History's idea phoenix

Louis XIV. First Edition - The World of Catholic Renewal 1540-1770. First Edition - Renaissance Italy. First Edition
February 25, 2000

These three textbooks arise from the periodic efforts of historians to refurbish the discipline: accommodating new perspectives, rearranging old mental furniture and possibly tossing out those theories deemed surplus to requirement. Historians last busied themselves in such disciplinary renovation when Marxism went mainstream in the 1960s. Now the students of that decade have themselves remade the discipline and publishers are launching new textbook series to replace old surveys that seem dated.

One area of particular activity is European history of the 15th to 18th centuries. The three authors here do an admirable job of bringing students up to speed with the results of recent research. That said, not all are equally successful as textbooks; there is much new information, but little new pedagogy. More to the point, none takes the opportunity fundamentally to recast subjects whose familiar lines have been altered by recent research.

Robert Hole's book is aimed at the youngest audience (sixth form and junior undergraduate) and is the most successful as a textbook - assuming that the job of a textbook is to help students cram for a test. This text takes its work seriously, from its "how to use this book" preface to the study questions and essay-writing tips that follow each chapter. Nine short chapters cover culture, politics, economics, religion and social history, with new research amply incorporated. Primary-source quotations and illustrations make abstract concepts concrete and summary diagrams schematise each chapter's main points. Dauntingly focused and necessarily brusque, it nonetheless conveys the subject's complexity to a younger audience.

R. Po-Chia Hsia's text is aimed at university students and comes closest to offering a new paradigm simply because it takes seriously a subject that few but parochial historians have treated. Early-modern Catholicism was built on new modes of thought and became central to the construction of a hierarchical social and political order in pre-revolutionary Europe.

Hsia skilfully incorporates recent work on gender, mysticism and imperialism to depict renewed Catholicism as a broad cultural phenomenon. Yet the treatment is heavily institutional and the transformed mindset explored so provocatively in John Bossy's classic Christianity in the West (1985) or, more recently, in Edward Muir's Ritual in Early Modern Europe (1998), is less evident here. There is little sense of the world Catholics lost when they were so deliberately "renewed".

Bibliographically rich, the book is visually lame: few illustrations convey the dazzling paintings, sculptures and structures that have made renewed Catholicism so compelling.

David Sturdy offers a clear and workmanlike review of new approaches to a familiar topic, with no particular sense that these may fundamentally reshape one's approach to the subject itself.

It puts Louis XIV in the centre of his people, kingdom and continent - which, admittedly, is just where he would want to be - and demonstrates how conservative a ruler and how constrained an absolutist he was. It is the most conventional of all three works here and makes the fewest concessions pedagogically.

Nicholas Terpstra is associate professor of history, University of Toronto, Canada.

Louis XIV. First Edition

Author - David J. Sturdy
ISBN - 0 333 60513 6 and 60514 4
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £42.50 and £13.99
Pages - 202

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