History, Rhetoric, and Proof/ Carlo Ginzburg

Historian Carlo Ginzburg uses the occasion of his Menachem Stern Lectureship to present a provocative and characteristically brilliant examination of the relation between rhetoric and historiography. In four lectures, based on a wide range of texts — Aristotle’s Poetics; humanist Lorenzo Valla’s tract exposing the Donation of Constantine as a forgery; an early 18th-century Jesuit historical account purporting to record the diatribe of a Mariana Island native against Spanish rule; and Proust’s commentary on Flaubert’s style — he demonstrates that rhetoric, if properly understood, is related not only to ornament but to historical understanding and truth.

Ginzburg discovers a middle ground between the empiricist or positivist view of history, and the current postmodern tendency to regard any historical account as just one among an infinity of possible narratives, distinguished or measured not by the standard of truth, but by rhetorical skill. As a whole, these lectures stake out a position that both mediates and transcends warring factions in the current historiographical debate

The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France/ Natalie Zemon Davis

Must a gift be given freely? How can we tell a gift from a bribe? Are gifts always a part of human relations—or do they lose their power and importance once the market takes hold and puts a price on every exchange? These questions are central to our sense of social relations past and present, and they are at the heart of this book by one of our most interesting and renowned historians.

In a wide-ranging look at gift giving in early modern France, Natalie Zemon Davis reveals the ways that gift exchange is crucial to understanding alliance and conflict in family life, economic relations, politics, and religion. Moving from the king’s bounty to the beggar’s alms, her book explores the modes and meanings of gift giving in every corner of sixteenth-century French society. In doing so, it arrives at a new way of considering gifts—what Davis calls “the gift register”—as a permanent feature of social relations over time. Gift giving, with its own justifications and forms in different periods, can create amity or lead to quarrels and trouble. It mixes the voluntary and the obligatory, with interested bribery at one extreme and inspired gratuitousness at the other.

Examining gifts both ethnographically (through archives, letters, and other texts) and culturally (through literary, ethical, and religious sources), Davis shows how coercive features in family life and politics, rather than competition from the market, disrupted the gift system. This intriguing book suggests that examining the significance of gifts can not only help us to understand social relations in the past, but teach us to deal graciously with each other in the present.

The Nation in History/ Anthony D. Smit

In the first theoretical analysis of historiographical debates about ethnicity and nationalism, Anthony Smith provides a probing account of historians’ assumptions and explanations of nationalism in different historical epochs. Ranging broadly over the contributions and divergent perspectives of historians, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists and others who have contributed to these fundamental debates, Smith codifies the most cogent responses that have been offered to three defining issues in this area: the nature and origin of the nation and nationalism; the antiquity or modernity of nations and nationalism; and the role of nations and nationalism in historical, and especially recent, social change. Using the examples of Persia, Israel, and Greece for long-term illustrations, Smith also discusses ethnic and national identities in France, Germany, England, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere to illuminate the uses and the meaning of alternative theories, and ends with a convincing case for the value of his own ethno-symbolist approach.

Civil Society and Dictatorship in Modern German History/ Jürgen Kocka

In this rich and thought-provoking work, Jürgen Kocka focuses his analytic lens on Germany’s long twentieth century, from the empire to the present. He begins by establishing the semantic problematic in the German term Bürgertum and presenting an analytical survey of German civil society over the past 120 years. He then offers a fascinating social history of the GDR, along with a comparative analysis of the East German dictatorship and that of the Third Reich. He further compares Germany’s “two dictatorships” in regard to historical memory, post-regime justice, and historiography before and after reunification. Kocka concludes with a wonderfully expansive view of historical interpretation and even argues for the place of trendiness and fashion in the profession.

The Resistible Rise of Antisemitism/ Laura Engelstein

Antisemitism emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century as a powerful political movement with broad popular appeal. It promoted a vision of the world in which a closely-knit tribe called “the Jews” conspired to dominate the globe through control of international finance at the highest levels of commerce and money lending in the towns and villages. This tribe at the same time maneuvered to destroy the very capitalist system it was said to control through its devotion to the cause of revolution. It is easy to draw a straight line from this turn-of-the-century paranoid thinking to the murderous delusions of twentieth-century fascism. Yet the line was not straight.

