Implicit in the label ‘early modern’ is the assumption of transition to an end point, a tacit journey from one ‘less modern’ way of life to a more familiar historical experience. The Protestant Reformation and French Revolution act as bookends for the section of time carved out in the first year introductory module that I teach on the history of Europe, c.1500-1789. For many students, this course sits in the middle of comparable medieval and modern options. It is the conduit through which ideas and concepts shift from one thing into another.
In certain instances, this can be useful. Exploring the growth of a ‘capitalist mind-set’ before capitalism proper, thinking about identity and belief before the separation of church and state, assessing the scope of industrialisation before the ‘revolutions’ of the nineteenth century.
Whilst these labels give shape to the past and can help us to conceptualise core developments, they can also prove problematic for the way in which we do history. In this blog post I reflect on the challenges of getting to grips with ‘early modernity’ in a meaningful way.
This is especially significant when seminars sit as part of a larger survey course. Rather than move chronologically from beginning to end, the module I teach on explores a variety of core themes each week from ‘expansion and imperialism’ to ‘magic and witchcraft’ by way of ‘monarchies and courts’ and ‘household and family’. The diversity of topics provides stimulating material and gives students the freedom to pull out the examples which interest them the most. Nonetheless, implicit in this structure is the invitation to compare and contrast between the start and end dates printed on the front of the handbook.
To be sure, this is something that I have encouraged in my teaching. A good way to move toward a conclusion is to place the experience of early sixteenth-century individuals side by side with their counterparts in the late eighteenth. How different would a city look and feel from one to the other? What about the experience of the poor? The nobility? Heretics? ‘Witches’?
At the same, I also want to avoid drawing too neat a line from one ‘bookend’ to the other. This is especially important when exploring the history of a period that has been labelled as ‘almost’ modern, but not quite.
Below, I share some thoughts on how the ‘problem’ of periodisation might be tackled, and indeed embraced, in seminars. By incorporating awareness to these more thorny aspects of academic practice, we can develop the confidence to push the boundaries of chronological division and feel comfortable sitting in the grey areas that this might throw up.
The first session
After the introductions and ice breakers are over, I like to start off with the first task-based activity of the semester: talk in groups for five minutes, what do you understand by the word ‘modern’? What would you expect to find in an ‘early’ modern society?
As well as providing a route in to a potentially unfamiliar period, this is a chance to warm up and start thinking critically about the historians craft. This activity throws up some big issues. ‘Modern’ society is denoted by democracy, secularisation, capitalism, advances in communications and technology… ‘Early modern’ therefore is the test-ground where these ideas start to germinate… or is it?! Feeding back and chatting as a group, things start to get (helpfully) muddy. Right from the offset, students are actively negotiating the interpretive freight of the period that they are studying and are witness to how problematic it can be to fit the past into neat boxes.
Whose history is it anyway?
Linked in with this starter, and as a theme that can be woven across the year, I’ve tried to use my teaching to question whose ‘early modernity’ we are talking about. This can be accessed first and foremost through awareness to the varieties of contemporary experience. Does the ‘answer’ change depending on geographic location? What about social status? Age? Gender? Religious identity?
Building on from these pointers, it is also helpful to bring awareness to the role of the historian in cutting up the past and attempting to make some sort of sense out of it. How do the types of histories we write inform the conceptual framework we use? For example, asked to pin point the core dates of the period they work on, a military historian would most likely produce a different response to a specialist of the domestic interior. Both are equally valid and neither can claim to present the definitive ‘version’ of events.
Another important way of encouraging sensitivity to the ‘problem’ of periodisation is engagement with primary evidence. Of course, seminar discussion needs to incorporate space for factual content and historiographical analysis. Having said this, I’ve found it extremely beneficial to include some form of primary material in the majority of sessions. Most often, this comes in the second half of the hour after we’ve had the chance to explore the main contextual points and situate the source in its wider interpretive framework.
Working in small groups, leaving discussion relatively open, students have the chance to interact with ‘early modernity’ through the words of (some of) its residents. This focus on primary analysis has made for effective and enjoyable learning – especially when evidence doesn’t quite line up with the ‘core developments’ traced in the first half of the session. The willingness to teach the past in a way that values these rough edges has been one of the most significant developments of my own practice. This leads me to my last point…
What is the purpose of seminars?
Rather than coming away with a neatly transitional timeline from medieval to modern, I want students to grasp the messiness of life in the past and start to work out what their response to this might be. This can be achieved, in part, through a teaching practice that is self-conscious of the labels it uses and the tools it employs. Seminars are for discussion, debate, testing out ideas… For all of these reasons, teaching with a degree of uncertainty has been the most effective way I’ve found to escape the rigidity of periodisation and start getting to grips with ‘early modern’ experience as more than a stepping stone from one era to the next.