- Little Do We Know: History and Historians of the North Atlantic, 1492–2010 by Luca Codignola
This trilingual collection of reviews and articles testifies to Professor Codignola’s long engagement with and contributions to the study of the history of the North Atlantic world. At a time when the Canadian government has ended its financial support for Canadian studies outside of the country, this collection also appears as a bittersweet reminder of the importance of the perspective brought by such dedicated, hard-working, and perceptive historians like Codignola. Codignola explains the title by referring to the quixotic but noble work of historians trying to learn more about the past at the same time that they realize how much is unknowable. But there must be an echo of Thomas Symon’s classic report on Canadian studies, To Know Ourselves (1975), in it as well. This collection illustrates how important the work of scholars outside of Canada has been to the understanding of the country. Through his career, Codignola has clearly maintained close connections to Canadian and American historians. From 1985 to 1987 he served as president of the International Council for Canadian Studies.
Professor at the Università di Genova, Codignola has made longstanding contributions to Canadian studies in Italy, publishing a survey text of Canadian history in Italian in 1999, as well as a wide variety of research articles in Italian, French, and English. His interests have concentrated on the role of the Catholic Church and European expansion into the New World. This collection indirectly gives a sense of his own research contributions in these areas, but with its emphasis on historiography, these articles focus primarily on his reflections on the work of others. The collection also reveals his expertise: a deep understanding of the role and complexity of the Catholic Church in the New World and a willingness to set Canadian and American history in a broader North Atlantic context instead of a putative national geographical context that would not appear for a number of centuries.
What emerges from these articles is a historian who reads closely, carefully, meticulously, one who cares about spelling and citation techniques. At the same time, he addresses the larger issues raised by the works and situates them in a broad trilingual historiography. Indeed, one comment that he often makes on the scholarship he examines is how it fails to bridge the linguistic divide between French-and English-language historiography. One noteworthy feature is the attention he accords to survey texts and edited primary sources; too often [End Page 103] Canadian historians privilege monographs to the exclusion of these other major contributions to historical understanding.
Many of these works are fairly short book reviews, published in journals such as the Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française, Histoire sociale / Social History, and this one. Some of these versions expand on the original published reviews. The most useful essays are the longer literature reviews and studies of major historians. Eight pieces contain his reflections on the work and intellectual context of historians such as William Eccles (his graduate supervisor), Pierre Savard, Carlo Botta, and Richard Hofstadter. Invariably, Codignola’s reviews sparkle with their insights and hard-hitting analysis.
On occasion, sometimes in the footnotes, he reflects on his own intellectual trajectory. Initially writing from a leftist perspective in the early 1970s, he shifted to the centre as time passed. Codignola decries the “cultural” turn of the 1990s: “Colonial history is apparently dead, and the new political correctness has simply consigned the history of French and European expansion into the hands of literary critics and trendy cultural historians” (307). Codignola clearly prefers the musty scent of individual lives that comes through the study of archival documents.
Who should read this book? Graduate students who wish to find detailed bibliographies and examples of model review essays will benefit from it. Those of us interested in the colonial period can dip into the essays to find judicious judgments on important historiographical contributions. Others will enjoy the reflections on...