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Conference Report: Globale Verflechtungen – Europa neu denken

Nov 18, 2015

More than two hundred researchers in the field of Early Modern History gathered at Ruprecht–Karls–University Heidelberg from 17th to 19th September 2015 for a conference with the title “Globale Verflechtungen – Europa neu denken” (“Rethinking Early Modern Europe in a Global Perspective”). The conference was organised by Susan Richter and Sebastian Meurer (both Heidelberg) and represented the biennial congress of the working group on the Early Modern period of the German Historical Association (VHD). Distinguished guests from all over the world were invited to discuss how research on global processes during the Early Modern period can help to understand and study Early Modern European history differently. In the following report, Anil Paralkar reviews the conference.

First Day

During the opening of the conference mayor Eckart Würzner welcomed the participants to Heidelberg. The Dean and classicist Gerrit Kloss demonstrated that even in ancient times there was no consensus in the meaning and usage of the term “Europe”. The outgoing chairman of the working group Arndt Brendecke (Munich) introduced the outcome of the previous congress and the consequent development of the working group. Convenor Susan Richter explicated on the topic of the conference, asking how research on Early Modern European history can be redefined by taking a global perspective.

The programme of the event consisted of nine sections, each featuring two or three parallel panels.

A panel arranged by James Livesey (Dundee) and chaired by Renaux Morieux (Cambridge) investigated the interaction between the industrious revolution and the emerging knowledge culture of the 18th century. It emphasized how the consequences of this interaction could be felt in the local setting and scrutinized how the province adapted to the new situation. Papers discussed this at the example of the Swedish Cameralism (Fredrik Albritton Jonsson; Chicago), (pen)insular perspectives on Europe (Renaux Morieux) and the States of Nature (Mark Somos; Harvard).

The impact of new goods on Europe during the Age of Discovery in the Early Modern period was debated in a session organised by Kim Siebenhüner (Bern). Focusing on global commodities the transformation of the European consumer society was examined from a object-centred perspective. The papers were commented on by Bruno Blondé (Antwerp) and addressed spices and drugs in European body culture (Christine Fertig; Münster), consumer goods in the local setting of Bern (John Jordan; Bern) and calicoes in the Old Swiss Confederacy (Kim Siebenhüner).

Christian Windler and Nadine Amsler (both Bern) arranged a panel with a focus on the ritual performance of the Catholic Sacraments in a non-European context. As the Sacraments were often adapted to local non-European cultures, the speakers surveyed their execution in specific contexts and the subsequent influence on Catholicism as a whole. Ines Zupanov (Paris) commented on the papers discussing repercussions of Confucian gender norms on Jesuit baptisms in China (Nadine Amsler), the Communicatio in Sacris among Christians in the Ottoman Empire (Cesare Santus; Pisa / Paris) and mixed marriages during the European missions (Cecilia Cristellon; Frankfurt am Main).

A panel chaired by Marian Füssel (Göttingen) analysed violence as an impulse for entanglement. It focused on the effect of specific conflicts as well as on administrative and communicative processes to show how military confrontations stimulated dynamics of entanglement. The papers were discussed by Christoph Kampmann (Marburg) and investigated the emergence of global conflicts in the 18th century (Marian Füssel), the globalisation of European war financing (Tim Neu; Göttingen) and the global character of the Seven Years' War (Sven Externbrink; Heidelberg).

Susanne Friedrich (Munich) and Benjamin Steiner (Erfurt) organised a session on the interrelation of knowledge and the European expansion in their institutional context. By scrutinizing the spatial distribution of knowledge it questioned older concepts of centre and periphery. Consequently the formation of states and institutions was rethought in its global setting. Arndt Brendecke (Munich) commented on the papers, which reviewed knowledge on natural resources in Portuguese America (Jorun Poettering; Munich), (non-)knowledge in the Dutch East India Company VOC (Susanne Friedrich; Munich) and the role of Africa for France during the reign of Louis XIV (Benjamin Steiner; Erfurt).

Masculinity in the context of European global interaction was the topic of a panel arranged by Claudia Opitz-Belakhal (Basel). While European concepts of masculinity were challenged by non-European ones in the case of travellers abroad, this mode of self-expression also affected the greater aim of the scholars, diplomats and voyagers on the journey. The session surveyed the contradictions and changes of masculinity in this context. The papers debated on masculinity in the colonial positioning of the English and the Dutch (Susanna Burghartz; Basel), imprisonment as a form of emasculation of Christians in the Ottoman Empire (Anna De Caprio; Basel), Carsten Niebuhr's role between the republic of letters and the Christian-European identity (Claudia Opitz-Belakhal) and Garcilaso de la Vega's history of the Inca Empire in its intercultural context (Anna Becker; Basel) and were commented by Claudia Ulbrich (Berlin).

