What is Early Modern History?
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What is Early Modern History?

Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks

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eBook - ePub

What is Early Modern History?

Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks

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About This Book

What is Early Modern History? offers a concise guide to investigations of the era from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries and an entry-point to larger questions about how we divide and organize the past and how the discipline of history has evolved. Merry Wiesner-Hanks showcases the new research and innovative methods that have altered our understanding of this fascinating period. She examines various subfields and approaches in early modern history, and the marks of modernity that scholars have highlighted in these, from individualism to the Little Ice Age. Moving beyond Europe, she surveys the growth of the Atlantic World and global history, exploring key topics such as the Columbian Exchange, the slave trade, cultural interactions and blending, and the environment. She also considers popular and public representations of the early modern period, which are often how students – and others – first become curious. Elegantly written and passionately argued, What is Early Modern History? provides an essential invitation to the field for both students and scholars.

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Economic and Social History

The phrase “early modern” began to be used first in economic history. Along with the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the voyages of Columbus, the transformation of the European economy through investment in new, larger-scale processes of trade and production, what is usually called the “rise of capitalism,” has long been viewed as a central factor in the development of the modern world, which fully emerged with industrialization. Another traditional mark of modernity is the increasing importance of persons as individuals rather than members of social groups. The Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818–97), who really created the idea of the Renaissance as a distinct period of time, saw “individuality” as one of its defining features.1 In the century and a half since Burckhardt wrote, his notion of the individualism of the Renaissance has been rethought and revised along several lines. Medieval historians have asserted that the individual was important since at least the tenth century, and scholars of the Renaissance and early modern periods have emphasized that groups of all sorts – families, clans, neighborhoods, guilds – remained extremely important into the eighteenth century, or even into the twenty-first century for many people. The rise of both capitalism and the individual remain important themes in economic and social history, however.
Economic history began in the late nineteenth century as a field within history, but it has increasingly come to be seen as part of economics. Scholars studying the history of economic developments have often applied theories drawn from economics, and during the 1960s they increasingly began to use quantitative methods and econometric techniques as well, in what was dubbed “cliometrics” (from Clio, the muse of history). Cliometric approaches, with lots of charts, graphs, and mathematical models, are common in most economic history journals, and the vast majority of the authors in articles in them are trained as economists and affiliated with departments of economics.2 (In the United States, faculty in economics tend to make salaries at least twice as high as those in history, so there is a very practical economic reason that graduate students interested in such issues choose economics over history.) As with every trend, there has been a reaction to the use of both economic theory and statistical models, and a call for more qualitative evidence and broader contextualization. In addition, since about 2010, scholars trained in history departments have created what they term the “new history of capitalism,” which takes a more critical view of economic developments than do many economists and focuses on the human costs involved.3
Social history first took off in the 1930s, when some historians turned their attention from the traditional subjects of historical inquiry such as political developments, diplomatic changes, military events, and major intellectual movements to investigating the lives of ordinary people. Social history attracted more people in the 1960s, as historians and activists used historical investigation of past incidents of racial, class, or religious oppression in support of demands for change in present institutions and power structures. Sometimes termed the “new social history,” this focused on a huge range of topics – work and leisure, mobility, social movements, urbanization, peasants and rural life, family, childhood, education, and many other aspects of ordinary life. Some of these became their own sub-fields, with specialized journals and learned societies, including labor history, urban history, rural history, the history of childhood, historical demography, and women’s and gender history. (For the latter, see Chapter 3.)
The early modern period has been an important element in both economic and social history since they first developed. Economic history of the era ranges from theoretical metanarratives to computer-assisted data analysis of bodies of statistics to studies of a single commodity. The topics, scope, and methods of social history are even broader.

Economic history

In the sixteenth century, a few thinkers, such as the Italian philosopher and diplomat Giovanni Botero (1544–1617), began to conceptualize power not simply in military terms but also demographically and economically. By the eighteenth century, economists and economic theorists began to emphasize the powerful role of capitalism. In the same way that Vasari saw Italian artists of his own era as taking art to levels it had never before achieved, the Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723–90), in his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), saw recent developments as offering great possibilities for economic growth. This would come, he thought, particularly through free trade and open competition in both products and labor, the economic system later called capitalism, though Smith himself did not use this word. The German philosopher, historian, and economist Karl Marx (1818–83), living during the Industrial Revolution (another period label devised after the fact), agreed with Smith that capitalism promoted economic growth. He saw the origins of that growth not in free exchange, however, but in the excess profits made by workers (the “proletariat”), which flowed to the entrepreneurs who employed them (the “bourgeoisie”) and who owned the land, raw materials, and equipment (the “means of production”). For Marx, all history was class struggle; capitalism had replaced feudalism in which the nobility was the dominant class, and would in turn be replaced by a classless communist society in which workers would control the means of production. Marx viewed England from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries as the prototype of capitalism, as landowners created larger and more productive farms through the enclosure of common lands, and then used the profits from these to invest in trade and industry, while peasants became wage laborers in cities.4
The influence of Marx on historians interested in how economics shaped early modern Europe is vast. British Marxist historians – a large group – examined what they termed the “great arch” of capitalist development from the fourteenth century to their own day, often using local and regional records to study what is usually called “history from below” or “bottom-up history.” Rodney Hilton, for example, examined conflicts between landlords and peasants evident in parish, manorial, and taxation records, and Christopher Hill the actions and ideas of both the “middling sort” and dissenting radical groups in the English Civil War, some of which advocated communal ownership of property and other means of social levelling.5 Focusing on a slightly later period, E.P. Thompson investigated how working people in the period from the 1780s to the 1830s made themselves into the “working class” through collective and individual actions rather than through impersonal forces operating from the outside.6
Historians have developed more complex ideas about how the economy expanded. Rather than seeing industrialization as a sudden break in the late eighteenth century, they emphasized its long roots. The French historian Franklin Mendels invented the concept and term “proto-industrialization” to describe market-oriented production by rural men, women, and children, in which they were paid for their labor by urban investors, who owned the raw materials, finished products, and in some cases tools and machinery.7 Proto-industrial production used hand tools or simple machinery, often in textiles, and allowed peasant families to supplement their agricultural production with other types of work. For some, wages became their only source of income, making them completely dependent on market conditions that might be international in scope.
Initially economic historians saw proto-industrialization as a phase that preceded the fully industrial economy with its factories and power machinery, but more recently they have emphasized the fluidity and simultaneity of various forms of production rather than one single line of development.8 Mendels and other early scholars of proto-industry thought that this allowed poor peasants to marry and begin having children earlier, beginning the gradual rise in European population that later became an explosion.9 Now historians understand that declining death rates were more important than rising birth rates, ...

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