Archival Culture in Early Modern Europe

Archival Culture in Early Modern Europe: New approaches to an old topic

Mona Friedrich

In my current research project, I study the rise of organized record-keeping from roughly 1450 to 1789. It was only during this period that archives gained prominence in Western Civilization. In fact, archives became so fundamental a part of our lives that we often consider their existence ‘normal.’ As this project will demonstrate, however, the existence of archives is not at all ‘natural.’ Developing archives and making them part of European culture was in fact com­plicated.

The project is based on several foundational methodological assumptions: First, the rise and existence of archives must thoroughly be historicized. Second, archives have to be understood as enormous challenges to Europe’s conceptual and social fabric. Third, the impact of archives on European culture must be studied on a practical level. Only if we study how, by whom, and in what contexts archives could be and were actually used can we understand their relevance. Fourth, archives were potentially dysfunctional or even counter-productive institutions. All too often, historical assessments simply assume that archives per se increased effectivity. Archives became part of the European myth of rationalizing progress. Yet this is only rarely justified. Highlightening the contradictions, shortcomings, and weaknesses of archives will therefore be a crucial aspect of this project.

To implement this broad research agenda, this project will proceed by case studies on different regions and different archival contexts – law, historiography, politics. The handwritten and printed sources available at Berlin will allow me to focus on the record-keeping practices of the Holy Roman Empire and the historiographical usage of archives before the advent historicism.