Writing in 1941, Benedetto Croce argued, ‘All history is contemporary history’. In doing so, he created an aphorism that offers two dimensions to ‘presentism’.1 It can mean, for example, that we seek present-day concerns in the past, searching in the archives for the earlier versions of our own contemporary lives and interests. But ‘presentism’ can also mean attempts to remove texts from any particular period or place, asking them to represent universal rather than historically situated values. Like Robin Osborne’s classicism (described elsewhere in this set of articles), the framework of the Renaissance and early modern in Europe poses particular challenges in understanding this dual role. Both period labels drew on complex nineteenth-century nationalistic historiographies.2 The concept of the ‘rebirth’ of classical antiquity, a rinascita, or renaissance, was first adopted by Jules Michelet for the seventh volume of his nationalistic Histoire de France (1855), while in English the term ‘early modern’ was originally used by William Johnson in 1869 for his book Early Modern Europe. Whether looking backwards to a revival of classical art and architecture or forward to Protestant nationhood, the two historians connected the transition to nineteenth-century modernity to imagined beginnings in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.3 But it was not only nationhood that mattered. Like classicists, Renaissance and early modernist specialists saw themselves as having a unique role in creating a sense of a higher purpose, something that was particularly important during the fight against Fascism in the 1930s and 1940s.4 If the Renaissance was the juncture between a medieval way of life and modern values and mores, then its study was fraught with moral imperative.
Yet, despite this connectivity, presentism is surprisingly under- or unacknowledged by scholars working on European history between about 1500 and 1800. Regardless of the extensive work on gender, sexuality and globalization that has taken place since the 1970s, it can seem ahistorical to suggest that we are led to new arguments because of our own personal identities and interests rather than by the evidence itself. These tensions have been most visible in Renaissance and early modern literary theory, where Shakespeare has been the site of debate between historicist and presentist approaches to the Bard. In his Shakespeare’s Universal Wolf, for example, Hugh Grady warned that
This question of whether the plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Cervantes or the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci all hold universal truths and values that can be made, remade and re-presented to contemporary audiences becomes more acute because these texts do not stay on the page, sit on the shelves, or hang on walls. On an almost daily basis, they are performed, interpreted and reinterpreted, trying to satisfy either readers and viewers who want to know the detail of what it meant when Shakespeare left Anne Hathaway his ‘second-best bed’ or those who want to see Hamlet as an example of our own psychological anxieties (or both).6
at present the trend towards historicizing Shakespeare appears to have become so dominant in the field and therefore so highly valued that more ‘presentist’ approaches — that is, those oriented towards the text’s meaning in the present, as opposed to ‘historicist’ approaches oriented to meanings in the past — are in danger of eclipse.5
Yet, with a few significant exceptions such as the call by Brendan Dooley to revive the importance of Renaissance Studies to contemporary culture, there have been limited self-reflective explorations of what presentism might mean for Renaissance and early modernist historians today.7 This may be, in part, because the very definitions of what constitutes the ‘Renaissance’ or the ‘early modern’ can seem so nebulous, sometimes referring to a cultural, political or social phenomenon and sometimes to a precise set of dates.8 In Italy, for example, volumes on the Renaissance traditionally begin in the fourteenth century with Dante and Petrarch and stop at some point in either the early sixteenth or the seventeenth century, often with the invasion of Italy or with the demise of the Medici dynasty. Yet this is just the moment when, in Spain, another version of early modernity is celebrating a golden age framed by Cervantes’ figure of Don Quixote and Velázquez’s painting Las Meninas (1656); in England the Renaissance is often dictated by the lifetime of Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare or even Inigo Jones; while in Germany the Frühe Neuzeit, or ‘early modern’, is closely allied with Reformation history. Sometimes the early modern is a religious and political divide; for others it is a major cultural and social phenomenon requiring anthropological approaches. For Natalie Zemon Davis’s Society and Culture in Early Modern France and Peter Burke’s Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, it is both.9 For Davis, Burke and others such as Carlo Ginzburg and Stuart Clark, the past is not the beginning of today but often an unrecognizable alien environment, one where walking and talking with demons was the norm, not the exception.10
In this short contribution, I want to look at two examples of presentism. The first looks at how concepts of capitalism and consumer revolutions have been foregrounded and then sidelined over the past thirty years. The second explores a different scenario, where scholars have tried to put contemporary concerns to one side to see the world through fifteenth- and sixteenth-century eyes, and even through Renaissance and early modern bodies.
