Reviewed by Dwight E.R. Ten Huisen (Spanish Department, Calvin College)
Published on H-German (July, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Balancing Breadth with Depth
According to Cambridge University Press's Web site, "this accessible and engaging textbook" is targeted toward undergraduates at the second year and above and is intended for use in courses with names such as "Early Modern Europe" or "Renaissance and Reformation Europe." Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789 is the second of four volumes in the Cambridge History of Europe series. As an introductory survey of European history from the invention of the printing press to the French Revolution, it admirably synthesizes an immense array of disparate themes and approaches while maintaining reader attention. Scholars familiar with Merry Wiesner-Hanks's work will not be surprised to learn that the strength of the work lies in the areas of social history, gender studies, and history of sexuality. These themes are woven throughout the text and reflected in the cover illustration for the volume, Isaac Claesz van Swanenburgh's The Spinning, Reeling, Warping and Weaving of Wool (1602), which depicts women, children, and men spinning and weaving in the foreground while offering a glimpse of the public square in the background. Wiesner-Hanks hopes to present the new picture of early modern Europe that has developed in the last twenty years through the exploitation of new sources, theories, and methods of interpretation.
Besides the daunting task of covering more than three hundred years of history, Wiesner-Hanks sets for herself the additional goal of "viewing Europe as both larger and more connected to the rest of the world than it often has been" (p. 5). Increasing the breadth to include what has traditionally been treated as the periphery of western Europe, including eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire, Islam, and Judaism, is laudable, but it augments the tension already inherent in such a project between balancing breadth of coverage with depth. For the most part, Wiesner-Hanks succeeds commendably in navigating that tension, although in a few chapters the resulting lack of depth is disappointing. Another considerable tension that Wiesner-Hanks negotiates is between focusing her analysis on historical continuities and on dramatic change. As she explains in the introduction, she has tried to balance her account by dividing the book into two general sections, the first half covering 1450-1600 and the second half covering 1600-1780. These two sections are then divided into five topical subsections: "Individuals in Society," "Politics and Power," "Cultural and Intellectual Life," "Religious Developments," and "Economics and Technology." In addition, the two general sections are prefaced and followed by chapters entitled "Europe in the World," which attempt to summarize major developments in world history and trace European contacts with the wider world, whether in the form of travel, trade, exploration, or colonization. Although the move to break the book into two chronological periods is a nod toward recognizing "things that involve dramatic change, such as epidemics, wars, and revolutions" (p. 5), the topical division allows Wiesner-Hanks to address more fully questions of "social structures, economic systems, family forms [and] ideas about gender" (p. 5). Those issues receive the largest amount of attention in her textbook. In chapter 1 she emphasizes, in fact, her focus on continuities by concluding that "[i]t may be harder to keep continuities in mind than to investigate changes, as continuities seem to require less explanation and are generally not as exciting or noticeable, ... [but] many people living in this era ... would not have been startled by what they saw around them had they been suddenly transported from 1450 to 1789" (p. 42). Wiesner-Hanks offers no explanation for treating the five topics in that order, but breaking them into two chronological sections does present some complications. As she explains in the beginning of "Individuals in Society, 1600-1789," the individual life cycle and some of the social structures "did not change dramatically in the two hundred years after 1600" (p. 254). Thus this chapter generally reads as the second half of a chapter that was interrupted, and since 174 pages separate the two sections, parts of it are necessarily repetitive. Although dividing "Cultural and Intellectual Life" into two distinct chronological periods is more successful, it is also fraught with difficulty. Miguel Cervantes, for example, is treated in the chapter covering the period from 1450-1600, even though his most well-known works, such as parts 1 and 2 of El Quijote, The Exemplary Novels, The Voyage to Parnasus, and The Trials of Persiles and Segismunda, were all published after 1605.
Because it is an introductory textbook, Wiesner-Hanks also appropriately takes up several important historiographical debates and concerns, thereby presenting her readers with an introduction of sorts to the discipline of history, its methods, and its preoccupations. These discussions never dominate the individual chapters, and she judiciously places them throughout. For example, her brief explanations of terms such as "deconstruction" and "post colonial" and her lengthier treatment of topics such as Jacob Burckhardt's notion of the individualism of the Renaissance or the rise of capitalism are carefully placed in context and at the level of her intended audience. Her brief discussions on the development of historiography in the twentieth century, the types of source documents, their varying perspectives and how to interpret them, as well as her caveats on being aware of how information is filtered should be helpful in getting students to grapple with the interpretive nature of history.
Many other organizational aspects of the text bear witness to its intended use as a textbook. Wiesner-Hanks and the editors have worked at keeping the work accessible and user-friendly, yet this approach also has obvious negative repercussions. Although Wiesner-Hanks synthesizes an impressive amount of material and her text is admirably up to date, very few notes are included, and they are placed at the end of each chapter. Each chapter also concludes with a short, manageable list of suggestions for further reading that includes basic bibliographic information, and in all but the rarest cases, they represent publications from the past twenty years that should be relatively accessible for interested students at this level. The text is otherwise free from references to scholars and historians. This strategy allows Wiesner-Hank's voice to hold the narrative and maintain student interest without overwhelming them with details, yet the lack of a complete bibliography and full reference apparatus does preclude readers from finding sources efficiently, if at all. The companion Web site for the textbook offers an impressively diverse yet manageable source of additional materials, as well. Each chapter has PDF files and links in the categories of "Links to Websites," "Primary Sources," and "Further Reading." While the Web site suffers from the pitfalls of occasional dead links, for example, Ashgate's list of titles in their series "An Expanding World" (which is incorrectly identified as "The Expanding World") and repetitions ( Peter Bakewell's Colonial Latin America Web site is listed twice in the links for chapter 7), they nonetheless offer students a starting point for pursuing further investigation. The index is likewise user-friendly and kept to a manageable twelve pages.