Discussion during lunch break

Second Day

The material side of diplomacy in a transcultural perspective was the focus of a session chaired by Harriet Rudolph (Regensburg) on the second day of the conference. It discussed how objects were used in diplomatic encounters across cultures giving a new view on processes of cultural transfer. The speakers talked about the importance of material culture studies for studying historical diplomacy (Harriet Rudolph), commodities in the transactions between Portuguese and Edo in Benin (Gregor Metzig; Regensburg), the role of objects in the negotiations between the English East India Company and Indian Rulers (Sonal Singh; Delhi), gifts in British-Ottoman diplomacy (Michael Talbot; Paris) and artefacts in North American Indian-White politics (Volker Depkat; Regensburg).

Christoph Kampmann (Marburg) and Arina Lasarewa (Moscow) organised a panel on how to rethink the European centre and periphery. While European self-perception was strongly shaped by reflecting on the “other” the session focused on the view of the “periphery” on the relationship between it and Europe. The papers scrutinized the Swedish view on European culture (Inken Schmidt-Voges; Osnabrück), the Russian perspective on Europe (Arina Lasarewa) and the observations of Ottoman ambassadors concerning the Christian world (Markus Koller; Bochum).

The global dimension of natural history was the topic of a session hosted by Renate Dürr and Anne Mariss (both Tübingen). While the republic of letters stimulated the transfer of knowledge and objects between Europe and the rest of the world, the panellists emphasized the local production of the knowledge afar from Europe. Thus the interaction of the local and the global was rethought. Ulrike Strasser (San Diego) discussed the papers on the knowledge about the 1664 comet in South America (Andres Prieto; Boulder), collaborative knowledge production on board of ships (Anne Mariss), the role of gender in natural history (Alix Cooper; Stony Brooks) and networks of early modern science (Sarah Easterby-Smith; St. Andrews).

Andreas Pečar (Halle) organised a panel on concepts of barbarianism during the European Enlightenment. During that time specific cultural norms had been devised and promulgated as a general principle to measure the “level of civilization” of certain groups and areas. The session focused on zones coined as backward to analyse the underlying discourses on the state of civilization within and outside of those areas. The speeches discussed the self-perception of the Polish-Lithuanian elite (Karsten Holste; Halle), debates on administrative reforms in Habsburgian Galicia (Klemens Kaps; Sevilla), the dispute about the “barbaric” Gallic origin of France (Damien Tricoire; Halle) and the Scottish perspective on “English barbarism” (Moritz Baumstark; Halle).

A session chaired by Jan Hennings (Istanbul) and Florian Kühnel (Berlin) surveyed the formation of modern diplomacy. While modern diplomacy is frequently considered as originating in Renaissance Italy, the panel challenged this perspective by arguing that new diplomatic practices were fostered by the encounter with the non-European world. The papers elaborated on Russian-European diplomatic practices (Jan Hennings), “European diplomacy” at the Mughal court (Antje Flüchter; Bielefeld) and the British consuls in Morocco (André Krischer; Münster) and were commented by Christian Windler (Bern).

The geographical focus of a panel hosted by Christine Roll (Aachen) and Jan Kusber (Mainz) was the eastern “periphery” of Europe. The speakers asked how the history of Eastern Europe needs to be written considering its specific location close to non-European areas and what kind of implications this had on the politics of remembrance. The importance of the “U kraina” for Europe (Jan Kusber), the genesis of the Ukrainian state (Guido Hausmann; Munich), Russian imperialism (Kerstin Jobst; Vienna) and the knowledge on the Ukraine in Europe (Christine Roll) were investigated by the speakers.

Lothar Schilling (Augsburg) was the organiser of a session on the globalisation of practical knowledge. The panellists scrutinized the circulation of practical knowledge between the non-European world and Europe and how this knowledge was assessed and tested by Europeans. The talks examined non-European knowledge in the European “culture of innovation” (Lothar Schilling), knowledge on engineering in a global perspective (Marcus Popplow; Berlin), the view on Latin America by European mining experts (Jakob Vogel; Paris) and the cultivation of tobacco in the Electoral Palatinate (Regina Dauser; Augsburg).

The discourse on the Ottoman “Orient” in relation to the European “Occident” was surveyed during a panel chaired by Erich Pelzer (Mannheim). While the Ottoman Empire was coined as an enemy after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 the European self nevertheless was thoroughly influenced by the Ottoman world. The session showed how European and Ottoman culture formed a unique hybrid identity as a consequence of their exchange. Papers investigated Turcica in European libraries and cabinets of curiosities (Charlotte Colding Smith; Melbourne / Mannheim), Western ideas on Ottoman economical behaviour (Hiram Kümper; Mannheim), the view of French travellers on the Ottoman Empire (Erich Pelzer) and the relation of the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman empire after 1683 (Martin Wrede; Grenoble).

A session presided over by Mark Häberlein and Michaela Schmölz-Häberlein (both Bamberg) focused on the transfer and migration of humans, animals, plants and objects between Europe and the non-European world. Subsequent processes of classification, appropriation and adaptation were discussed by the participants. Non-European embassies in Europe (Mark Häberlein), monkeys and humans in the Renaissance (Alan Ross; Berlin / Paris), ornamental plants in European gardens (Michaela Schmitz-Häberlein) and the gifting of Chinese porcelain in diplomacy (Eva Ströber; Leeuwarden) were the topics of the talks.

