28 Jan

What is Early Modern History?

Posted By Politybooks

By Merry Wiesner-Hanks

Way back in 2018, in our former world, the editors at Polity asked me if I would be interested in writing this book. I’ve thought (and sometimes written) about “early modern” for a long time, first in discussions with other historians of women and gender, and then in discussions with other world and global historians. Both of these groups are rightly suspicious of meta-narratives, of which “modernity” is about as meta as you can get. But I had found some of the other books in the series very helpful – although my favorite among recent Polity titles is Peter Burke’s Cultural Hybridity – and thought this might be fun to do. It was.

It allowed me to think about why I became an early modernist in the first place, which took me back to Philip Kintner’s classes at Grinnell College in the early 1970s, from whom I first learned about both historiography and the Renaissance. Some of the people he introduced me to are in the book, of course: Jacob Burckhardt (whose name I have finally learned to spell, in contrast to my first paper on him), Leonardo Bruni, Max Weber, Peter Laslett. Some sections start with historiography I first learned in graduate school with Robert Kingdon at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: Norbert Elias, Heiko Oberman, Heinz Schilling, and a host of other Germans. Natalie Davis introduced me to theory – which at this point was coming from anthropology, not literature – and to the Annales school, one of the anchors for social history in the book. (The other is the British Marxists and their “history from below.”)

There are also many types of history in the book that didn’t exist in the 1970s: the history of the body, the emotions and the senses; material culture history; trans history; crowd-sourced digital history projects. No matter what aspect of life historians investigate, they are likely to see the roots of modernity there, or of multiple modernities, varied and contingent on culture and historical circumstances. In exploring these new directions, I was able to reach out to many people for help, from Euan Cameron, who is writing a book on Christian understanding of time, to my son Kai, an expert on Japanese video games of the Warring States period, featured in the chapter on popular and public history, along with the Louvre’s DaVinci exhibit, Hilary Mantel, Hamilton, and heaving Tudor bosoms, male and female. “What is early modern history?” is not just a question that matters to historians, but also to the wider public, who actively engage with the era through everything from juggling at a Renaissance fair to singing madrigals to transcribing recipes.

I divided the book into types of history, but what ended up interesting me most are places where these intersect, including one that could be a contender for a new moniker for the era. I talk about this in the environmental history section of the chapter, “The Global Early Modern”:

The world hunt for beaver provides another good example of the ways many types of history intertwine. Hat-makers in Europe prized beaver fur for men’s hats because the inner fur was dense and had small barbs, so could be easily felted and formed into hats of different shapes, and then brushed to a glossy sheen. Demand was so high that by the seventeenth century European and Siberian beaver had been nearly hunted and trapped to extinction, and traders turned to North America. The demand for beaver fur was a major factor in the Iroquois Wars of the seventeenth century – sometimes called the Beaver Wars – in which the nations of the Iroquois Confederacy of the eastern Great Lakes region of North America expanded their area of control, taking land from the Algonquins, Wyandot (Hurons), and other groups. The Iroquois appear to have been expansionist before the fur trade gave them an added incentive for warfare, but now the stakes were higher, and the weapons more deadly, as the Dutch and later the English supplied them with guns. The Iroquois may also have been attempting to capture individuals from other tribes to replace the many in their own who had died from warfare or the diseases brought by Europeans, especially smallpox and measles. They later became important combatants in the Seven Years’ War, allies of the British against the French. European traders brought goods of interest to both men and women, including guns, rum, cloth, kettles, beads, flour, needles, and tea. Europeans only wanted fur, however, hunted and trapped by men, which made men’s activities more highly valued among Native Americans than women’s horticulture. At the same time, Native American women who married French fur traders served as cultural intermediaries, constructing mixed-race kinship networks that facilitated the trade in furs and other goods. Thus without much effort, we can see economic, social, cultural, material, women’s, gender, medical, technological, food, political, military, imperial, and environmental history in the Iroquois Wars, all sparked by men’s fashion. The fur trade had such a broad impact, in fact, that we could perhaps rename the early modern period the Beaver Hat Period, as references to beaver hats appear first in the late fourteenth century, and beaver hats went out style in the early nineteenth century, replaced by ones made of silk.

Will “beaver hat period” replace “early modern era”? Probably not, though I might write a book explaining why it could. But I hope this book de-mystifies periodization, and helps readers to understand that this somewhat clunky word is an interpretive act we all do to make meaning of the past, including our own lives. We decide – usually after the fact – which changes mark dramatic breaks, and which years form an intelligible grouping. We give these periods a name.

The book ends with a brief afterword about where the field might go from here, which is what we are all wondering now about everything, as we contemplate various timelines the coronavirus will allow. But periodization is retrospective, and right now we have no idea when “after” will be.

Merry Wiesner-Hanks is Distinguished Professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies (Emerita) at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her book, What is Early Modern History?, is now available in Europe and will be available in North America from March 19th.