The question for both approaches is a fairly simple one: if a Shakespeare play can be lifted out of its precise historical context and repurposed for the present day, can we do the same with a sermon by Luther, a letter from Erasmus to Thomas More, a medical receipt book from a fifteenth-century Sienese convent or a Roman inquisition case? While some literary scholars have been willing to embrace the premiss of Roland Barthes’s essay ‘The Death of the Author’ (1967) and claim that there is no original meaning to any text, most historians have shied away from the notion that the fragile papers with which they work are so highly subjective.11 The microhistories that have made up much of recent Renaissance scholarship are firmly grounded in the narratives and data that emerge from the archives.12 What has been acknowledged, however, is how fluid historical interest has proven and how malleable the miles of paper records have proven in meeting multiple and often competing historiographies. From the 1980s onwards, approaches have included women’s history and gender studies, queer histories, postcolonial studies, slavery and migration, and now increasingly tales of global encounters and environmentalism.13 But perhaps nowhere can we better trace the overlap between the immediate contemporary issues and historical study than in the question that was posed in the late 1980s and early 1990s of where and when the economic revolution that characterizes a seemingly modern consumer demand-driven economy began. In other words, when did shopping, as we understand it today, start?14
The question of how capitalism began was famously posed by Max Weber, who saw its birth in the Protestant Reformation.15 Weber was interested in production rather than consumption. But from the 1980s onwards, during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan (1981–9) and George W. Bush (2001–9) and the premierships of Margaret Thatcher (1979–90) and Tony Blair (1997–2007), the mantra of a consumer-led economy had become very powerful.16 It cannot be coincidental that these were also the decades when scholars — social and economic historians, literary and cultural specialists — argued for an early modern consumer revolution based on the wide availability of new consumer products and new spaces for consumption.17 For many writers, it was eighteenth-century London and Paris that led the way. But in 1996 the economic historian Richard Goldthwaite countered with a powerful study entitled Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, which was echoed in a more popular book published the following year by Lisa Jardine, Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance.18 While Jardine drew primarily on humanist writings, visual materials and literary sources, Goldthwaite attempted to ground his argument in very traditional socio-economic terms. The Florentine Renaissance was a consumer-driven period of creativity that demonstrated the cultural importance of proto-capitalism. In doing so, he revitalized a theory, first developed by Robert Lopez, that in times of declining investment opportunities, wealth was deposited in goods such as works of art that did not provide a financial return.19 The Material Renaissance research group, which I led between 2000 and 2004, challenged Goldthwaite’s direct association between nascent capitalism and artistic excellence, but the discussion remains a live one, with some of our initial conclusions being modified by, among others, Sam Cohn and Bruno Blondé.20 Nonetheless, the determination to identify where ‘the start’ of today began is still at the heart of these debates. Blondé, for example, wants to site the consumer revolution in the Low Countries, arguing that a focus on Italy neglects the importance of Bruges, Antwerp and the Netherlands. New work by Daniel Lord Smail has pulled back questions of consumption to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, exploring the household goods of Marseille and Lucca, while perhaps most helpfully Martha Howell has argued that the pre-capitalist world was not a proto-capitalist seed waiting to burst into flower but a distinctive and very different species altogether.21
Howell’s intervention offers an interesting and potentially very welcome corrective to the connectivity between past and present. Are the marketplaces of fifteenth-century Florence or the early stock exchanges of seventeenth-century Amsterdam or London really the precursors to Wall Street or the other financial centres of today’s global marketplace? Perhaps they are not the origins of modernity but something very different altogether, a much more sociable set of personal and familial relationships than the supposedly rational and impersonal connections that economists celebrate today. Craig Muldrew’s The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England, published only a few years after Goldthwaite and Jardine’s volumes, offers an alternative way of seeing the early modern economy, placing it firmly within the social networks of family, friendship, trust and legal obligation.22 This has been taken to even further extremes in early modern Dutch history, where, for example, Jan de Vries’s powerful concept of an ‘industrious revolution’ depends on the family as the site of consumption and production.23 In a similar vein, Natalie Zemon Davis and Valentin Groebner have turned to anthropology to explain consumption, placing gift cultures alongside monetary cultures.24
