested to see what I had written for a course 15 years ago.  There were other elements to that paper that I didn’t photocopy and save that, if available, would have provided the syllabus itself and the full list of readings and recommended other literature.

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