Forcing Modern Categories on Early Modern Realities II: Naming Conventions
Erik’s comments on a previous post have prompted me to make an expanded post spelling out what I see as the broad issues surrounding naming things from early modern Europe. This issue comes up from time to time, and since it can be rather contentious, I thought I’d spell out my version.
Here’s my take: It’s complicated!
It’s complicated for many reasons, which I’ll spell out for those unfamiliar with the details. NB: This is a necessarily Euro-centric and Anglo-centric post; I am writing this in English after all.
The most fundamental problem revolves around language, or, more precisely, languages. Europe is of course a relatively diverse region with a few dozen languages grouped into several different families, and most scholars (myself included) can only read a small subset of them. In grad school you learn whichever languages you need to read the sources you need for your topic (usually the minimum is two foreign languages), and since most historians continue to write the history of a particular country, our linguistic boundaries are usually limited to the languages spoken in those boundaries – on occasion you get weird situations where a Prussian king wrote letters in the more elegant French language and these were later translated into German for nationalistic reasons. That being said, the two ‘standard’ languages for European historians, at least for America and western Europe, are English (which has become the dominant language of scholarly discourse over the 20C), and French a close second – the use of these two as a more general lingua franca throughout the West is important here also. Various historical traditions have also encouraged particular linguistic groupings – much work on Classical history was written by Germans in the late 19C, while Russian is obviously a good language for the 20C history of eastern Europe. The dominance of English and French coincides with the fact that, numerically, most early modernists study English or French history, with much smaller groups exploring German, Italian, Spanish, or Dutch history (which itself is also a function of the size of the academic history communities in these countries – I would not be surprised if there are almost as many historians of early modern Portuguese history in English and American universities as in Portugal). First problem: the detailed knowledge of most historians of EME is limited to the countries whose languages they can read, few can read more than a few, and no one can read all the primary and secondary literature in more than one or two. We each have our own view of one part of the elephant that is EME, and the French and English parts of the elephant (I’ll leave it to you to decide which anatomical parts those are) are most visible.
Another contributor to our confused conventions is linguistic ambiguity, translating from one language to another. The problem is that translation is never perfect, always approximate, and often introduces or eliminates nuances present in the ‘original’ version. This is further complicated by the variety of possible connotations for many words. For terms like “Austrian” or “German” (just to choose two examples), they might have geographical, linguistic, national, ethnic, political, dynastic, and/or religious connotations (probably others). Thanks to nationalization and unification, many of these connotations converged during the 19C-20C; in some cases they exploded in the wake of collapsed empires and world wars. Trying to disentangle the modern convergence from the earlier diversity of connotations is further complicated by the fact that each word today might have several connotations in one language, but different (or overlapping) connotations in another language – kind of like the difference between “science” in English vs. German. Further, the connotations might vary by the specific context – “Italian” might be meant in a geographical sense of the Italian peninsula, whereas it could also have other connotations in a different context in the same language, and perhaps have even additional ones in another language. Erik mentioned in his comment that the German term “Oesterreich” was primarily geographical (at one historical point, but it’s expanded since then), but once it gets translated into English as “Austria” (not a more literal “Eastern Empire/borderlands”), it potentially adds other connotations, that also vary by context. Plus, there are political implications for all of these, even if they are not intended by the user – nationalists demanding linguistic homogeneity or religious purity, linguistic colonizers forcing their European names on indigenous places, etc. Here too, the dominance of English and French encourage smaller European countries to demand equality for their own threatened languages – witness the European Union’s policy regarding its ‘official’ language(s). It would be interesting to develop a table that showed the variations for each aspect (linguistic, geographical…) for each ‘country’ and how they changed over time.
So thus far we have Anglo- and Gallo-centric biases toward ‘standard’ forms (and we could attach the dominance of centralized political models based off these two countries’ histories as well), translational ambiguities, and political subtexts. Then we can add the more mundane fact that languages evolve over time, leading to new forms of existing words as well as new words and new connotations. These changes can be ‘natural’ or artificial, e.g. the Dutch spelling reforms of the 1950s, but they mean that words don’t necessarily have the same meaning, much less the same spelling, as they once did – a common example you’ll see is 18C title pages advertising the fact that they have “curious engravings”. (So make sure you have historical dictionaries on hand – many are available on Google Books, and LEME is an excellent resource for English.) Another form of linguistic evolution is expressed in spelling (orthography): before universal education and a national media helped develop a uniform language based off a ‘standard’ dialect (e.g. the “Queen’s English”, Parisian French) in the 18C-19C, there was little standardization in spelling, despite the efforts of the Académie française (the English government refused Defoe’s and Swift’s request for a similar English body). As a bizarre example, I’ve even seen a letter where the author (mis)spelled somebody else’s name several different ways in a single paragraph! And let’s not even mention the pitfalls of transliteration between Latin, Greek and Cyrillic alphabets.
