Category Archives: Jim Chevallier

Why the Early Modern

Thanks first to Carrie for the initiative…

I’ll put a topic in play, partially by way of introduction and partially for the edification of those who might happen on this blog who wonder “What’s so great about THAT period?”

In other words, what draws one to the Early Modern era?

My own response centers largely on the fact that the era is so much what the label suggests: a mixture of customs and attitudes that seem primitive at times (a lord tortured and beheaded for minor blasphemies) with much that feels absolutely contemporary, not only in establishing ideas of democracy, equality and expression which, whatever struggles they face, are now largely established and familiar, but daily concerns such as “traffic accidents” (coaches hitting people, colliding, etc.) , stock frenzies, lawsuits, and hot topics that today would be on television or in the tabloids but back then appeared in different popular publications. One goes from distant observation of out-moded customs and ornate rituals to an intimate sense of immediate familiarity.

Closely linked to this is the sense of the modern era – the era we are in now – lying like a baby in its cradle, with all its features apparent, yet still fragile and newly born. A student of the era gets to see up close the development on all fronts – political, technological, scientific, etc. – of so much we take for granted today. It is, in a way, like looking at baby pictures of our own time.

Finally, there is the almost infantile pleasure of tugging at Santa Claus’ beard to see if it is real – that is, of looking closely at many received notions “known” even by those with no interest in the era and seeing how different the reality was: that French justice was far more nuanced (and even-handed) than suggested by the existence of the Bastille and lettres de cachet, that Marie-Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake” (or even, as the French has it, brioche), that the Revolutionaries killed far more commoners than aristocrats, etc. Not that most of our friends want to know – most people, even ourselves, love their myths – but there is a private satisfaction in the discoveries themselves.

Those are some of my ideas. I’m sure I could find more in my own motivations, but it would be interesting to hear other’s take on the roots of our shared obsession.