New Horizons for Early Modern European Scholarship

Since the consolidation of History as a professionalized discipline in the nineteenth century, the study of early modern Europe has stimulated some of its most provocative and creative scholarship.  From Leopold Ranke to Jakob Burkhardt to Fernand Braudel to Natalie Zemon Davis, historians of Europe between 1450-1750 argued that movements like the Renaissance, Reformation, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, and state formation drove the emergence of the world we inhabit today. In the second half of the twentieth century early modern Europeanists also devised innovative methodologies such as histoire totale and cultural history, which inspired historians of other times and places to generate groundbreaking transformations in their own fields.

Early modern Europe was thus long one of the premier fields within the discipline.  In the last twenty years, however, urgent new questions and perspectives have intensified attention to phenomena like empire, the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of plantation slavery, generally centered on the modern period. Historians of early modern Europe have also engaged with these topics and incorporated a broader global perspective more sensitive to earlier omissions and prejudices, but the increasing centrality of these themes has directed the attention of historians more broadly to other periods and places. 

At the same time, the early modern Europe field has also developed new approaches and opportunities in recent decades with a focus on the history of practices of learning and scholarship. In New Horizons for Early Modern European Scholarship, we foreground the emergence of the methodologies of Book History and the History of Knowledge with a focus on early modern Europe and the suggestion that they may prove inspiring to other fields too. Both approaches grow out of multiple subdisciplines. Book History started coalescing in the 1980s by drawing on earlier strands of work in the history of mentalités, but also literary theory and bibliography. The History of Knowledge, coined in the 2010s, builds on studies of knowledge production in the history of science and intellectual history. 

“Book history” is now something of a misnomer, for its foundational questions concerning the production and reception of printed books are now widely applied to all media of communication – as we write in the introduction, “at this point, anywhere there is text, there can be book history” – and essays in the volume reveal, for example, how to direct book historical methods towards the study of material culture and how to see the simultaneous participation and elision of Native knowledge in European natural historical texts.  Similarly, the History of Knowledge offers a more expansive model for considering the production of knowledge by taking seriously the learning and ingenuity of peoples, spaces, and technologies typically seen as outside the purview of intellectual history.  

Book History and the History of Knowledge furnish valuable tools for examining both developments internal to early modern Europe and the impact of European encounters with peoples and places elsewhere.  Early modern Europe, on this perspective, was a moment of intellectual chaos and possibility, not entrenchment.  Similarly, this approach treats early modern Europe’s intellectual and commercial interactions with African, Asian, and American peoples as genuine exchanges – often on deeply unequal footing, to be sure – whose contours and consequences can best be understood through categories like production, transmission, adaptation, and reception. It thus provides a way of thinking about globalization that respects all involved parties’ expertise and sees negotiations between their knowledge as driving world transformations. 

The study of early modern Europe, in short, has remained dynamic as historians have invigorated and developed their studies of previously neglected moments. We hope our volume, New Horizons for Early Modern European Scholarship, will prompt our readers to think in new ways about the myriad complexities of this time and place, but also about globalization, and the practice of History as a whole. 

Order New Horizons for Early Modern European Scholarship at the following link:

Ann Blair is the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor in the Department of History at Harvard University. She is the author of Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age. Nicholas Popper is an associate professor of history at the College of William & Mary and the author of Walter Ralegh's "History of the World" and the Historical Culture of the Late Renaissance. Together, Blair and Popper are the editors of New Horizons for Early Modern European Scholarship.

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