Scholars who work in the field know the above, and since you can’t repeat all these caveats every time, the standard convention is to mention such caveats in a prefatory note to the reader, or maybe at its first mention, depending on space and format.
So, how are all these theoretical complications relevant to us EMEMHians? Proper Nouns. Here are half-a-dozen specific examples that you are likely to come across in your research, and you may well be questioned on your choices at a conference (or on a blog! ;):
1. WARS. In addition to the obvious issue of translating the name of a war from one language to another (the War of the Spanish Succession into la guerre de la succession d’Espagne into Spaanse successieoorlog), you also have the problem that for some wars different countries called them different things altogether. The War of the League of Augsburg is what it used to be called in English, is still usually called that in French (la guerre de la Ligue d’Augsbourg), and is what the Library of Congress subject heading uses. English scholars tend nowadays to refer to it as the Nine Years War (which can be confused with the Nine Years War in Ireland a century earlier), but it has sometimes also been called War of the Grand Alliance (the War of the Spanish Succession also had its own Grand Alliance). Wikipedia includes the War of the English Succession and the War of the Palatine Succession. Some of these are sub-conflicts within the larger conflagration, but the boundaries are rarely clear, and no one that I know of has bothered to set out a clear delineation; plus, you certainly can’t force others to follow yours in any case, so we end up with synecdoches. Things really get messed up with some of the Baltic/East European conflicts – which Great Northern War are we talking about exactly? In short, there is no universally-agreed-upon name for most conflicts, especially those that few care about, and the choice of one name over another can, again, become a political matter as it often is used to assign blame (e.g. the War of Northern Aggression…).
2.TOWNS. Place names don’t usually translate literally from one language to another, but they get mangled nonetheless. Most odd is how close English names for Italian towns are to the original – Venice for Venezia, Rome for Roma… is it so hard to just add an -a on the end of Rom(e)? Then you have places whose bastardized names become commonplace in another tongue – historical convention is to use the Anglicized versions in English-language works. Examples include Flushing for Vlissingen, Moscow for Moskva (transliterated into Latin from the Cyrillic), etc. Many place names also change over time as invasions and political sovereigns come and go – so common is this in central/eastern Europe that you will often find appendices that list the equivalencies between German, Slavic and English names (e.g. Gdansk-Danzig, and let’s not even talk about St. Petersburg). Even in the west you may need to search by Lille and Rijssel, Liège and Lüttich, Aix-la-Chapelle and Aachen… From personal experience, if you are in the French archives, don’t ask for the folder on Ghent – it doesn’t exist! Gand is what you are looking for. And don’t freak out if a Dutch book has a chapter on the unknown siege of Bergen – it’s Mons! Locating places mentioned in contemporary sources can be a particular challenge, and sometimes it does help to translate the names literally or phonetically (Ypres-Ieperen-Wipers). My favorite is ‘s Hertogenbosch (the duke’s wood), colloquially called Den Bosch by the Dutch, labelled Bois-le-duc by the French, while provincial Englishmen referred to it as the Buss, or, for those aping the French pronunciation, Boiled Duck.
3. BATTLES. The same national traditions apply, but are complicated by the fact that field battles were normally named after a nearby landmark, and most places had more than one landmark nearby. In the middle ages (itself a loaded term) heralds might confer afterward on what to name the battle (Agincourt or Azincourt?), but in the early modern period there are several examples where the two sides chose totally different names: Blenheim for the English (Blindheim in modern German), but the second battle of Höchstedt for the French (the first was a year earlier). Neerwinden is also Landen, and so on. Battles named after nearby towns (and sieges) follow the Town rules above; once again, it’s a mess in eastern Europe, particularly Hungary, which has a totally different Finno-Ugric language from Germanic or Slavic or Romance.
