Monthly Archives: December 2008

The American Historical Review’s Crisis

Before I start on the rest of this post, I wanted to mention two of the ways people get tricked into looking at my blog.  Every now and then I look at the search strings that lead people to it, and one of the most frequent is the reference I made to Flight of the Conchords a while back (“Another Way That Love Is Similar to Tape”).  I think more people find this site searching for that than “Gilbert Mabbott.”  However, my favorite yet has been someone searching for “interesting events of the 1640s.”  I really want to know who that person was.

Anyone who has been following this blog (all 2 of you, including me) knows that I taught a course on the Seventeenth-Century Crisis this summer.  So I was pleased when a friend of mine brought to my attention the October issue of the American Historical Review.  It revisits the crisis with four articles written by Jonathan Dewald, Geoffrey Parker, Michael Marmé, and J. B. Shank.  I promptly borrowed the issue and have yet to return it, but I finally got around to reading the pertinent material.

Obviously, four articles cannot discuss all the elements of the crisis that have been churned up over the last fifty years.  One thing that they all contributors agreed on (with the possible exception of Shank) was that the crisis was not solely a European event.  There was some kind of world phenomenon.  With that said, two of the articles were not directly about the general crisis.  Dewald’s begins by trying to put the crisis historiography in contemporary context, but by the end, the discussion turns into a question of how to explain the rise of the West.  Shank’s does not discuss the general crisis, but rather critiques the usefulness of the concept in history, with a stern reminder that history is not a science.

I would have to say that Dewald’s article was my favorite.  It is always eye-opening to turn those historian skills back on ourselves.  His survey of important contributions to the development of the crisis historiography is enlightening, and made me wonder why we think social, political, or economic change cannot come without the others.  Obviously these things are bound together, but it should not be a dictum of our work.  Dewald show how Marxism rather deeply influenced the work, even that of non-Marxists, and that much of the debate has been between two groups of historians: British and French.  After discussing some of the major transformations of the debate, he ends by considering the seventeenth century as a point of transition to modernity.  Earlier and more contemporary formulations of the crisis have presented it as a turning point in European history, and perhaps the moment where the West began its rise to global hegemony (as in the work of Jonathan Israel).  Dewald also cites other historians, such as Kenneth Pomeranz, who would explicitly disagree, and ends by suggesting historians should take another look at linking European crisis and global expansion.

Geoffrey Parker’s “Crisis and Catastrophe: The Global Crisis of the Seventeenth Century Reconsidered”  emphasizes the role of nature in creating the global crisis.  He has a great deal of statistics and impressive research to prove that the mid-seventeenth century experience a large number of difficult weather events, from cold to drought to flooding.  However, he does not wish to overstate the case, indicating that the resulting famines and unrest exacerbated political problems in many places, but did not create them, with a lengthy discussion of the case of Scotland leading up to the Bishops’ Wars.  In some cases, other disgruntled groups only raised up in revolt upon witnessing the example of others (Ireland).  Of course, no mention of the British Civil Wars would be complete without also blaming Charles for his “intransigence.”  Parker ends with a call to better understand the effects of climate change to better bolster ourselves for our own changing climate.

Michael Marmé’s article on East Asia furthers the discussion of the connection between climate, crisis, and capitalism.  By looking mostly at the Lower Yangzi macroregion, he shows that Europe was not the only part of the world to come through with a more developed kind of capitalism as a result of reformulated social and political structures.  It is a sharp reminder to avoid Eurocentric views of history and the creation of modernity.  However, while reminding us that there are multiple paths to modernity, Marmé has cited a shared event (climate change) to explain two independent creations of a form of capitalism.  Of course, his discussion is a bit more nuanced than I have baldly stated it.

J. B. Shanks’s short article has a much more fundamental challenge to the crisis historiography.  He denies the usefulness of the term as a means for understanding history.  He emphasizes that human societies are not synonymous to human bodies, making the medical term, crisis, somewhat inapplicable.  He also decries the attempts to turn history into a science.  He argues that historians are at their best when they are not trying to be scientists.  He does not entirely disavow the use of the term, as long as only a usefully framework and metaphor, an aid to imagination rather than a scientific category.

