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Reviewed by:
  • Peiresc’s Mediterranean World by Peter N. Miller
  • Nicholas S. Popper
Peiresc’s Mediterranean World. By Peter N. Miller (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2015) 640 pp. $39.95

More books should be like Miller’s Peiresc’s Mediterranean World. Self-reflexive, experimental, ambitious, and meticulous, it confronts the question of how historians might understand the early modern Mediterranean— Fernand Braudel’s Mediterranean—if instead of annaliste social science they emphasized an empirical investigation of seventeenth-century antiquarian Nicolas Fabri de Peiresc’s massive archive. The result might not be to the taste of every reader, given the extraordinary detail and the attention to epistemological issues over historical narrative. But Miller’s achievement is powerful and provocative. [End Page 103]

Much of the book consists of penetrating descriptions of how Peiresc acquired his enormous collection of correspondence, memoires, objects, images, and more. Peiresc might seem an odd candidate to exemplify Europe’s intellectual community. He was based in Aix near commercial Marseille, with no connection to a patron or a university. Moreover, he was little concerned with theology, philosophy, and rhetoric, and he published only one work. But Miller shows how his network of interlocutors embodied what was so distinctive about seventeenth-century polymathic culture. Peiresc and his like were as fascinated with contemporary Cairo as with ancient Rome, with music history as with Plato, and with material culture as with ideas; they expanded the ambit of scholarship. To meet their aspirations, Miller shows, they collaborated with craftsmen, traders, and sailors; operated in courts, wharves and customs houses; mapped sailing schedules and cargo loads; managed courts and credit systems; and galvanized brokers and fixers to enable the exchanges of objects and texts.

This sensitivity to the practicalities of early modern scholarly activity emerges from Miller’s own antiquarianism, though it should be stressed that Miller does not fetishize his objects, and that his unusual attentiveness to antiquarianism’s theoretical stakes emerges in his discussions of its advocates and critics. As he rightly notes, too often historians exalt abstract ideas while ignoring material culture and denying significance to the types of negotiations that brought crocodile skins, polyglot psalters, and coins into Peiresc’s study. This tendency has misleadingly denied the role of merchants, artisans, and ambassadors in the production of knowledge, while also occluding European engagement with societies far afield. Furthermore, the quest for big causal narratives has led historians to ignore threads that they could not fully unravel. Miller’s strategy is instead to draw attention to the limits of Peiresc’s archive, exploring how figures and objects that briefly surface and disappear without resolution adumbrate both historians’ possibilities and limitations. For him, attention to empirical detail, no matter how fleeting, is the heart of historical research.

Accordingly, most of the chapters investigate cryptic clues regarding subjects like Ottoman politics, couriers’ reliance on mules, the depredations of corsairs, or the ambiguity of names. The resulting illumination persuades that a mimetic account of the past, like one of the present and even of historical research, should trace the messy movement of material through space along myriad channels and according to diverse tempos. Antiquarianism, past and present, reveals the world as a vortex of unsmoothed detail unsteadily navigated.

The book is thus, self-consciously, a prismatic exploration of the early modern world. But it is also a connected history tracing Peiresc’s extension through the broader Mediterranean, where, unlike in Braudel’s relentless structuralism, objects in flux dominate. There are flaws here and there, but they are good flaws borne of experimentation and creativity. Anyone interested in the welter of historical knowledge, in antiquarianism, [End Page 104] in early modern intellectual history, or in the Mediterranean itself will gain much insight from this book.

Nicholas S. Popper
College of William and Mary


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