4. PEOPLE. Before we lost any semblance of standardized names (says a guy named Jamel), there were just as many problems. In addition to the lack of standardized orthography mentioned above, we have different types of names from different regions and different names and titles based off of social rank and status (herr, von, van, de…). If we focus on those at the top we also need to worry about shifting rank/status as one travels from, say, Henry St. John to Lord Bolingbroke. Know the rules and exceptions for your region. Then you get people whose name varies in different languages – King John, Jean, Johann, Jan… I always thought it would be more useful to refer to the kings by the name used in their country, but this hasn’t taken off, probably because we are still focused on our national constructs. Maybe kings didn’t use the same language that is used nowadays (Gustavus Adolphus anyone?). And then there’s the influence of cosmopolitan languages like French or English used all over Europe… Linguistic name variation also applies to last names, for example Ouwerkerk (the Dutch version) was Overkirk in English and Auverquerque in French. What do we conclude from the fact that he signed himself with the French spelling? Keep lists of all the variations your people had throughout their lives, which naming conventions are used by each resource (family name or title?), and if possible use wildcards in your searches to catch spelling variations.
5. TREATIES. The Town rules apply here since treaties were usually named after the town where they were negotiated or signed. So you have the treaty of Ryswick, unless you’re Dutch and want to refer to it by it’s Dutch-appropriate name, Rijswijk. You also have a separate issue that if the war was large enough, there were multiple signatories and they would sign (hopefully not very) different versions of the treaty at different times in different locales. So you have the “peace of Utrecht” which includes the treaty of Utrecht, the treaty of Baden, the treaty of Rastatt… Remember that diplomacy took place over months if not years, and many different sides were involved, so don’t expext a single terminus for an early modern war.
6. NATIONAL GROUPS. As we alluded to in the comments to the previous post, on the one hand historians talk about how nationalism didn’t really exist until the 18C and especially 19C, that it was ‘constructed.’ One popular example is to say that someone living in Nantes saw himself as Nantais, perhaps Breton, but not really “French.” Yet, on the other hand, for centuries before that we can find plenty of evidence that contemporaries referred to themselves and others by such national groupings, as “English,” “French,” etc., raising the question of defining Englishness, Frenchness…, as well as how you define national. Contemporaries had various racial and climatic explanations for the ‘national’ characteristics of one race versus another – see Moréri’s description of France in his Historical Dictionary for one example. They certainly had views of national ways of war, whether these were based on racial, constitutional or historical foundations – search in Google Books for titles with “ingénieur françois” for example. The famous French historian Fernand Braudel even argued that armies were a prime driver of national identity, as people from all over France joined together to fight for king and also for country, forging a shared identity in the process. What these early references to national identity mean isn’t clear to me, other than it was very complex (and ambiguous, and dynamic, and contested). Some of this proto-nationalism might be foreigners simply defining the Other in binary opposition to themselves. Maybe this was a particularly English tendency, as England tended to be more nationalistically self-aware earlier, yet the complications of defining ‘English’ as compared to ‘British’, ‘Irish’, ‘Scottish’, etc. have occupied British isle historians for the past few decades. It certainly doesn’t make things clearer that our period saw the occupation and formal incorporations of Ireland and Scotland to the English crown and eventually to the English government. People back then spoke in terms of “Austrians,” “Dutch” (or “Hollanders”) and “Danes” – but what exactly this means, and how it shaped their identity, isn’t clear.
So, to sum up this long post, early modern naming conventions are complicated because they are all relative and arbitrary to begin with, as they are created by diverse groups of egocentric humans, whose groupings and languages themselves change over centuries, and they are based on human ideas that only stand in for real objects, and most of these referents are themselves intangible – language, identities, and so on. There is no objective standard when you are going across cultures (or even within) unless you assume the superiority of one over another. So you choose one standard, go with it, and you move on, because otherwise you get caught in an infinite regression of how to choose one arbitrary standard over another. Figure out what your point in writing is: Do you try to minimize the mental disruption to your readers (assuming you judge accurately who your readers are) by using the terms they are most familiar with? Do you show off how knowledgeable you are about the latest theoretical deconstruction of the category? Do you highlight the conventions and their subtle influence on our thoughts by openly breaking them (e.g. using ‘hir’ or ‘herstory’) – and if so, are you assuming that someone else using a different naming convention doesn’t already know the issues, or that they should accept your conventions instead? Or maybe you alternate between various standards to totally destabilize the entire project? What if the reader doesn’t understand the backstory to this transgression of boundaries, or if the author was aware but didn’t think it merited discussion? Each to their own, but rather than try to sort all that out I tend to take an agnostic stance: recognize the problematic areas, acknowledge them when queried (or when teaching), make a choice, but don’t get bogged down by the semantics, because there is no perfect solution, no value-neutral option. Besides, there are more important things to talk about, like when the millennium really began!