What Howell, de Vries, Zemon Davis and Groebner remind us is that history is far from linear; the search for the ‘origins’ or the universality of consumer practices (or any other contemporary phenomena) in a much earlier period may be deeply misleading rather than illuminating. But if the connections can only be tenuous, they can still challenge our notions of what constitutes normative economic, cultural and social behaviours. We can imagine that historians five hundred years from now will find our own assumptions about politics, the economy and social behaviour as perplexing as we find witch-hunting. But is it ever possible to see an early period through its own perspective and in its own terms? Is it possible to avoid presentism altogether? Perhaps the most striking attempt to represent, even inhabit, the world view of a Renaissance past was undertaken by the eminent Warburg Institute lecturer Michael Baxandall, whose Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy and The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany attempt to reconstruct how Renaissance viewers, trained in either barrel-gauging arithmetic or Gothic penmanship respectively, would have originally seen the paintings and sculptures they encountered every day.25 For Baxandall, the smooth lines of Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (c.1450) in the National Gallery, London, would have been interpreted by someone in the fifteenth century as fully three-dimensional, not as smooth lines that might appeal aesthetically to someone more familiar with the modernist Bauhaus movement.26
To get to those ‘Baxandallian’ viewing points requires a deep, detailed interdisciplinary understanding; it is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that microhistory retains such a powerful hold on those determined to understand the past in its own words, sights, sounds and smells. Aided by Renaissance and early modern notaries and their litigious clients, Roman court records (studied by scholars such as Renato Ago and Thomas and Elizabeth Cohen) reveal the ways in which groups seemingly lost to sight such as prostitutes, gamblers, Jews and ordinary peasant householders went about their daily lives.27 Another example is Anne Goldgar’s Tulipmania, which is an example of how important it is to go beyond the notion of an impersonal marketplace, showing how the value of seventeenth-century tulip bulbs depended on networks created by tightly knit Mennonite communities in the Dutch Republic.28
It is not just documents that give insight into the past. When, as in Howell, Muldrew and the Material Renaissance group’s version of the early economy, money was missing, goods created the transactions that made commerce possible. In translating the long lists of linens, furnishings, tin-wares and ceramics into a lively description of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century material culture, it is a relatively small but significant step to attach these labels, and their values, to surviving pieces that sit in our museums, galleries and archaeological displays today. The so-called ‘material turn’ in history is no more than the next move in an attempt to step outside presentism into a fully immersive, thickly described historical experience. It returns production to consumption and brings the history of labour back into view. In doing so, it also foregrounds the history of sensory experiences, asking how coarse or fine linens felt against skin that was understood as humoral, porous and vulnerable. The next, logical and potentially most radical, step is to try to understand not just the period eye but the period body and its physicality. If we no longer accept that there are any universal historical ideas (such as liberty) that transcend period and place, do we also have to acknowledge that our bodies are as historically contingent as our ideas? The places where this is being explored are not in archives but in Tudor re-enactment societies and the wardrobe departments of opera houses, theatres and film sets, where answers to the question of just how comfortable a corset was to wear (very), how difficult it is to keep a wig on while dancing (surprisingly easy if you keep your head straight), and how long it took to unhook your mistress’s many-layered garments at night (a mere minute or two) can be answered. Indeed, if bringing the past into the present does not give us seventeenth-century bodies and minds, it does force us to think with our hands. Given that the Renaissance was made with the labour of thousands of men, women and children whose identities remain forgotten, remembering the skills that they once had does truly knit together historical experience in a way that can make presentism a challenge to the assumptions created by the written record alone. Holding a glove, plate or piece of embroidery that was made five hundred years ago allows us to touch the past in a way that reminds us that the original sensations are both irrecoverable but also tantalizingly close to hand.