I wish that I would have been able to read this set of articles before I taught my summer class.  Dewald’s article was a very insightful discussion of the evolution of the historical concept, and certainly the discussion of climate change would have been beneficial.  However, these articles will not provoke the kind of thought and debate as did the Past and Present issue from which they drew their inspiration.  As many of these authors lamented, the field has become too fractured to instigate any meaningful exchanges.  An unifying agent, like climate, still seems unable to convince historians to think in anything but a particularist way.  All these historians emphasized the importance of contingency in each of the areas discussed.  It is difficult to imagine a careful and detailed discussion of a crisis that spanned the entire globe, especially with the amount of local and minute research there has been.  It was hard enough drawing connections between Civil War England and the Catalan Revolt.  Did the inhabitants of Easter Island suddenly produce a whole lot more giant stone heads?

However, world history as a field is still rather young.  The earliest attempt to write a world history in recent memory, I believe, was William McNeill’s The Rise of the West (1963).  Since then, there have been a wide array of attempts to write a history of the whole world.  My favorite has been Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony (1989).  Still, her history is economic, as are most world histories.  Trying to combine climate change and its attendant economic effects with local political and social situations around the globe is an entirely different animal.  Is anyone up for  the challenge?

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Lake and Pincus and the Public Sphere

I apologize for my extended absence.  It’s been quite a busy time, what with Thanksgiving, teaching, fires, floods, and what seems to be the beginning of the apocalypse.  Still, I thought with my first post back, I might be able to contribute something useful.

I have recently completed seven of the chapters in Peter Lake and Steven Pincus’s The Politics of the Public Sphere in Early Modern England (2007).  Although the extent to which the individual articles actually engage in discussing the public sphere varies, as they always do in such collections, the overall effect is to provide a far more nuanced and thoughtful picture of what England’s burgeoning public sphere looked like.  I’m not entirely up on my public sphere historiography, so I don’t always know how new some of these concepts are, but I thought I would try my hand anyway.

The book begins with a joint work by Lake and Pincus, called “Rethinking the Public Sphere in Early Modern England.”  It originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of the JBS.  It is an interesting piece on its own, but I have to say that it makes a lot more sense now that I’ve read Pincus’s own article in the collection, and especially now that I’ve read Lake’s.  In it, they renew and reorganize Habermas’s original theory.  While they appreciate the periodization that Habermas used in general to separate the four major stages of the public sphere, they alter the names and periods of the stages.  The two most important for my interest, and presumably anyone who would be reading this blog, are the Post-Reformation and the Post-Revolutionary public spheres.

I suppose “fits and starts” is the best way to describe this post-revisionist view of the transformation of the public sphere.  Peter Lake’s later chapter does a better job of explaining the Post-Reformation sphere, but the basic argument is that under Elizabeth, the frequent popish scares and concerns over the succession led to a more regular, more (relatively) open discussion of matters of state.  However, this discussion was still largely dominated by traditional elites.  This sphere sputters from crisis to crisis, only achieving longevity because of the regularity of the crises faced by the Elizabethan regime.

The post-revolutionary public sphere also began in “fits and starts,” starting with the well-known explosion of printing in the 1640s, which, by the 1650s, made the constant supply of news and debate seem almost normal.  However, it was the conflict between the agricultural and manufacturing interests that finally made the new sphere permanent.  This is better described in Pincus’s chapter, but briefly, this is the closest part to the “bourgeois public sphere.”  While there was no “crisis of capitalism,” as Habermas put it, there was a struggle concerning the future of England’s economy.  Ultimately, the needs of the state (and war) persuaded the English government to side with the manufacturing and merchant interests, which promised a more elastic and expandable source of income.  The matter was finally settled at the accession of William.  This policy, which relied on businessmen, demanded that these men be able to exchange information, and thus the sphere became permanent.  These have been oversimplifications of Lake and Pincus’s work, but this is only a blog.

