Memory before Modernity. Memory Cultures in Early Modern Europe
In the last two decades memory studies have become a well-established discipline in the humanities and social sciences. Since the focus is generally on modernity, early modern memory culture is often approached in stereotypes. According to one of these stereotypes, early modern people had little historical consciousness and tended to strongly emphasize continuity. As a result, early modern memory culture often merely serves to mirror the more widely examined modern memory cultures. The conference “Memory before Modernity” at Leiden University (20-22 June 2012) sought to explore the rich variety of early modern memory cultures and posed the question whether there are indeed fundamental differences between early modern and modern ways in which people dealt with memory.
All five panels demonstrated that early modern mediation of the past occurred in a wide variety of ways and throughout many levels of society, ranging from individual or family recollections, to national commemorations. Apart from the richness of early modern memory cultures, it was found that they often resembled memory practices that are usually argued to be strictly modern. On the basis of these observations it was suggested that memory studies suffer too much from a linear historiographical approach. Instead, it was concluded that different regimes of memory in fact coexisted over time and space. The introduction of a new sort of engagement with the past not necessarily replaced another.
However, certain distinct early modern characteristics could still be discerned. For instance, in all panels it became clear that religion played an essential role both as a framework, mediator and as a fundamental reference point to make sense of the past. In the early modern era, as became clear throughout the papers, providentialism was a vitally important way of interpreting past experiences.
The fact that experiences were usually understood in terms of religion also created distinct narratives. For example, we would nowadays define distressing memories in strictly negative terms as being traumatic. But in the early modern period they were often communicated as catalysts of spiritual growth, giving the commemorated events a positive twist. Psychiatrist Mario Braakman, providing input from anthropology and psychiatry, pointed to the therapeutic value of narrativization. This gave rise to the conclusion that such narrative forms were more than mere topoi. As a fundamental part of one’s identity, narratives actually shaped the way in which people coped with memory.
Benefiting from an interdisciplinary approach, this conference thus not only contributed to a better understanding of early modern memory, but also of the concept of modernity and the debated relation between historical change and anthropological constants.
David de Boer, Universiteit Utrecht