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9-08-2015, 14:40

Sources for early modern history

Everything we can learn about the past is ultimately based on original sources, that is, on documents and objects from the period we are investigating. Paying greater attention to the perspective of our sources and to our own perspective in evaluating them has not changed this. But what sources exist for early modern Europe? The easiest to access are printed materials, which became steadily more numerous as the technology of the printing press spread out from Germany after 1450. By 1500 over 200 cities and towns in Europe had presses, and scholars estimate that there were somewhere between eight and twenty million incunables . (Books printed in the fi rst fi fty years after the printing press was invented are called incunables or incunabula , from the Latin words meaning “in the cradle,” because they come from the infancy of printing.) This vastly exceeds the number of books produced in all of western history up to that point, and the amounts were so fantastic that some people saw printing as an invention of the devil. This opinion did not halt the spread of printing, however, and by 1600, about 200,000 different books or editions had been printed, in press runs that averaged about 1,000 copies each. The book was thus among the fi rst modern mass-produced commodities. Printers were not in the business for charity, and they printed anything that would sell: books for lawyers, such as classical legal codes like that of the Roman Emperor Justinian, collections of customary laws, and legal commentaries, all bound in fancy leather bindings in matching sets; books for doctors, surgeons, pharmacists, and midwives, such as herbals, books of instruction, and classical medical treatises; books for students, such as manuals of language instruction, grammars, dictionaries, cheap editions of the classics, often bound in paper in smaller formats so that students could easily carry them to class; books and other printed materials for members of the clergy, such as hymnals, Latin missals, breviaries, and psalters. All of these survive in far greater numbers than manuscript examples of the same types of texts. Printed materials for what we might term the “general reader” are still more common, though it is important to recognize that even by 1789 most people in Europe could not read. Those who could were overwhelmingly urban, middle- or upper-class, and male. Their tastes in reading thus shaped the printed sources that are available to historians. What did literate people want to read? Until about 1700, they wanted to read religious materials; the best-selling authors, particularly after the Reformation in the 1520s but even before, were religious. This was both because people were very interested in religion in general and in their own salvation, and also because religious works were cheap, lively, illustrated, and gory. There were plenty of extremely expensive whole Bibles, but things like Luther’s sermons or those of popular Catholic preachers such as Bernard of Siena were published in very small paperback editions of one, two, or three sermons, putting them well within the reach of most literate buyers. In terms of their tone, they were much more like a modern political debate – the sort of thing that occurs now on television, not in the press – than a complicated theological treatise. Particularly after the Reformation, religious opponents were often harsh in their invective, with lots of name-calling and scandal-mongering. Here, for example, is Luther: “Next one should take the pope, cardinals, and whatever servants there are of his idolatry and papal holiness, and rip out their tongues at the roots as blasphemers of God and nail them on the gallows, although all this is insignifi cant punishment in relation to their blasphemy and idolatry.” 1 The illustrations in religious pamphlets were often just as dramatic, with woodcuts or engravings of Luther as the Anti-Christ or the pope as the Whore of Babylon. The pamphlet from which the quotation above comes has a woodcut illustration by Lucas Cranach showing four cardinals hanging on a scaffold with their tongues tacked up beside them. Books of saints’ lives described not only their good deeds and acts worthy of emulation, but also their violent and tragic deaths. The Reformation produced religious martyrs on all sides, and books describing their deaths were very popular; the best-selling book in English for many years was John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs , which describes in great detail the deaths of many Protestants during the reign of Mary Tudor. It is clear that people got not only religious inspiration, but what we might also call religious titillation from these best-sellers. People did not spend all their time reading religious materials, however, and printers recognized very early that there was a market for other types of books and pamphlets. They printed historical romances, such as those of King Arthur and Tristan and Isolde, and by the seventeenth century novels that told of the triumphs and tragedies of contemporary fi ctional characters. They printed biographies of historical and contemporary fi gures, the more scandalous the better, and chronicles of city or regional history. “How-to” manuals were very popular, such as herbals and books of home remedies for everything from headaches to