The second day of the conference was concluded by an evening event in the form of an academic debate. After a warm welcome by Nikolas Jaspert (Heidelberg), the two discussants Thomas Maissen (Paris) and Barbara Mittler (Heidelberg) introduced concepts of a Renaissance within the European and the Chinese context. While Thomas Maissen argued that the term “Renaissance” should be solely applied to the historical period in Europe, Barbara Mittler contested his opinion by showing the usage of the term “Renaissance” in the Chinese context and its unique development. Henry Keazor's (Heidelberg) comment on the debate promoted a middle ground from the perspective of art history. The event showed the chances of applying periodization as a historical phenomenon on different cultural spheres.

Dialogue between Barbara Mittler and Thomas Maissen

Third Day

On the third day Peter Borschberg (Singapore) organised a panel on the role of language and communication in the contact between South East Asia and East Asia with Europe. The history of diplomacy with a focus on official diplomatic sources was investigated. The presentations addressed the translation of Dutch concepts of rule into a Southeast Asian context (Peter Borschberg), political plotting in letters of Moluccan rulers (Manuel Lobato; Lisbon), ceremonial forms of addressing in European-Asian diplomacy (Antonio Vasconcelos de Saldanha; Macao) and concepts of bordering in Southeast Asian political communication (Alexander Drost; Greifswald).

A session on the history of law in a global perspective was arranged by Antje Flüchter and Christina Brauner (both Bielefeld) and chaired by Isabelle Deflers (Freiburg). The panellists reviewed how varying legal cultures were negotiated in contact zones between the non-European world and Europe. This way it was shown how certain legal concepts could just develop through transfer processes, while the European specifics of others could be defined more clearly. The role of the duel for re-arranging the orders of things (Ulrike Ludwig; Dresden), economical trials in the Mediterranean (Wolfgang Kaiser; Paris) and multiple norms in Hispanic America (Thomas Duve; Frankfurt am Main) were the topics of the papers.

Dagmar Freist (Oldenburg) hosted a panel on global microhistory and its implications for thinking about Europe. By analysing human and material practices in a micro-perspective global processes can be understood in a different manner than by only taking a macroscopic point of view. The case studies elaborated on the possibility of highlighting global networks by studying prize papers (Lucas Haasis / Annika Raapke; both Oldenburg), the micro- and macro-narratives of the 1689 Mughal siege on Bombay (Margaret Hunt; Uppsala) and the promises, perils and paradoxes of global microhistories (Francesca Trivellato; Yale). Hans Medick (Göttingen) commented on the papers and the chances of a global microhistory.

The discourses on the legitimacy of the sovereignty of the newly founded USA and Russia were surveyed in a session chaired by Helga Schnabel-Schüle and Simon Karstens (both Trier). The discussants argued that the legitimacy of sovereignty cannot simply be understood as given but was established by communicative processes. By focusing on the actors involved in these processes varying European concepts of sovereignty were contrasted. The international recognition of the sovereignty of the USA (Michael Hochgeschwender; Munich) and the acceptance of Russia as a political actor in Europe (Henner Kropp; Regensburg) were discussed in the papers and subsequently commented by Helga Schnabel-Schüle.

The conference ended at a plenary meeting of the participants, in which Renate Dürr (Tübingen), Thomas Maissen (Paris) and Hillard von Thiessen (Rostock) commented on the research outcome of the past days and the subsequent chances of rethinking Early Modern Europe.

Organiser team with Susan Richter and Sebastian Meurer (left)

Final Words

Retrospectively two major approaches to analyse the global setting of Europe in the early modern period were dominant during the congress. The importance of understanding the relation between the global and the local was stressed by a number of scholars. While global processes influenced local settings the same can be stated vice versa. Thus the local always also reflects the global as well as the global reflects the local. A focus on this dichotomy allows for a reconsideration of established scientific paradigms and opens up new possibilities of understanding Early Modern Europe. At the same time it becomes necessary to challenge older models of centre and periphery if the role of the various locals involved in global processes is taken seriously. In studying not only European sources but also non-European ones a more equal view between the different actors can be established, going beyond notions of the European “self” and the non-European “other”.

The role of objects and material culture was repeatedly discussed during the conference. While textual source material has formed the basis of historical research for a long time the study of living and non-living objects has frequently been neglected by historians. Nevertheless they were often deeply involved in social processes as has been shown by various papers. By analysing the social role of the objects a new understanding of global processes can be won.

The diverse approaches on the analysis of global processes during the Early Modern period gave new impulses for understanding Europe and its position in the world.

The next congress of the working group on the Early Modern period of the German Historical Association (VHD) is scheduled for 2017.

Additional Information

About the author

Anil Paralkar is a PhD Candidate in the Graduate Programme for Transcultural Studies at the Cluster. For information on Anil's research project please see here.

About the conference

The 11th conference of the working group on the early modern period in the Association of German Historians was held from September 17-19, 2015, at Heidelberg University. The event with the title "Rethinking Early Modern Europe in a Global Perspective" was organized by the Chair for the Early Modern Period of the Department of History and supported by the Cluster "Asia and Europe".

Visit the conference website


  • Key Visual (detail from Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Allegory of Europe (1722). Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston)