New Perspectives on Eighteenth-Century History

September 2010

Introduction Initial reviews/responses Discussion Further Information


This Forum showcases new approaches to, and introduces new historical research on, the German eighteenth century. But does "eighteenth-century Germany" as a field or an analytic concept even exist? Helmut Puff, in a feisty opening to his contribution on sexuality, casts doubts on the analytical or even heuristic validity of such. Certainly, no well-developed sense of dix-huitièmisme exists among central European historians as a scholarly identity in the same way that historians of France or English literary scholars possess. The feeble representation of German historians in the membership and at the meetings of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) testifies to how seldom even those working within the "long" eighteenth century (are there no short centuries?), say, from 1650-1815, have identified themselves principally as "scholars of the eighteenth century." For many years it was hard for those who did research within those chronological boundaries to find an intellectual home, let alone a job. When I entered the job market in 1980, few scholars in the United States worked on or wrote about the German eighteenth century with the possible exception of those who focused on Friedrich II and "the rise of Prussia." (German scholars had admittedly always given more attention to the period.) Even the Aufklärung was not particularly well served. There were a good handful of major scholars in the field, of course, including Mack Walker, James Allen Vann, and, later, Anthony LaVopa (a student of Walker's), but the field was not, to say the least, heavily populated in comparison with the many scholars working on the twentieth century or the Reformation. I remember distinctly, and I am sure that Jamie Melton (here represented) will agree, that presenting one's credentials with a dissertation focusing mainly on the eighteenth century was a somewhat discouraging task. "But you can also teach the Third Reich, right?" Or, on the other side, "You'll do a course on the Reformation and Luther, won't you?" For early modern jobs, departments wanted principally (albeit not exclusively) Reformation scholars or the now-extinct animal, a "Ren/Ref" historian. Still, there were scholarly advantages to be reaped here as well: the field was pretty much "open." Then there was the additional problem of where did one present papers or go to network. At the time Sixteenth-Century Studies was more "sixteenth" than it has since become and still very much linked to Reformation history. The German Studies Association annual meeting might find room for an eighteenth-century panel (but there were few of those) and a stray eighteenth-century panelist might have found a home with other orphans (such as the truly disinherited scholars of the early nineteenth century) in a session titled "Varia."


Fortunately, this situation has changed almost all out of recognition. While historians of the German eighteenth century still avoid ASECS, over the past few years the number of studies on the eighteenth century, or those that see the eighteenth century as crucial to telling the larger story of German history (such as Christopher Clark) is great and growing. The German Studies Association now presents a full and intellectually stimulating set of early modern panels (which are, in addition, often cross- or inter-disciplinary) in which the eighteenth century is more than well represented. Moreover, the number of PhDs in eighteenth-century history (or for whom the eighteenth century plays an important part) has grown significantly. Numerous "Achtenzehnjahrhunderter" now hold jobs and tenured positions at many colleges and universities and we seem, at last, to "get some respect." Certainly, therefore, the moment seems appropriate to assess the work being done in the eighteenth century and, in particular, on the various "new perspectives" that have been gained and promoted over the last twenty years or so.


The following five contributions showcase relatively new methods and topics (comparative history, anthropological perspectives, queer studies and the like) as well as revisions in the writing of more "traditional" histories, such as the political history of Prussia. The topics treated here--on Germany and the Atlantic world, gender and sexualities, Prussia, religion, and race and colonialism--hardly reflect the true richness of work now being done and many important themes and historical interventions are not represented. Desiderata were sometimes left unfulfilled because it was not possible--at the time--to obtain a commitment from an appropriate scholar. There is also nothing here specifically on the Holy Roman Empire because a new volume of essays, The Holy Roman Empire, Reassessed (edited by Jason P. Coy, Benjamin Marschke, and David Sabean) is about to appear (Berghahn, 2010). Nor are there any contributions specifically on regional history (with the exception of "the exception": Prussia); Landesgeschichte; the "new" diplomatic history; court culture; the interaction between art, music, and literature with history; urban history; and a slew of other subjects. Obviously, these topics are all very important and one can hope that they may become part of another Forum in the future.


As the editor, or rather the compiler, of this Forum, I have not sought to impose any particular structure on the individual contributors, but rather left them alone to follow their own instincts and give, quite literally, their own "perspectives." The result has been, happily, a good deal of similarity in some ways, but with enough difference to reflect intellectual diversity. Each contribution is in part a survey of new work, in part authorial impression, and in part a "wish list" of things that still need to be accomplished. Thus, they combine, I believe, some of the virtues of a historiographic essay with less rigidly structured personal views. All the contributors integrate their own research but, rather then taking this opportunity to mount a bully-pulpit, they use it to show how scholars are currently thinking about particular subjects and approaches. The contributions therefore neatly fulfill one of my hopes for the Forum as a whole: to bring together personal reflections from people actually working in these fields, in which they grapple with the real historiographical, theoretical, and methodological problems they and others face. Some overlap exists, but hardly too much. Sexuality and religion play an important role, as does a sense of broader European or even transnational/global histories in questioning where the German experience fits in, a reevaluation of the uses of, and problems presented by more traditional models and how these might be fruitfully revisited as well as revised. The Enlightenment or Aufklärung still looms large, if in a rather different guise than that of intellectual history per se


What may still be missing here is more sense of what, if anything, makes the eighteenth century unique and a valid period or historical concept worth preserving. Moreover, perhaps we all need to pay more attention to breaks, shifts, and ruptures within the eighteenth century; Puff, for instance, notices a "double fracture." Are there developments that split the eighteenth century, that perhaps make its first half better allocated to the "long" seventeenth century and its second half to a "long" nineteenth century? Or are there two eighteenth centuries, split somewhere, not necessarily in the middle? Or do, as I suspect is true, different subjects require different eighteenth-century periodizations? Finally, and despite the care with which both Jamie Melton and Vera Lind take to carry us out of German-speaking lands and even off the European continent, we still lack much work on how German experiences and events fit into broader European and world perspectives.


Mary Lindemann, Forum Organizer

As was the case for previous forums, the forum will start with a series of commentaries/reviews to establish a foundation for discussion on the list.  A list of those scholars contributing initial reviews follows below.
We welcome any comments, criticism, or suggestions you may have and look forward to a productive exchange.

Initial Forum Posts

Solicited Responses

Discussion (This list will be updated during the forum)


Supplemental information


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