Spring 2012

A Long Time Ago, in a Place Far, Far Away

Studying Different Times and Places

Professor Benjamin Marschke, Ph.D.

AGAIN AND AGAIN people in Europe ask me: “How does somebody in California become interested in studying European history?” Or they ask the inverse question: “What does somebody who works on European history do at a university in California?” Of course my answer is that European history is interesting, regardless of where one is located, and that Californians need (and want!) to study European history, too.

My research field is the history of early modern Europe, that is, Europe from the Renaissance to the French Revolution (approximately 1500-1800). More narrowly, I have focused my research on 18th-century Germany, especially Prussia. What’s Prussia? Prussia was the small country in northern Germany, which became a major power under Frederick the Great in the 18th century and ultimately united Germany under Bismarck in the 19th century.

So, who cares about what happened such a long time ago in a place so far away? As it turns out, most of us, whether we realize it or not, are very interested in issues from the 18th century. To name just a few: government spending, consumerism, gender roles, and higher education. These were key issues in the 1700s, just as they are today. They connect with four areas of my current research project: 18th-century political culture and symbology; money and luxury; gender and sexuality; and scholarly sociability and discourse.

Map of Europe in 1700
Large Map

Among the Germanic countries seen in this map depicting Europe in 1700, Prussia and its king, Frederick the Great, began the process of unification of Germany that culminated in the 19th century.

First, the 18th century is generally regarded as the “age of absolutism,” but during this period ideas about government changed dramatically. In the earlier “baroque” model of absolute monarchy, the ruler legitimized his (or her) rule by appearing magnificent and being at the center of ornate ceremonies. By the turn of the 18th century, this model was gradually falling into disfavor. Flashy demonstrations of rule by monarchs such as King Louis XIV of France (pictured) were increasingly seen as unimpressive, or even ridiculous. Instead, monarchs like the kings of Prussia emphasized their competence to rule by presenting an image of themselves as thrifty, even miserly—they dressed in unadorned military uniforms and publicly eschewed many of the ostentatious ceremonies connected with kingship (see the portrait here of the Prussian king, Frederick the Great). In turn, the public’s expectation shifted. They did not expect that their ruler should appear resplendent so much as they expected that he should manage the government well, especially its finances.

King Louis XIV of France, left, was a monarch with grandiose style, while King Frederick the Great of Prussia embodied a more subdued manner.

The new expectation that a government should spend tax money carefully and not run up large debts was related to a more general interest in money and luxury in the 18th century. This was the age of the “consumer revolution” in Europe, when for the first time common people began consuming goods from around the world on a day-to-day basis—just think of tea, coffee, sugar and tobacco. The consumption of these goods, and the expensive foreign-made porcelain and silver paraphernalia typically used to consume them, became quite common. At the same time, changes in fashion accelerated in the 18th century, so that clothes and accessories were quickly discarded and replaced. This consumer revolution brought forth new criticisms of “conspicuous consumption” and heated debates about what was “luxury” and what was “necessary” and whether or not the consumption of foreign luxury goods was good for public morality and/or the economy. These debates about consumerism seem eerily similar to the debates raging today.

Of course, it was women who were most sharply criticized for spending too much money on superfluous consumer goods in the 18th century, and this was just one aspect of the rapid changes in cultural norms regarding gender and sexuality at the time. For example, the 18th century saw the “great masculine renunciation.” Throughout history it is typically the males (whether humans or animals) who are adorned with bright colors and/or flamboyant ornamentation. This changed in Europe in the 18th century, when men began to renounce flashy appearance. Increasingly, men’s fashions were marked by somber colors, simpler clothes, and less ostentatious hair styles (or wigs), and it was increasingly seen as frivolous and vain (i.e., “womanly”) to pay too much attention to one’s appearance. We can easily recognize that these conceptions of masculinity and femininity, which were established in the 18th century, still influence how we think today.

The new ideas in the 18th century regarding government and politics, regarding money and luxury, and regarding the roles of men and women in society were discussed as part of the Enlightenment. During the Enlightenment people introduced and accepted new ways of arguing. Rather than tradition or the social rank of the person arguing, a new emphasis was laid on rationality and transparency and open sociability. Moreover, people adopted new venues in which to argue, such as scholarly academies and journals, as well as popular periodicals, coffee houses, and clubs. Scholars were increasingly expected to teach “practical knowledge,” rather than traditional subjects that seemed to have no real-world applicability. (This will sound familiar to anyone following the 21st-century debates regarding higher education). As entire fields of study were denounced as invalid, scholarly debates became especially vociferous and polemic—vulgar satires, vicious personal insults, and even violent assaults became common (and still make for titillating reading today). The Enlightenment thereby re-established not only what people argued about, but also how they argued and even the forums in which they argued.

In short, we still grapple with 18th-century issues in the 21st century: government efficiency, consumerism, gender roles, and education. So, the study of what happened a long time ago in a place far, far away is vital because it is the only way to understand the here and now. If we don’t know what happened before, then we can’t really know what is happening today.