the plague. There were guides on how to manage your money, how to run a household, how to write love letters and business letters. There was pornography, graphically illustrated, and cookbooks, also often illustrated. There were guides for travelers with handy phrases, discussions of the weather, and descriptions of the strange customs of foreign lands. After the voyages of discovery, printers discovered that people liked to read about the experiences of more adventurous travelers, and Columbus’s letters and notebooks were reprinted frequently along with those of other travelers. Enterprising publishers frequently gathered together the most bizarre and exciting stories in one volume – “Tales from Foreign Lands” or something similar – often neglecting to mention these were gathered from many sources and often contained totally fi ctitious accounts mixed in with real ones. Among this kind of travel book, those that concentrated on strange animals and creatures, called “bestiaries,” were especially popular. They described normal animals such as hedgehogs and porcupines (although giving wild stories about their habits and abilities), real ones someone had heard about such as giraffes or rhinoceroses, and fi ctitious ones such as centaurs, mermaids, and cyclopses. All of these animals were listed in alphabetical order, with no distinction made between those that were real and those that were not. Books were generally bound in cloth or leather and were often passed around or handed down from one generation to the next. They are mentioned in wills and inventories (which continued to be hand-written, not printed), which are one of our best sources about what people were actually reading , or at least what they had in their possession, indicating that someone thought they should be reading it. Wills of quite ordinary people begin to mention printed books in the late fi fteenth century, so that we know these early books were not simply in some monastery or noble library. Most of the books produced in the early modern period have long since disintegrated, of course, but many survive, and those judged important were reprinted in later centuries; modern editions of many types of works are thus widely available, either in print copies or increasingly on the web. Within the past twenty years those modern editions have included more works by women and men who were not members of the elite, thus making their ideas and words accessible to a much larger number of students and scholars. Each chapter in this book includes selections from works that were printed in the early modern period, some by well-known authors and some by less-familiar individuals. In addition to books, printers also produced much smaller, cheaper booklets, with eight, sixteen, or twenty-four pages, often called “chap-books.” They were written in very simple language with a small vocabulary, and were often illustrated, so that those who were illiterate or barely literate could also get something from them. Chap-books were sold by wandering peddlers who often sold other things as well, such as pins, needles, marbles, and (printed) playing-cards. It is difficult to tell how many of these chap-books were produced or exactly what they contained, as they had paper covers and most of them have long since disappeared. From those that have survived and from discussions of them in other sources, we can tell that many of them were about recent battles and heroes, new inventions, tools, techniques for farming and building, famous people and what was happening to them, or freakish events and strange occurrences. Similar subjects were also the subjects of single-sheet broadsides, usually illustrated and then sold on street corners. By the late sixteenth century printers began to combine these subjects together in almanacs, adding witty sayings, moral maxims, humor, horoscopes and other astrological predictions, long-term weather forecasts, and agricultural advice. By the early seventeenth century, printers in some European cities began to publish weekly newssheets, and by the early eighteenth literary and scientific pamphlets at regular intervals. For many historical questions, then, printed materials provide a steadily increasing number of sources. For other questions, however, manuscript – which literally means hand-written – sources are the only way to fi nd information. Governments slowly began to print their law codes and some offi cial decisions or proclamations after the development of the printing press, but records of the meetings and proceedings of government bodies – city councils, courts, representative assemblies – survive largely as manuscripts. Many records of the course of life – marriages, baptisms, births, deaths – were kept by church offi cials, who also recorded cases heard by church courts. Some of these records, especially for England, have been published, but most of them remain as manuscripts. The records of business – contracts, correspondence, lawsuits, expense records, ledgers, accounts – were kept by employees or by notaries; notaries also handled business matters for individuals, such as marriage contracts, adoption and apprenticeship agreements, petitions, wills, deeds, supplications, inventories. Notarial records survive for many European cities, but have seen only very selective publication. Individuals who could write produced their own records – letters, memoirs, diaries, family chronicles – some