On 15 November, I gave a paper presentation at Radboud University’s international conference Is Europe Inclusive? Together with prof. dr. Marguérite Corporaal, I organised a panel on conceptions of European centres and peripheries throughout the ages. In my paper, entitled Peripheral Polish Prussia? Contrasting Dutch Perceptions of Prussia and the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth during the seventeenth century, I argued that notions of centres and peripheries are ever changing and dependent on the observer. I used the case of Prussia, which during the nineteenth century was framed as the centre of Germanness, but which nowadays no longer exists as a geographic entity.
In my presentation, I posed the question how Prussia was perceived before its rise to power as an independent state, when during the seventeenth century it was under Polish rule. Royal Prussia, with Danzig as its most important port, was an integral part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1569 to 1772, while Ducal Prussia was a vassal of the Polish king from 1525 until 1660. The observers I chose, the Dutch, had strong economic and cultural ties with Prussia. Did the Dutch view Prussia, which was culturally similar to the Low Countries and of great economic importance to the Dutch Republic, as a centre, or rather as a periphery and a mere province within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth?
Using a variety of sources, I made clear that the Dutch had differing opinions about the region: while some sources preferred Prussia to Poland proper, saying that Prussian houses and grain were superior to Poland’s, other sources paint a different picture. Abraham Booth, who wrote the first Dutch eyewitness account of Poland-Lithuania, printed in Amsterdam in 1632, wrote an unflattering report of his journey through both Prussia and Poland. Negative elements were, for example, vast forests, cruel Polish soldiers, bad roads and shabby accommodations. This presentation is hardly surprising, as Booth wrote his account during a diplomatic mission to Prussia, in which the Dutch mediated between the Swedes and Poles after the Swedes had invaded Polish territory. The Dutch were officially allied with the Swedes, however. On the other hand, Poland and Prussia always feature favourably in the works of Joost van den Vondel, the most prominent Dutch poet of the seventeenth century. Vondel saw Prussia as belonging to Poland, and repeatedly praised the Commonwealth for its fertility and the role it played as a bulwark of Christendom. This no doubt had to do with Vondel’s Catholic sympathies. In this way, I hope to have shown that what constitutes a centre or a periphery is not fixed and easily measurable, but rather depends on the historical context and background of the observer.
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. For the aptly named website Over de Muur (‘Over/Concerning the Wall’), I wrote a piece on the wall that still divides Europe today: the mental wall between East and West. I argue that ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western Europe’ are merely concepts or frames, which do not reflect a geographic reality. Rather, they serve as catch-alls of various images and stereotypes, which hardly do justice to the complex relations between East and West, or to the differences within East and West themselves.
In addition, I explain how the divide is kept alive by western historians, for whom ‘European history’ often means ‘Western European history’. Countries like Hungary, Poland and Ukraine are regularly overlooked by western scholarship, partly because historians seldom know the languages required. Instead, they often make use of publications written in for example English or German, which tend to neglect the East and/or give an unflattering view of Eastern European history.
I state that historians can overcome these difficulties by being aware of the fact that ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western Europe’ are frames, which are furthermore anachronistic when discussing the period before the Enlightenment, as that is when these concepts first came into use. In addition, scholars can visit eastern conferences, or invite speakers from Eastern Europe. But most importantly, they can try to incorporate the lands east of Germany into their research and their classes. This will help to gain a better understanding of Europe’s history as a whole, and thus to tear down the mental wall dividing the continent.
The piece was also posted on Radboud Recharge, in both Dutch and English.
On 7 November, Alan Moss and I gave a paper presentation in Utrecht, at an international conference entitled Memory and Identity in the Learned World: Community Formation in the Early Modern World of Science and Learning. The conference was organised by the members of the ERC-funded SKILLNET project. Our paper was entitled The Graves of Learned Men: Scholarly Identity on the Grand Tour, and discussed the ways in which seventeenth-century Dutch and Polish travellers gave expression to a scholarly identity by reflecting on so-called lieux de savoir, places of knowledge. While journeying through Europe, travellers would often visit such places and describe them in their travelogues. Popular destinations were the universities at Oxford, Leiden and Leuven, and so were the graves, birth places and statues of learned men like Erasmus, Lipsius, Grotius or the Scaligers. Some of these scholars also left behind ‘relics’, like a pen, a last will or even a skull. Alan and I gave various examples of Poles and Dutchmen describing such lieux de savoir, including the Dutch poet Caspar van Kinschot (1622-1649), who wrote several Latin compositions when visiting the house of the Scaligers in Agen.