Project Outline

Revolts as crucibles of change and communication

Early-modern revolts were cathartic events marked by communicative dynamism. Central questions of social justice and order that remained latent under ordinary circumstances were negotiated verbally and symbolically. Especially during bigger revolts and civil wars, threats and measures of deterrence could easily lose their impact on subjects or even backfire. Authorities were now compelled to demonstrate the legitimacy of their rule and justify existing social relations and hierarchies in terms of their contribution to a common good. Consequently, revolts represented moments of catharsis in the development of Early Modern political grammars. As fundamental and complex constructions of legitimacy, these grammars were spelled out in many ways, engaging a range of disciplines that accordingly call for study by an enormous interdisciplinary research effort.

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Commemorating revolts in early modern Europe

But however cathartic the moments of revolt were, after repression governments tried even harder to obliterate the memory of the actual events (damnatio memoriae), thus pushing away the intriguing questions of legitimacy of rule they had raised. For this reason, Early Modern authors, commentators, analysts, and political advisers referred almost exclusively to revolts having taken place abroad (sometimes in `oriental tyrannies,’ for instance Muscovy or the Ottoman Empire, that seemed particularly innocuous), or alternatively in a distant historical past. Such displacements and constructions of otherness or alterity (we might call it dissimilation) could be a means of criticizing despotic authorities and arguing in favor of a right to resist. Within the Gutenberg Galaxy, commemoration was a complex process working through entangled communication across state borders and involving various (political) cultures and both arcane and public channels of communication.

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Current interdisciplinary research

Taking a cross-border perspective, we explore these transmissions of knowledge about revolts and the subsequent learned and public debates on the legitimacy of rule and hierarchies. Our aim is to follow Early Modern circumventions of damnatio memoriae policies imposed by governments, and to closely examine the emergence and development of “political grammars” in a heterogeneous but discursively integrating European space.

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