Jonathan Dewald's Webpage
This page presents an overview of my intellectual interests-- my scholarship (both the finished products and the work in progress), my teaching, and my broader intellectual engagements. On all these fronts, most of my work has taken place at the University at Buffalo, where I've taught for the past seventeen years. (The department's page --here-- gives you access to details about it, the University, and the city.) I spent the previous fifteen years teaching in the Department of History at the University of California, Irvine, and in many ways my time there decisively influenced my intellectual development. My c.v. gives the specifics, along with contact information.
My scholarship has gone in many directions over the years, but all of it's been marked by three overlapping interests. The first of these has been an interest in the elites who dominated European society during the early modern period, and especially during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I began studying these groups partly because they were essentially a blank spot in the emerging social history of the late 1960s, when I began my graduate studies, but also because of more theoretical interests. Ruling groups offer privileged access to understanding the workings of any society. By definition they exercise a disproportionate influence on how others live and think; that's what ruling classes do. At the same time, they provide a lived embodiment of what their societies valued, an example of how abstract ideals functioned in the mess of real life, an example of how individuals balanced values and self-interest. The complex interaction among these aims-- official values and ideologies, "hidden transcripts" of unexpressed assumptions about the world, psychological needs, and self-interest-- has supplied a recurring theme in my scholarship. Numerically tiny, statistically unrepresentative, ruling elites are central to understanding how any society really functions.
I've also been struck by the capacity ruling groups have displayed (and of course continue to display today) to respond to new circumstances, change strategies and values, and sustain their influence amidst dramatic social changes. Hence my work has returned repeatedly to asking how social elites handled the dramatic social transformations of the early modern period, with attention to both wins and losses. It's a theme I've pursued in a triptych of books on the French nobilities: one on the judicial elite known as the nobility of the robe, another on the country gentry, a third on the Parisian and courtly upper nobility. A fourth book extended these investigations to Europe as a whole and to a long version of the early modern period, from 1400 to 1800.
A second research interest, closely related, has been with historical thinking itself, and especially with the ways historians have conceptualized the history of pre-industrial Europe. Here my work has centered on the history of an idea, that of the otherness of the early modern past-- the idea that men and women of the period inhabited a distinctive mental world, whose contours we can reconstruct only through an effort of historical anthropology. This seems to me one of the foundational ideas of the early modern field itself, associated with such great historians as Lucien Febvre, Philippe AriŹs, Keith Thomas, and Robert Darnton; though with different emphases, each drew attention to the specific mental tools that our ancestors used for dealing with the world, and to the cultural barriers that therefore separate them from us.
My most recent book, on French and German historical thought over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, emerged partly from an interest in understanding the sources and ideological implications of this idea; and my earlier empirical studies were partly directed to the task of nuancing and complicating it, as it had been applied to two of the Old Regime's most tradition-minded groups, peasants and nobles. Both groups, I've argued, need to be understood partly in the terms that we apply to our own lives: that is, as individualistic, self-aware, interest-calculating social actors. Failure to do so, I've come to believe, has encouraged misunderstanding not only of the past, but also of non-European societies in the present.
Alongside these specific research topics, there's been a third intellectual interest that's more diffuse: from the beginning of my scholarly career, I've wanted to understand France, both the France of by-gone centuries and the France(s) that I've encountered in my own lifetime. As for most American intellectuals who've involved themselves in French culture, it's a complicated relationship, which includes elements of love, frustration, and bafflement. Forty years after my first visit, there remains an enormous amount about France that simply I don't understand. Yet the tasks of understanding France, however partially, and of conveying that understanding to American audiences seem more important than ever. Along a variety of axes, France constitutes an alternative to the American society I usually move in, different in its politics, culture, and personal relations. Obviously modern, France nonetheless constitutes an alternative to American ways of being modern. Understanding the choices that have contributed to that difference has offered me a way of reflecting on my own society-- a concern that does not come up explicitly in my scholarship, but that is always present in the background.
I have research projects going forward in all of the areas that I've mentioned. The most fully developed examines the duc Henri de Rohan (1579-1638), the last great military leader of French Protestantism. As such, Rohan was an important historical figure, but he's also important because he exemplifies the complexities of aristocratic lives in the early modern period. As the leader of doomed rebellions against the modernizing state of Cardinal Richelieu, Rohan can be easily seen as representing medieval values and illusions; he and his followers believed that their aristocratic birth gave them the right to rebel against the state, and they thought religious differences offered valid grounds for rebellion.
Yet Rohan was no deluded reactionary. He was a serious intellectual as well as a military leader, who read widely and wrote a great deal. He was one of the first French writers to explore the idea of reason of state, and he also produced a series of Machiavelli-inspired analyses of contemporary politics; in the same Machiavellian spirit, he wrote an influential, hard-headed analysis of military practice. Rohan's personal life offers similar surprises. His sister wrote poetry, and his mother was both a writer and a tough businesswoman; his wife was one of the most flamboyant libertines of seventeenth-century Paris, a woman whose scandalous doings culminated in a widely-followed paternity suit at the time of the Fronde; though they lived apart for long stretches, they remained devoted to each other.
Hence the Rohans offer an ideal vantage-point for revisiting some basic problems of seventeenth-century social and cultural history. Through examining them, I want to understand how ruling groups both preserved the past and adapted to change? How did tradition-minded people create for themselves spaces of freedom and individuality? How did an aristocratic society like seventeenth-century France cope with disorder, and even encourage some forms of it, notably in the domain of women's sexuality? How did women establish function in this world, and how did men and women get along? How did the Christian fervor that marked all the Rohans interact with their intellectual and personal adventurousness? I've spent the last couple of years tracking down documents concerning the family, which are dispersed from Nantes to Geneva, and I'm now about ready to begin serious writing on the project.
