What can we learn from everyday objects? From extra-ordinary objects? From the process/change of extraordinary objects into everyday objects? What do these things, and the change in their purposes and place in society, tell us about society? How do these objects divide people and nations, change tastes and priorities, and influence global production and development?
Some of you began discussing this with Monuments Men, but now we are tying in specific examples from the Age of Exploration. Remember that this is a moment of great change. We often take for granted in our modern twenty-first century world that we can order a fan from China, silk from Singapore, pick up Sumatran coffee at the local Trader Joe’s, or just keep salt and pepper and sugar stocked in our cupboards. So many of these things were new to so many different societies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As History fans and majors, you likely already appreciate all of this, but now we will talk in more in depth about it. (You may also check out a book called Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants by Wolfgang Shivelbusch.)*
Many times the history of things, and the study of material culture, dovetails with what we call Marxist history. Marxist theory, sometimes called “historical materialism,” is also about economic determinism. This comes from the works of Karl Marx, who lends his name to the field, and was the champion of workers, class politics, and reform of capitalist society. You’ve all doubtless read The Communist Manifesto at some point. Other notable historians of this field are E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill. You can read more here links to an external site..
As you look at these items and think about the history and significance of different goods and objects, think about Thornton’s discussion of contact and “encounter.” You may not be able to answer all of these questions so early in the semester, but they should kick us off right nicely for the semester. We will come back to many of these themes again and again.
(from the intro if you get a chance. Pp29-33)) How did ideas/preconceptions of the New World change through this moment of encounter? (Perhaps we decide to call it the “Age of Contact” or the “Age of Encounter” instead of the “Age of Discovery”? Can’t believe it took me so long to think of that!) What did these new-to-each-other societies find different or similar about each other? How did they communicate–both their stories and to each other? Discuss Braudel’s ideas about capitalism and material life. How do they compare to the other marxist/economic history readings you’ve read this week? What are Thornton’s arguments about the Braudel’s delineations?
According to Thornton, what were some of the motivations for Europeans to strike across the unknown sea? What were some of the conditions in place that encouraged this ‘expansion?’ What then is the background and foundational beliefs/structures that these explorers brought to the New World? Based even on your early readings from last week, how do you see some of these preconceptions and ‘continental’ experiences developing in the New World? Did different countries have different motivations for sailing west? Discuss some of the first developments/companies by these different countries.
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