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We Need New Categories

We Need New Categories

A section from a portolan chart by Petrus Roselli, manuscript on vellum, ca. 1466 depicting a man riding an elephant.  From the James Ford Bell LibraryPetrus Roselli. Portolan chart, manuscript on vellum, ca. 1466.
James Ford Bell Library

There's a movement afoot in the University of Minnesota's College of Liberal Arts, a fresh examination of the connections between global cultures, the movements of history and time, and how we came to be who we are today.

Faculty from departments across the college--history, French, American Indian studies, art history, English, anthropology, and others--have been taking their studies outside of the traditional Western "periodization" of history (Antiquity, Renaissance, the Enlightenment, to name a few) and working together to see the premodern world in new ways.

The premodern era has traditionally been defined as the centuries before the industrial transformations and mass democratizing changes of the decades around 1800. Thanks to the rise of global exploration and colonization in this period, and with it, the exchanges of goods, knowledge, and peoples it produced, the premodern continues to be a foundation for our attitudes about secularization, religion, science, democracy, human individuality and rights, capitalism, and the start of globalization itself.

What does it mean to be human in the complex world this history has produced? Will we only find answers to the conundrums of our time by looking forward? Or can we find them in the past? "The questions students are asking today about what it means to be human were asked by philosophers in the late 1500s," says French professor Juliette Cherbuliez. The answers relate to contemporary issues such as warfare, torture, the exploitation of species. Studying the premodern world "deepens our understanding of how these long-standing questions still influence us."

CLA's collaborative explorations of this fertile use of the past are so impressive that in December 2013 the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced a grant of more than $600,000 to create the initial structures for a newly integrated Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World (CSPW) at the University of Minnesota.

Rethinking the March of Progress
The traditional Eurocentric division of history, marked by moments of "progress," has typically excluded entire continents and societies. Who talks about "Medieval Australia," after all? CLA faculty members have been crossing the lines that divide historical eras and geographic regions and showing that history is less a steady march forward than a dynamic, interconnected flow.

Joan Blaeu, Le grande atlas.  Amsterdam, 1667. James Ford Bell LibraryJoan Blaeu, Le grande atlas. Amsterdam, 1667.
James Ford Bell Library

Established centers, such as the Center for Early Modern History and the Center for Medieval Studies, have laid the foundations for the new consortium by focusing on this deep past, but the initiative proposes to pioneer new approaches by challenging traditional periodizations and historical frameworks, and by teaming with non-traditional partners such as the Native American and Indigenous Studies Workshop and the Program in African History to scrutinize the assumptions we make as we see the world.

Professor J.B. Shank (history) will lead the CSPW for the next few years. He says an important theme of its work will be to challenge the pervasive idea that positive change is always about the new, the modern, overcoming and surpassing the past--that old people, things, and ideas are always inferior to what we are creating now. "Much of the destructiveness of the modern age has come from arrogance about its own superiority," he says.

"Assumptions about the superiority of contemporary ways of thinking do not always help us to answer the big questions and problems, and sometimes they create the very problems themselves," Shank says. Perhaps we can chart a better path to the future by looking backward as well as forward, and by reconsidering the full historical process that brought us to our current global predicaments regarding human rights, social justice, economic opportunity, the environment, population, cultural and political diversity and stability, and other issues.

The new Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World will challenge University students and faculty to see the past in the future by calling into question ready-made time periods and developmental stories, and by focusing attention instead on the many approaches taken across time and space to address fundamental human problems. With that will come challenges to our accepted notions about the march of progress, but Shank, Cherbuliez and other CLA faculty believe that in the end, our understanding will be improved, and our thinking will better reflect the diverse ways that our globalized society is increasingly viewing itself.

Learn more about plans for the CSPW
Investigate objects from CSPW partner The James Ford Bell Library

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