As the text is generally free from technical jargon or terms which might confuse students, it includes no glossary. On occasion, foreign-language or technical terms are introduced parenthetically. So, for example, the first three times that the term "Huguenot" is used in the text, it appears as a parenthetical (pp. 127, 178, 297). Wiesner-Hanks is also not averse to commenting on terms that she is defining. For example, at one point she explains that the term "women religious" is awkward even if it is the accepted, correct one (p. 34). The decision of when to clarify a term is, of course, difficult to judge, and it necessarily proves problematic from the very beginning. For example, in chapter 1 Wiesner-Hanks parenthetically clarifies that the Low Countries are "what is now Belgium, Luexembourg and the Netherlands," yet on the following page she assumes the students know where Flanders, the Baltic Sea, and the Aegean Sea are. Each chapter is nicely illustrated with a combination of text boxes (which usually contain primary sources), timelines, illustrations, and some maps, and they are done judiciously so as not to become visual distractions. As Peter Marshall's comment on the back of the book indicates, these sources are "often pleasingly unfamiliar," but since the maps are sprinkled throughout the text (most frequently to be found in the chapters on "Politics and Power" and "Europe in the World"), a student who wants to find out where Flanders or the Baltic Sea are located will have to thumb through the entire volume in the hopes of hitting upon a map that might include that information (I found three that identify the Baltic Sea, but none that label either Flanders or the Aegean). A few instances remain of foreign-language terms that are introduced yet never really explained. For example, a student will gather from context that the words mestizo, mulatto, and caboclo were children that resulted from "sexual relationships across many lines" (p. 466), yet their exact meanings are never clarified. While informed students will probably know what the first two refer to, they will have to turn to another source to find the meaning of the latter. Similarly, a student who suspects that "settler" is not an adequate translation of the Spanish encomendero or who seeks a clear explanation of what an encomienda is will not find it in this textbook.
Throughout, Wiesner's style is engaging and intentionally accessible to the current generation of students. Her narrative voice is the feature that most successfully holds the text together. However, at times her commentary is less judicious and more distracting. At one point, for example, she playfully refers to Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon as "those marriage brokers extraordinaire" (p. 158), and when explaining the Noche Triste in the conquest of Mexico, she states that "like the Portuguese in China, the Spanish behaved badly to their hosts, and they were thrown out in a bloody battle" (p. 241). Her engaging and accessible prose also occasionally biases her explanation unnecessarily, such as when she describes early modern education by summarizing that "all children received a very heavy dose of religious instruction" (p. 120). Other items, such as the explanation of cod-pieces in the context of the introduction of knitting or the discussion of onanism manuals or the clarification of castrati are likewise certain to pique student interest, though at times these comments read as somewhat gratuitous.
If the strengths of the volume lie in the breadth of coverage, its focus on continuities, and the presentation of the "new picture" of the early modern period, the weaknesses are most clearly found in the depth of coverage and in more traditional historiography. Hence, weaknesses are perhaps most apparent in the sections "Politics and Power" and "Cultural and Intellectual Life." In "Politics and Power, 1450-1600," Wiesner-Hanks states that "the growth of nation-states is an important development during this period, but it is important to remember that most Europeans did not live in what we would understand as nations in 1600.... Their sense of belonging to something beyond their village was provided by religion, not language or politics" (p. 82). A return to the use of maps can perhaps illustrate how this claim is worked out in the text. Whereas the first political map in the text correctly identifies the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon as separate entities and Wiesner-Hanks states that "each state in Spain ... retained its own laws, courts, system of taxation, and representative body until about 1700," duly noting later in the text that the establishment of the Bourbon dynasty "led Spain to become a fully unified country" (p. 302), every map in the text except the first labels these separate kingdoms as "Spain." Even the map that illustrates the territories held by Charles V differentiates only between "Spanish," "Austrian," and "Burgundian" possessions. This choice makes sense when we consider that the sections on the political history of Spain and Portugal, which are still dominated by Spain despite the attempt to include more of the periphery, are limited to seven pages of a volume with more than 480 pages. The section on the political organization of the Holy Roman Empire from 1450-1600 is likewise limited to a page and a half, with the electors explained merely as "seven leading territorial rulers in Germany, three of them archbishops and four of the secular princes" (p. 109). Professors who continue to include a substantial coverage of political history in this period, however, will simply find these sections of the textbook far too lacking in depth. Coverage of the cultural and intellectual life, while stronger than that of politics, is also uneven. Perhaps to justify this state of affairs, Wiesner-Hanks reminds the readers in her opening section of chapter 1 that "[h]umanist education and Renaissance art ... had absolutely no impact on the lives of the vast majority of fifteenth-century Europeans" (p. 32). While her discussions of cultural life and education in general are engaging and enlightening, particularly when dealing with issues of gender, at times these chapters fall into a disparate list of artists and authors.
Wiesner-Hanks has succeeded in writing an engaging synthesis of the "new picture" of the early modern period at the survey level. It is up to date and impressive in its breadth of coverage, and will be useful for anyone with a general interest in the period, especially those interested in gender and social history. Its accessibility and user-friendliness come at a cost in the area of depth of coverage in certain areas, however, and professors looking for a macronarrative of political and intellectual history will either need to supplement or consider another textbook.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Dwight E.R. Ten Huisen. Review of Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E., Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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