Alexandra Walsham (Faculty of History, University of Cambridge)
Kate Peters (Murray Edwards College)
Liesbeth Corens (Jesus College)
Scholars of the early modern world rarely pause to consider how and why the archives upon which they rely came into being, despite the fact that these processes have fundamentally shaped both our knowledge of the past and the technical and specialist skills we must acquire in order to recover and interpret it. This interdisciplinary conference will bring together historians, literary scholars and archivists to explore the phenomenon of record-keeping between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries and to assess the impulses underpinning it against the backdrop of wider technological, intellectual, political, religious and economic developments. It endeavours to focus fresh attention on the assumptions and constraints behind the creation, control, preservation and use of records in an era of significant change.
The main purpose of this conference is to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas on record-keeping in a broad European and global perspective and to set a series of agendas for further exploration. It has three broad and interlinked objectives. The first is to focus attention on the processes by which and the reasons why records were created, preserved and used. Contributors will explore the incentives behind record-keeping and the contexts in which it occurred, the impulses underpinning the formation of official and institutional archives, the documentation of information in written texts, and the growing contemporary urge to keep personal records and chronicles of daily life, historical events, and the peregrinations of the soul and self. They will consider issues of secrecy, censorship, destruction and misuse, examine the material forms records took, and analyse how they were organised, managed, controlled and policed. They will also probe the porous boundary between administrative and bureaucratic record-keeping and autobiography, authorship and literary creativity. Parallels and divergences between record-keeping practices and archival culture in different parts of the early modern world will be explored, as well as their transplantation, confrontation and cross-fertilisation in an era of international travel, imperial expansion, mobility and cultural encounter.
A second aim is to illuminate the nexus between record-keeping and the historical transformations that define the early modern period itself: the Renaissance, Reformations and the emergence of new modes of scientific enquiry; state formation, legal change, the emergence of capitalism, and the initiatives for overseas expansion and missionary evangelism; the advent of print and the spread of education. It will endeavour to shed fresh light on how far the intellectual reorientations associated with humanism and the Catholic and Protestant movements for ecclesiastical and spiritual renewal altered scholarly practices and protocols and catalysed public and private, official and informal impulses to preserve the memory of events and experiences for the sake of posterity. It seeks to extend our understanding of the connections between record-keeping and empirical observation and experimentation; its links with bureaucracy, governance, justice and the exercise of power; and its role in trade, commerce, exploration and colonisation. And it hopes to reassess the relationship between the spread of the ability to read, write, make arithmetic calculations and keep accounts, the introduction of advanced technologies for the reproduction of texts, and all of the foregoing developments.
The third aim of the conference is to stimulate critical methodological and theoretical reflection on the extent to which the early modern record-keeping practices have helped to foster modern scholarly preoccupations and to forge influential interpretative paradigms. Closer scrutiny of ways in which and the reasons why physical records were created, preserved, used and destroyed by early modern individuals and communities, regimes and organisations should serve to deepen our awareness of how far the research we carry out and the scholarship we produce is indebted to decisions made in the very era under our investigation. It has the capacity to cast light on trends in approach, perspective and method that have shaped the recent development of historical disciplines, including revisionism, microhistory, postmodernism, and the rise of global history.
Supported by The British Academy, Society for Renaissance Studies, CRASSH, and Royal Historical Society.
Image: Archivo Histórico Provincial de Cádiz, Photographer: Dr John Paul Ghobrial