Antisemitism as a political weapon did not stand unchallenged, even in Eastern Europe, where its consequences were particularly dire. In this region, Jewish leaders mobilized across national borders and in alliance with non-Jewish public figures on behalf of Jewish rights and in opposition to anti-Jewish violence. Antisemites were called to account and forced on the defensive. In Imperial and then Soviet Russia, in newly emerging Poland, and in aspiring Ukraine—notorious in the West as antisemitic hotbeds—antisemitism was sometimes a moral and political liability. These intriguing essays explore the reasons why, and they offer lessons from surprising places on how we can continue to fight antisemitism in our times.

Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History/ Richard J. Evans

A bullet misses its target in Sarajevo, a would-be Austrian painter gets into the Viennese academy, Lord Halifax becomes British prime minister in 1940: seemingly minor twists of fate on which world-shaking events might have hinged.

Alternative history has long been the stuff of parlour games, war-gaming and science fiction, but over the past few decades it has become a popular stomping ground for serious historians. Richard J. Evans now turns a critical, slightly jaundiced eye on the subject. Altered Pasts examines the intellectual fallout from historical counterfactuals. Most importantly, Evans takes counterfactual history seriously, looking at the insights, pitfalls and intellectual implications of changing one thread in the weave of history.

Early Modern European Civilization and Its Political and Cultural Dynamism/ Heinz Schilling

Based on a series of lectures given at the Historical Society of Israel in 2006, this volume offers a rare opportunity for English language readers to appreciate the groundbreaking work of historian Heinz Schilling. As Schilling argues here, the emergence of the European state system was a direct result of the rise of regionally dominant religious beliefs and the resultant formation of national identities. This is not only an introduction to his paradigmatic concept of “confessionalization” and the emergence of the state system in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; it is also an effort to understand the impact of migration and the role of religious minorities as agents of economic, social, and cultural change during this period. The book concludes with a tantalizing discussion of the way in which secular authority did not arise exclusive from religion but was often inspired by the inherent dualism of the Latinate culture, characterized by a long-held separation between the spiritual and secular powers. The very fundamentalisms that fed the inferno of the Thirty Years War were only brought to heel by the very nature of European religious authority. Schilling uses his discussion of the confessionalization concept and the rise of the state system as a model of historical typology that will serve to ease historians’ embrace of post-national, post-European, and global historiography.

In Pursuit of Civility/ Keith Thomas

Keith Thomas’s earlier studies in the ethnography of early modern England, Religion and the Decline of Magic, Man and the Natural World, and The Ends of Life, were all attempts to explore beliefs, values, and social practices in the centuries from 1500 to 1800. In Pursuit of Civility continues this quest by examining what English people thought it meant to be “civilized” and how that condition differed from being “barbarous” or “savage.” Thomas shows that the upper ranks of society sought to distinguish themselves from their social inferiors by distinctive ways of moving, speaking, and comporting themselves, and that the common people developed their own form of civility. The belief of the English in their superior civility shaped their relations with the Welsh, the Scots, and the Irish, and was fundamental to their dealings with the native peoples of North America, India, and Australia. Yet not everyone shared this belief in the superiority of Western civilization; the book sheds light on the origins of both anticolonialism and cultural relativism. Thomas has written an accessible history based on wide reading, abounding in fresh insights, and illustrated by many striking quotations and anecdotes from contemporary sources.