My other recent work has concerned historiography. A series of papers build on my recent book, examining ways in which historians have constructed our visions of the early modern period and reflecting on the place of professional history in the larger culture. I include four examples here: a long article on the development and implications of the idea of a crisis of the seventeenth century (the working title is "Crisis and Meaning: Reflections on the General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century"); two shorter pieces, on the contemporary historians Robert Descimon and Stuart Carroll; and a very short piece on Marxism and Social History.
The Formation of a Provincial Nobility: The Magistrates of the Parlement of Rouen, 1499-1610 (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1980) (details here)
Pont-St-Pierre, 1398-1789: Lordship, Community, and Capitalism in Early Modern France (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1987) (details here)
Aristocratic Experience and the Origins of Modern Culture: France, 1570-1715 (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1993) (details here)
The European Nobility, 1400-1800 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996) (Italian translation Giulio Einaudi Editore, Torino, 2001; Hungarian translation Pannonica, 2002; Spanish translation Ediciones Pretextos, 2004) (link)
(editor-in-chief), Europe 1450-1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World, 6 vols. (New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2004) (details here)
Lost Worlds: The Emergence of French Social History, 1815-1970 (University Park, Penn State University Press, 2006) (details here)
Most of my papers (for the full list, see my c.v.) have been written as parts of larger projects, and the most complete versions of their arguments and data are to be found in my books. So here I've provided links to just a handful of papers, some of them not otherwise available, others offering an indication of the kinds of arguments that my books present.
"Politics and Personality in Seventeenth-Century France," French Historical Studies, XVI, 4 (Fall, 1990), 893-908
"Roger Chartier and the Fate of Cultural History," French Historical Studies, XXI, 2 (Spring, 1998), 221-240
"Lost Worlds: French Historians and the Construction of Modernity," French History, XIV, 4 (December, 2000), 424-442
"Social Groups and Cultural Practices," in Mack P. Holt, ed., Short Oxford History of France, 1500-1650, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002) (To comply with copyright regulations, I present here an early draft; for the complete version, please see the published work.)
"'A la Table de Magny:' Nineteenth-Century French Men of Letters and the Origins of Modern Historical Thought," American Historical Review, CVIII, 4 (October, 2003), 1009-1033
Through most of my career, I've taught in large, public universities, and that experience has shaped a series of pedagogical commitments and techniques. First, I've come to take for granted that I'll teach the full range of courses, from the most basic to the most advanced. (At Buffalo, "the most basic" includes both my own version of the World Civilizations course that the university requires of all students, and a Western Civilization course, taken mainly by students with some interest in further study in the social sciences.) Second, I've come to view each of my courses as having to justify itself on its own terms, as in some sense connected to contemporary life and its problems. Because very few of my students have much background in history or the intention of pursuing it seriously in the future, I can't view even the most introductory course as primarily about laying foundations for further work in the field; and I start even my most advanced courses from elementary concepts, assuming that many students will find them unfamiliar. Hence a concern in all my courses with answering the tacit, background question, why should twenty-first-century students have to think hard about very distant times and places? In that sense, my teaching approaches history as ultimately an ethical discipline, albeit one whose ethical lessons are obscure, complex, shifty, and requiring personal definition.
A third commitment is closely related: I no longer assign textbooks in my classes, using instead a combination of primary sources and accessible monographs. I supply textbook-style information in lectures and through typed handouts, attempting to convey the lesson that the real work of history lies elsewhere, in the explication of changes and continuities. More important, I view part of my mission in the classroom as teaching students how to read real books, of a sort that they might actually encounter in later life, and how to understand the arguments and information that they contain. Finally, all of this has led to a certain chronological and geographical looseness in my teaching, a readiness to cover very broad stretches of time and space, even at the risk of making mistakes in areas that I don't know well: I've come to believe that risk worth taking in the effort to get students to connect past and present. Thus, my course on European intellectual history extends from Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century to Sigmund Freud in the twentieth; my course on Old Regime France starts in the fourteenth century, and I anticipate creating a companion course that would take the story into the twentieth century.
My graduate teaching of course has different emphases, but many of the same concerns apply to it. Though we've had a series of very able and committed students specializing in early modern Europe, the large majority of our students study other fields; in addition, we've substantially expanded our MA program in recent years. All of this means that the majority of students in my seminars need a broad orientation to the field, rather than professional training as early modernists or French historians. As a result, in most of my seminars as in my undergraduate classes, I bring together a wide range of topics, and I try to teach students a basic level of professional literacy: that is. I want them to be aware of the themes and modes of argument in recent historical debates, and I want them to acquire some adventurousness in reading—a confidence that they can take up works of social and literary theory, monographs in unfamiliar fields, and studies that use unfamiliar techniques.
Here are a series of my recent course outlines: World Civilization (2005), Western Civilization (2006), The Ancien Régime (2006), European Intellectual History (2006), Early Modern Europe (2007), European Cultural History (2007).
Buffalo is a poor city, and it seems to be getting poorer, or at least falling farther behind the rest of the world. But it's also a delightful place to live, both beautiful and constantly interesting, and it inspires in some of us an intense, possibly irrational loyalty. So to finish, a few images of the downtown neighborhood where I live.