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New Perspectives on the Past


New Perspectives on the Past is an interdisciplinary series of original books on fundamental issues in history for specialists and non-specialists. It was founded by R. I. Moore and has been edited by Constantin Fasolt since 1993. Books in the series have been various published by Cornell University Press, Blackwell, and Wiley.


General Editor

Constantin Fasolt

Advisory Editors

Michael Burns
Pamela Crossley
R. I. Moore
Ian Morris
Patrick Wormald
Heide Wunder

Books published

Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (1983); second edition 2006
Jonathan Powis, Aristocracy (1984)
Edward Peters, Torture (1985)
David Arnold, Famine (1988)
Richard Hodges, Primitive and Peasant Markets (1988)
Patricia Crone, Pre-Industrial Societies (1989)
James Casey, History of the Family (1989)
Eugene Kamenka, Bureaucracy (1989)
David Grigg, The Transformation of Agriculture in the West  (1992)
James Fentress and Chris Wickham, Social Memory (1992)
Ernest Gellner, Reason and Culture (1992)
G. Simmons, Environmental History (1993)
David Arnold, The Problem of Nature (1996)
Bruce Trigger, Sociocultural Evolution (1998)
David Turley, Slavery (2000)
Merry Wiesner, Gender in History (2001)
William Ray: The Logic of Culture (2001)
Francis Oakley, Kingship: The Politics of Enchantment (2006)

Books in progress

Michael Adas, Locating World History


Series preface

History is one of many fields of knowledge. Like other fields it has two elements: boundaries and contents. The boundaries of history first acquired their modern shape in early modern Europe. They include, among other things, such basic principles as the assumption that time is divisible into past, present, and future; that the past can be known by means of records and remainders surviving to the present; that culture can be distinguished from nature; that anachronism can be avoided; that subjects are different from objects; that human beings are capable of taking action; and that action is shaped by circumstance. Above all else, of course, they include the assumption that history does actually constitute a separate field of knowledge that is in fact divided from neighboring fields -- not merely a hitherto neglected corner of some other field whose rightful owners ought ideally, and are expected eventually, to reclaim it from the squatters now dwelling there without authorization and cultivate it properly with the tools of, say, an improved theology or a more subtle natural science.

A prodigious harvest has been gathered from the field bounded by those assumptions. Making a tentative beginning with the humanist discovery of antiquity, gaining confidence with the enlightenend critique of religion, and blossoming into full professionalization in the nineteenth century, modern historians have managed to turn their produce into an elementary ingredient in democratic education and a staple of cultural consumption. They have extracted mountains of evidence from archives and turned it into books whose truth can be assayed by anyone who cares to follow their instructions. They have dismantled ancient legends that had been handed down through the ages and laid them to rest in modern libraries. They have emancipated the study of the past from prophecy, apocalypticism, and other providential explications of the future. Pronouncements on the past command respect no longer unless they have been authenticated by reference to documents. Myths and superstitions have given way to knowledge of unprecedented depth, precision, and extent. Compared to what we read in older books, the books of history today are veritable miracles of comprehension, exactitude, and impartiality.


Success, however, has its price. None of the assumptions defining the modern practices of history are self-evidently true. The more they are obeyed, the less it seems they can be trusted. Having probed the realm of culture to its frontiers, we cannot find the boundary by which it is supposed to be divided from the empire of nature. Having raised our standards of objectivity to glorious heights, we are afflicted with vertiginous attacks of relativity. Having mined the archives to rock bottom, we find that the ores turn out to yield no meaning without amalgamation. And having religiously observed the boundary between the present and the past, we find that the past does not live in the records but in our own imagination. The boundaries of history have been worn down; the field is lying open to erosion.

The books in this series are meant to point a way out of that predicament. The authors come from different disciplines, all of them specialists in one subject or another. They do not proceed alike. Some deal with subjects straddling familiar boundaries -- chronological, geographical, and conceptual. Some focus on the boundaries themselves. Some bring new subjects into view. Some view old subjects from a new perspective. But all of them share a concern that our present understanding of history needs to be reconfigured if it is not to turn into a mere product of the past that it is seeking to explain. They are convinced that the past does have a meaning for the present that transcends the interests of specialists. And they are determined to keep that meaning within reach by writing good short books for non-specialists and specialists alike.

Constantin Fasolt

University of Chicago

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