A number of the chapters deal with what exactly “public” meant.  Richard Cust’s article, “The ‘public man’ in late Tudor and early Stuart England,” discusses the early evolution of the court/country divide.  As the reputation of the court blackened in the 1590s and particularly under James after the Overbury Affair, being an outsider became and more and more powerful trope.  The court was full of projectors and ambitious men.  The country had “real” Englishmen.

Several of the chapters, including Cust’s, insist on the classical basis of the public.  Stuart gentlemen were educated by men like Cicero, who found public service to be their duty.  For Cust, the “public man” was formed by his classical education as well as a healthy dose of contemporary Calvinism, which emphasized the divine nature of magisterial posts (and does call to mind the “inferior magistrate” resistance theory) and the virtues of reason, wisdom, faith, and conscience.

Anne Hughes also discusses the public, but she discusses its relation to the private, and the gendering of both spheres.  She starts by discussing the masculinity of the public and the feminity of the private, especially in the parliamentarian view.  Thus, Charles was repeatedly feminized as was monarchy in general, which was private as opposed to the commonwealth’s public.  Charles’s uxoriousness was none too well received either.

Hughes also illustrates the ways in which private life contributed to public life.  In contrast to Habermas’s model, which separated the public and the private, she discusses a few anecdotes that illustrate the ways in which the public depended on the private.  For instance, Bulstrode Whitelocke’s wife was critical, in his own estimation, to his political success.  Sir Henry Vane demonstrated his public capability through his control of his private life.  Hughes then goes on to discuss some further models for mixing public and private, and others that reinforced the masculinity of the public.

Anthony Milton’s discussion of the Amboyna Massacre, and the East India Company’s difficult position as a semi-official institution, is a well-nuance examination of what might be considered part of the accidental emergence of the public sphere.  In this sense, it emphasizes the “fits and starts” aspect to Lake and Pincus’s argument.

In response to the Amboyna Massacre, the EIC was keen to seek revenge on the Dutch.  In this pursuit, it formed a semi-public campaign against the Dutch.  Since the EIC recognized its dependence on the crown, it shyed away from courting popularity, but rather tried to sway the political elite into supporting more aggressive action against the Dutch.  Since Charles was keen to form an alliance with the Dutch against the Spanish, the EIC proved unable to do so.  Whatever public debate it generated was not intended for the wider public, but for political elites.  There was no dichotomy between public sphere and government here; the EIC was trying to work within the royal administration.  However, one might see how this contributed to the eventual formation of a Post-Revolutionary Public Sphere.  There was a trade dispute involved, and Milton does suggest at the end of the article that commercial stock companies are excellent institutions to examine as they relied on investor confidence.

Overall, this volume adds much greater depth to our understanding of the public sphere.  This public sphere was a largely accidental creation, contingent upon particular episodes in English history rather than a long march toward capitalism or liberal democracy.  As a whole, this volume supplies a variety of possible causes to the formation of the public sphere, some of which were utterly distasteful to contemporaries (for instance, libelling).  It also recognizes the classical education of these Englishmen; they looked backward, not forward.  The public sphere was not just waiting to be born, and contemporaries were more often than not trying to work within the governmental framework.

I was a little surprised that there was not an article specifically on newsbooks, Interregnum publishing, or the Restoration coffeehouses.  As the opening chapter indicated, the 1640s and 1650s were an initial salvo, though perhaps not the crucial factor, in the creation of the Post-Revolutionary public sphere.  As well, the coffeehouses played an integral part in Habermas’s formulation.  Perhaps this is just my own biases coming to the surface.

Nonetheless, though I did not read the complete book, I found it very enjoyable and thought-provoking.  The public sphere has been put in firm historical context by a number of eminent historians.  It is certainly not a definitive work, and sociologists will complain about the lack of theory, but it is definitely worth reading.

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