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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