of which have been published, but many not. Reading manuscript sources requires specialized training in paleography, for not only does the language of documents vary over time and from place to place, but the style of handwriting does as well. Many of the chapters in this book include some original sources taken directly from hand-written materials, translated by historians who have learned how to read old handwriting and understand languages that may be signifi cantly different from modern European languages. Manuscript sources signifi cantly broaden the range of information available, for they can include information on individuals who would not otherwise make it into the historical record. Working people with few assets might still draw up a marriage or apprenticeship contract, an orphan might petition a city council or a nobleman for support, and anyone might show up in court records accused of a crime or serving as a witness. Manuscripts are not fully representative, however, for they include more information about unusual situations than about normal everyday life, and more about people at the top of the social and economic heap than the bottom. In the situations given above, for example, though working people might draw up a marriage contract, middle- and upper-class people did so more regularly; most orphans were cared for by their relatives with no record of their situation; by their nature, cases that end up in court are those in which someone broke the law or deviated from community norms. Confl ict-free families, friendly neighbors, and law-abiding individuals rarely show up in the historical record, so historians must always be careful not to regard what they do fi nd as the norm. Scholars must also be aware of the ways in which information is fi ltered; court records, for example, sometimes include direct testimony, and it is tempting to read these as the authentic voice of the speaker, especially because they are one of the few places prior to the rise of mass literacy where the voices of people who could not read or write emerge. Such records were written by literate, typically male individuals, however, whose perspective shaped what they heard and wrote down. The fact that many written records from this period – and other eras as well – are actually prescriptive sources such as law codes, sermons, and advice manuals, telling people how they should behave and what they should do, rather than descriptive sources, presents another problem of interpretation. They can provide a great deal of information about how their authors hoped or wished people would behave, but do not provide an accurate picture of people’s actual, lived experiences. Along with written sources, historians also use visual materials – paintings, sculpture, woodcuts, engravings, furniture, coins, buildings, kitchen implements, tombstones, needlework, jewelry, clothing, toys, tools – in short, any object produced or used during the period. Visual sources often support written texts; for example, almost all of the art that has survived from the Middle Ages is religious, reinforcing the impression gained from written works about the importance of religion in people’s lives during this period. At times, however, the visual sources contradict the written record. For example, written descriptions and laws about mining during the fi fteenth and sixteenth centuries generally mention only male miners, but paintings of mining show women engaged in various tasks such as washing and hauling ore; the illustrations in the most famous early modern reference work, the French Encyclopédie edited by Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert between 1751 and 1772, show women working at various occupations, but the text refers to male workers only. Historians are thus confronted with the issue of whether to believe the written or the pictorial record. Like written works, visual evidence can appear to be descriptive when it is actually prescriptive or idealized, showing things the way the artist wished they would be rather than the way they actually were. Images are an important means of communicating cultural values and teaching people how to behave, especially in a period when the majority of the population is illiterate, so they cannot be read as a mirror of real life. Heightened attention to the limitations and perspectives of their sources, combined with interest in a wider range of individuals and issues, has meant that historians continually fi nd new ways of gaining information. They apply modern technology to the physical remains of the past, using aerial photography, satellite imagery, DNA testing, forensic medicine, and soil composition analysis, among other methods. Though there is no way to capture oral history directly, they study folktales, popular songs, children’s rhymes, and language itself to get some idea about oral traditions. Thus they often use materials and methods of analysis drawn from archeology, geology, anthropology, linguistics, and literary criticism, as well as history and art history. They comb libraries, archives, museums, private collections, attics, drawers, and people’s memories for new sources, and also read and look at materials that have been known for centuries in new ways, demonstrating how fresh perspectives can reveal information that was always present but simply never noticed previously,

 

 

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