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  • Between the Middle Ages and Modernity: Individual and Community in the Early Modern World
  • Gregory Hanlon
Between the Middle Ages and Modernity: Individual and Community in the Early Modern World. Edited by Charles H. Parker and Jerry H. Bentley (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007. 332 pp. $75.00 (cloth); $34.95 (paper).

Individual and Community is a loose-fitting title for studies combined under the guise of tribute to the eminent scholar James Tracy. Like a conference panel with too many participants, the three thematic [End Page 140] groupings look a bit contrived. Charles H. Parker’s introductory essay seeks to justify the superiority of the term “early modern” with respect to the traditional “Renaissance-Reformation” tradition of the American academy. Jerry Bentley notes that the term “early modern” has only been in use since the 1960s. After evoking some of these debates over periodization, he concludes that three fundamental processes drove the development of the early modern world: the creation of a global network of sea lanes, an early capitalist global economy, and the global exchange of biological species. These processes gave Western Europe a modest advantage in its interaction with the different peoples of the planet. Bentley is apparently unaware that continental European scholars have been referring to the period between 1500 and 1800 as the “modern era” for at least a century. His notes reveal that he reads only English, which is a rather dire shortcoming for any historian of any period.

The book’s first section purports to stress the importance of corporate structures in everyday life. Thomas Brady reviews the historiography of German late medieval and early modern communal life and how it would help us understand the Peasants’ War and the Reformation. Peter Blickle emphasized the unity of burghers, peasants, and miners in their local assemblies, which helped foster a notion of a religious community. Tom Scott, in contrast, stressed the growing commercialization and specialization of labor that undercut the very unity that Blickle extols. Brady characterizes these contrasting views as one promoting a moral agenda aiming to improve public life (Blickle) and the other stressing utilitarian rationality (Scott), before concluding that neither approach can adequately treat the messiness of the Peasants’ War. Henk van Nierop also examines the weight of communal solidarities in the Netherlands when political elites were forced to choose between rebellion and loyalty. Even when they were unambiguously Catholic, urban leaders were notoriously reluctant to prosecute heretics in their midst, and the militias were unwilling to use force against their fellow citizens. The militias stepped into the political void on one side or the other, and the arrival of refugees tipped the local balance decisively. In the aftermath of the Pacification of Ghent in 1579, reconciliation followed the road of respect for local autonomy, helped along by an economic revival after 1590. Carla Rahn Phillips seeks the glue holding the Spanish empire together in the enduring strength of family and local allegiance that spanned the Atlantic. Kinship was a reciprocal bond that lasted the entire lifetime of related individuals. Spanish migrants to the Americas married indigenous women or took up liaisons with them, and their mestizo offspring became vectors of Hispanization. Testaments [End Page 141] reveal how kinship ties on each side of the Atlantic proved very resilient. The application of Spanish municipal organization to the Americas also served to give rootless people an address and a public life as citizens endowed with local responsibilities and recognition by royal authorities. Finally, Spanish Catholic confraternities spanned the oceans too, in which people of diverse status could enter into groups of symbolic kinship. All these affinity groups enabled people to rise on the social ladder, under the benign approval of the monarch.

The second section explores the effects of migration and the contact between diverse cultural worlds. William D. Phillips Jr. teaches us that Europeans traveled to Asia in some numbers during the Pax Mongolica of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Missionaries and merchants spread across the trade routes of Central Asia. Latin Christians formed sizeable groups in India and China, where they were useful intermediaries between the Mongol rulers and their distrusted Chinese subjects. The identification of the...