Three Ways to Be Alien/ Sanjay Subrahanyam

Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s Three Ways to Be Alien draws on the lives and writings of a trio of marginal and liminal figures cast adrift from their traditional moorings into an unknown world. The subjects include the aggrieved and lost Meale, a “Persian” prince of Bijapur (in central India, no less) held hostage by the Portuguese at Goa; English traveler and global schemer Anthony Sherley, whose writings reveal a surprisingly nimble understanding of realpolitik in the emerging world of the early seventeenth century; and Nicolò Manuzzi, an insightful Venetian chronicler of the Mughal Empire in the later seventeenth century who drifted between jobs with the Mughals and various foreign entrepôts, observing all but remaining the eternal outsider. In telling the fascinating story of floating identities in a changing world, Subrahmanyam also succeeds in injecting humanity into global history and proves that biography still plays an important role in contemporary historiography.

Ethics through Literature/ Brian Stock

Why do we read? Based on a series of lectures delivered at the Historical Society of Israel in 2005, Brian Stock presents a model for relating ascetic and aesthetic principles in Western reading practices. He begins by establishing the primacy of the ethical objective in the ascetic approach to literature in Western classical thought from Plato to Augustine. This is understood in contrast to the aesthetic appreciation of literature that finds pleasure in the reading of the text in and of itself. Examples of this long-standing tension as displayed in a literary topos, first outlined in these lectures, which describes “scenes of reading,” are found in the works of Peter Abelard, Dante, and Virginia Woolf, among others. But, as this original and often surprising work shows, the distinction between the ascetic and aesthetic impulse in reading, while necessary, is often misleading. As he writes, “All Western reading, it would appear, has an ethical component, and the value placed on this component does not change much over time.” Tracing the ascetic component of reading from Late Antiquity through the Renaissance and beyond, to Coleridge and Schopenhauer, Stock reveals the ascetic or ethical as a constant with the aesthetic serving as opposition, parallel force, and handmaiden, underscoring the historical consistency of the reading experience through the ages and across various media.

The Roman Republic in Political Thought/ Fergus Millar

It is a fact that the very long-lived Roman Republic has consistently played a surprisingly slight role in political theory and discussions about the nature of democracy, forms of government, and other matters, particularly when compared to the enormous attention paid to fifth-century BCE Athenian democracy. Fergus Millar re-opens the issue of how the Roman Republic was understood and used by political thinkers from the Ancient World to the present. Describing both the reality of the late Roman Republic and showing how its nature was distorted even by contemporary sources, he tracks its treatment (or absence) in political discourse from Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, and in debates surrounding the creation of the American constitution, particularly in the Federalist papers. In brief, clear prose, with quotations in English from important works, and economical use of endnotes, he reinforces his unconventional thesis about the significance of direct democracy in the late Roman Republic. In the process, he also provides an unprecedented tour through 2000 years of Western political theory from the point of view of the Roman Republic, in general, and theories of direct democracy and the balance of power, in particular.

Religion in China and Its Modern Fate/ Paul R. Katz

Paul R. Katz has composed a fascinating account of the fate of Chinese religions during the modern era by assessing mutations of communal religious life, innovative forms of religious publishing, and the religious practices of modern Chinese elites traditionally considered models of secular modernity. The author offers a rare look at the monumental changes that have affected modern Chinese religions, from the first all-out assault on them during the 1898 reforms to the eve of the Communist takeover of the mainland. Tracing the ways in which the vast religious resources (texts, expertise, symbolic capital, material wealth, etc.) that circulated throughout Chinese society during the late imperial period were reconfigured during this later era, Katz sheds new light on modern Chinese religious life and the understudied nexus between religion and modern political culture. Religion in China and Its Modern Fate will appeal to a broad audience of religionists and historians of modern China.

Language and Power in the Early Middle Ages/ Patrick J. Geary

The eminent historian Patrick J. Geary has written a provocative book, based on lectures delivered at the Historical Society of Israel about the role of language and ideology in the study and history of the early Middle Ages. He includes a fascinating discussion of the rush by nationalist philologists to rediscover the medieval roots of their respective vernaculars, the rivalry between vernacular languages and Latin to act as transmitters of Christian sacred texts and administrative documents, and the rather sloppy and ad hoc emergence in different places of the vernacular as the local administrative idiom. This is a fascinating look at the weakness of language as a force for unity: ideology, church authority, and emerging secular power always trumped language.

Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire/ Peter Brown

In three magisterial essays, Peter Brown, one of the world’s foremost scholars of the society and culture of late antiquity, explores the emergence in late Roman society of “the poor” as a distinct social class, one for which the Christian church claimed a special responsibility. It is the story of how a society came to see itself as responsible for the care of a particular class of people — a class that had not previously been cared for — and of who benefited from that shift in interests. In his characteristically elegant and lucid prose, Brown seeks to recover the pre-Christian status of poor people, the actual nature of the relations between the Christian church and the poor, and the true motivations — sometimes sincere, sometimes self-serving — behind Christian rhetoric of love for the poor. He draws not only on the standard Greek and Latin sources for the later Roman Empire, but also on Jewish sources to document the interactions between Middle Eastern provincial societies and classical Roman traditions. Brown gracefully illuminates a crucial transition from classical to Christian culture: the emergence of a new understanding of what society — and the Church — owes to the poor that continues to resonate.

Empires in Collision in Late Antiquity/ Glen W. Bowersock

In this book, based on lectures delivered at the Historical Society of Israel, the famed historian G. W. Bowersock presents a searching examination of political developments in the Arabian Peninsula on the eve of the rise of Islam. Recounting the growth of Christian Ethiopia and the conflict with Jewish Arabia, he describes the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of a late resurgent Sassanian (Persian) Empire. He concludes by underscoring the importance of the Byzantine Empire’s defeat of the Sassanian forces, which destabilized the region and thus provided the opportunity for the rise and military success of Islam in the seventh century. Using close readings of surviving texts, Bowersock sheds new light on the complex causal relationships among the Byzantine, Ethiopian, Persian, and emerging Islamic forces.

Blood and Boundaries/ Stuart Schwartz

In Blood and Boundaries, Stuart B. Schwartz takes us to late medieval Latin America to show how Spain and Portugal’s policies of exclusion and discrimination based on religious origins and genealogy were transferred to their colonies in Latin America. Rather than concentrating on the three principal divisions of colonial society—Indians, Europeans, and people of African origins—as is common in studies of these colonial societies, Schwartz examines the three minority groups of moriscos, conversos, and mestizos. Muslim and Jewish converts and their descendants, he shows, posed a special problem for colonial society: they were feared and distrusted as peoples considered ethnically distinct, but at the same time their conversion to Christianity seemed to violate stable social categories and identities. This led to the creation of “cleanliness of blood” regulations that explicitly discriminated against converts. Eventually, Schwartz shows, those regulations were extended to control the subject indigenous and enslaved African populations, and over time, applied to the growing numbers of mestizos, peoples of mixed ethnic origins. Despite the efforts of civil and church and state institutions to regulate, denigrate, and exclude, members of these affected groups often found legal and practical means to ignore, circumvent, or challenge the efforts to categorize and exclude them, creating in the process the dynamic societies of Latin America that emerged in the nineteenth century.

Exiles and Expatriates in the History of Knowledge, 1500–2000/ Peter Burke

In this wide-ranging consideration of intellectual diasporas, historian Peter Burke questions what distinctive contribution to knowledge exiles and expatriates have made. The answer may be summed up in one word: deprovincialization. Historically, the encounter between scholars from different cultures was an education for both parties, exposing them to research opportunities and alternative ways of thinking. Deprovincialization was in part the result of mediation, as many émigrés informed people in their “hostland” about the culture of the native land, and vice versa. The detachment of the exiles, who sometimes viewed both homeland and hostland through foreign eyes, allowed them to notice what scholars in both countries had missed. Yet at the same time, the engagement between two styles of thought, one associated with the exiles and the other with their hosts, sometimes resulted in creative hybridization, for example, between German theory and Anglo-American empiricism. This timely appraisal is brimming with anecdotes and fascinating findings about the intellectual assets that exiles and immigrants bring to their new country, even in the shadow of personal loss.