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May/June 2004 ยท Historically Speaking33 I 7th-Century Europe, Past and Present DavidJ. Sturdy When I began mycareer as a university teacher in the mid-1960s, the lectures I gave on 17th-century Europe had to refer to historiographical debates then being conducted, some ofwhich were intensified by personality conflicts between the leading protagonists (always a useful source of irreverent anecdotes with which to enliven a Fridayafternoon lecture to students who had other things on their minds than such topics as the relative merits ofrival interpretations ofthe rise ofthe earlymodern state). The debates included "the general crisis of the 1 7th century" (the imperious, although resolutelyanti-imperialist, Marxist Eric Hobsbawm versus the equally imperious High Tory, Hugh Trevor Roper); "the nature of social structure in early modern Europe: a society of classes or orders?" (the formidablylearned and utterlylackingin selfdoubtRolandMousnierversus the seemingly unbending ideologue Boris Porchnev); "the military revolution of the 17th century" (a thesis then beginning to attract wider attention , and first advanced byMichael Roberts, who had an impressive line in mordant sarcasm toward his students at Queen's University , Belfast); on a larger historiographical scale still, the Annales school of historians (whose solemn, Olympian pronouncements on the 17th century contained no hint of humor, sarcastic or otherwise) and its critics. These and other debates, which exercised some of the finest minds of the historical world and provided the subject matter of scores ofconferences, articles, and books, had to be brought to the attention ofstudents, in addition to narratives and analyses dealing with the broad movement of European history in that period. Four decades later many of the debates that were pursued with such intensity and provoked such febrile exchanges in the 1960s and 1970s have either lost their power to excite or, after a lingering diminuendo, have simply tailed offinto silence. "The general crisis of the 17th century" has long since ceased to sustain the historical industrywhich it once inspired. Now that Mousnier and Porchnev are no longer with us, few, ifany, historians agonize over the appropriateness of referring to "social classes" as against "social orders." Even in France, the base from where the Annales school projected its pervasive influence, leading historians are now writing biographies ofkings, queens, ministers , generals, prelates, and other notables. Ofall those older debates, the one which has lasted longest and, in that sense, proved most productive, has been that ofa "military revolution ." As the discussion in the April 2003 edition ofHistorically Speaking demonstrates, the military revolution debate retains its freshness and vitality, and shows every sign of continuing to do so for several years to come. I do notwant to dwell on explanations for the demise offormer controversies, but offer three suggestions. One, unromantic butinexorable , is simply the effect ofthe passage of time. The generation which initiated and directed the debates of the 1960s and 1970s has given way to younger scholars who have other interests: like the proverbial old soldiers , historians gradually fade away, and so do many of the debates in which they were engaged. The second is the very different sociopolitical context in which historians in the Western world now operate, as against that ofthirty or fortyyears ago. Those among us who have memories of that time will recall the highly charged ideological atmosphere which existed in educational institutions, as students and their teachers took the lead in protest movements which swept throughout Europe and North America. Questions ofthe nature and functions ofcapitalism, imperialism , nationalism, class consciousness and conflict , political revolution, and the legitimacy or otherwise ofwarfare, especially when it took Western states into Southeast Asia, splintered public opinion but also carried over into the study ofhistory. Direct links can be traced between the socio-political struggles ofthe 1960s and 1970s and the historical controversies mentioned above. To some historians ofEurope, the 17th centuryexperienced crises comparable to those ofthe 20th, and by interpreting 17th-century Europe in the light of(then) present-day issues they could both expand theirunderstanding ofthe 17th century and render a public service by providing explanatory categories for analyzing the contemporaryworld. Since then, of course, the world has changed profoundly. The collapse ofpolitical communism has diminished respect for Marxisthistorical analysis (whichis notto say that it is therefore...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 33-35
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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