Blogs > Cliopatria > Bloody Early Modernists ...

Jul 18, 2004 5:46 pm

Bloody Early Modernists ...

On Friday, I praised and ribbed Early Modern Notes, Sharon Howard's new blog. No, she didn't recall who Michael Bellesiles was, but look what she's got over there: in a single post, a listing of internet resources on early modern south Asia, the Ottoman Empire, Japan, and China. That's only a taste of the goodies she's cooked up. Check out her Early Modern Resources. Early Modern Notes will go on Cliopatria's blogroll.

Of course, the question is: Would the European notion of"Early Modern" apply or even be relevant to south Asia, the Ottoman Empire, Japan or China? It's an important discussion. An excellent point of departure for the discussion is Amit Chauduri's"In the Waiting Room of History" in the London Review of Books. It's a review of Dipesh Chakrabarti's Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. This is not one of your 100 word reviews for Choice. Prepare to spend some time with it. We'll wait for you ...

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David Lion Salmanson - 7/20/2004

Japan's engagement with the rest of the world in this time period is not necessarily direct but via China. So too, Japan was not completely cut off. They were very interested in "Dutch learning" as they called it, and kept up with many developments in Europe. Japanese silver helped drive the Chinese economy which drove the rest of the world's economy etc. etc.

An excellent textbook that is new is Worlds Together Worlds Apart. I'll be using it with my World History College Placement class in World Since 1500 (now renamed World since 1300). It makes for great reading on its own too.

Sharon Howad - 7/19/2004

This question was asked on H-Albion back in May 2000, and replies flooded in (I think it may well be the longest thread throughout the five years or so I've been member...), demonstrating the sheer variety of what is considered 'early modern' around its starting and end points. One unusual but thought-provoking start date was given as mid-fourteenth century with the Black Death, though the more usual was mid-fifteenth to early sixteenth century (for me, it's tied up with the trio of print, religious reformation and colonial expansion). For some the terminus was as early as the late seventeenth century (often 1688 in the British context), others happily extended it into the nineteenth century. I mused on this a little in an EMN post on 10 July (and this was followed up by an interesting post on Siris). The most extensive online discussion is in an interview with Peter Burke, which is linked in that EMN post. (I'd give the links, but I'm not sure if the comments software here supports them? You can easily find the post anyway). The - rough, indeed - answer tends to be: it sort of depends what and who you're studying, and it's useful in a practical way as long as you *don't* try to set it in stone. (My own research centres on the seventeenth into the early eighteenth centuries, FWIW.)

Moving beyond Europe, I've been wondering and worrying about this in vague ways that that wonderful review by Chauduri has begun to bring into some sort of focus; (Ralph puts it so well when he asks if the concept is 'a monument to European hegemony' that I'll probably nick the phrase for future use). I realised I know shockingly little about the non-european world - especially Asia - in this period, except where it comes under the heading of 'colonial encounters'. So those links represent the beginning of a self-education process as much as being intended for anyone else's benefit. I hope to learn more from commenters here, too.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/19/2004

If, as I've argued above, Early Modern is the stage before "Modern" then perhaps in societies which suffered through a colonial stage, "Colonial" (and "post-Colonial", perhaps, though the industrial component is harder to shake off) are components of the Early Modern experience? That would, of course, require a broadening of the definition of Early Modern to make Europe's experience a much less definitive subset, but that's OK by me if it's OK by you.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/19/2004

No, I think you're picking on the things that make Europe's Early Modern era distinctive, rather than universal. The hallmarks of Japanese society which mark it as EM for me include:

urbanization, including the rise of a dynamic urban commoner culture, both middle-class and popular, and the entertainment culture which goes along with urban profit centers (think Shakespeare and Chikamatsu);

aristocracy, making a transition from medieval warriors to administrative functionaries;

energetic and growing commercial economy, fueled and fueling agricultural productivity gains and population growth;

rising literacy rates without substantial state involvement in education, associated with a strong book culture; Also an intellectual environment trending towards both nationalism and science;

And, though there's a teleological problem, Early Modern is a distinct stage in the progress (ooh, there's that naughty word, too) to a conventionally Modern phase (industrial capitalist nation-state; literate and mobile population; etc.)

Ralph E. Luker - 7/18/2004

Nationalisms of all sorts have little appeal to me; yet I wonder if there are not terms for understanding periods in south Asian history, for example, which emerge from the history itself, rather than being categories worked out in an alien culture and superimposed elsewhere.

Manan Ahmed - 7/18/2004

Thanks Ralph for that link. It was the perfect read for this lazy sunday. I highly recommend the book. If time is of concern, please check Dipesh's '92 essay (which I prefer over the book for its vigor): "Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for 'Indian' Pasts?" Representations. Winter 1992, 37: 1-26. You can get it through JSTOR.

As for the Early Modern periodization, I personally prefer it. At least, it allows us to speak across Asia and Europe (all problems with Enlightenment and Modernity notwithstanding). However, it is not a easy term to work with and there certainly is little precendent for its usage in South Asian history. But Ancient-Medieval-Colonial-PostColonial just continues what colonial historians like Vincent Smith inscribed into the history of India.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/18/2004

I would think that there are lots of complexities for each of these areas. What would a historian of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey call "Early Modern"? Does "Early Modern" necessarily mean some extensive contact with a world apart (as with Columbus)? Isn't that a problem or Japan? Does "Early Modern" necessarily connote some significant challenge to a religious monolith (as with Luther) or does it not (as may be the case in some non-European areas, indeed as was the case in some European areas)? Is Early Modern delayed in non-European areas until print media appear? Conversely, is Early Modern delayed in Europe until gun powder appears? And, of course, how do nationalism, empire building, and slavery relate to all of this? Are they inherent in the very notion of Early Modern? If so, is Modern delayed in colonized areas until empire ends and slavery abolished? It does seem to me that the whole notion of Early Modern is a sort of monument to European hegemony. Such a small place on the map of the world, suddenly so energized and expansive, for good and ill.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/18/2004

Great stuff, thanks. Kind of reminds me of Berry was saying (

Though we struggle with 'medieval' because of the connotation and complexities of 'feudal', Japanese historians deliberately and happily use 'early modern' for the Tokugawa era (1600-1868).

Early modern is a bit more complicated in China, and I don't know what real China historians do, but I'd consider Ming (1368-1634) and Qing (1634-1912, though the last century is a kind of odd transitional thing) to be quite equivalent to the other well-defined early modernities; depending on how you define it, you could go back as far as the Song (960-1279), at least the late Song.

All of these equivalencies are, of course, subject to great qualification, but they're ok for general purposes and interesting comparisons.

By the way, what exactly is 'early modern' for Europe? We're blithely chattering on about these other places, but, as the reviewer would point out, we're not actually questioning the supposedly universal basis for this..... Sharon's website says "roughly 1500-1800" but what's the basis for this? Gutenberg+Luther+Columbus at the front end seems reasonable (I've always taught both Western and World history with the break at 1500; it does some violence to the Renaissance but works otherwise), but what's the end-point? French Revolution/Napoleon, I suppose. What's the debate, then?