Early Modern Trauma: Europe and the Atlantic World

I am so excited to be able to share with you the news of my forthcoming publication. Early Modern Trauma: Europe and the Atlantic World is a co-edited collection of essays that I have been working on with Prof Cynthia Richards. It will be published by the University of Nebraska Press and in print in 2021. The collection comprises sixteen chapters that span the breadth of the early modern period and are produced by scholars from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds to explore what the application of  trauma as an analytical lens can reveal  about the early modern period and, conversely, what  conceptualizations  of  psychological  trauma  from  the  early  modern period can tell us about trauma theory itself.

Trauma studies is a rich, well-developed, and multifaceted field of inquiry that, from a humanities perspective, has engaged historians, cultural theorists, sociologists, and those who study gender, race, literature, language, and narrative forms. However, almost all studies of trauma take as their focus our modern age, and many scholars of trauma are quick to point to the phenomenon as uniquely modern. Contemporary trauma theory originated with the psychiatric approaches of nineteenth-century physicians and theorists and since then it has been heavily shaped by responses to modern catastrophes. As such trauma is often seen as inherently linked to modernity, and this has served to prevent or problematize its application to earlier periods.

Yet psychological and cultural trauma as a result of distressing or disturbing experiences is a human phenomenon that has been recorded across time and cultures. Take, for example, the long seventeenth century (1598–1715), which has been described as a period of almost continuous warfare. The sixteenth to eighteenth centuries saw the development of modern slavery, colonialism, and nationalism, and it witnessed plagues, floods, climate change, and significant socio-political, economic, and religious transformation. Early modern chroniclers were eager to record these devastating experiences, and accounts exist from a variety of times and places, although the culturally produced frames of reference available in an early modern context differ from those of our present day. The paradox between trauma’s supposed modernity and the evidence of traumatic encounters in the early modern world leads us to consider: What counts as trauma, for whom, and under what circumstances? How was the reaction to extreme events and circumstances articulated in the early modern period, how can these reactions be identified and conceptualized today, and what can we learn from this?

My own chapter in the collection considers cultural trauma and the experience of revolution and exclusion. “Cultural Trauma, Exile, and the Birth of Jacobitism” offers an analysis of the conceptualizations of early Jacobites toward their collective experience of rapid, disruptive, and comprehensive sociopolitical change. The chapter argues that cultural trauma was a precondition for the birth of Jacobitism and that examining early Jacobite rhetoric reveals a “discourse of trauma” that suggests that certain types of change itself may have distressing effects and bring shocks and wounds to the social and cultural tissue. In considering forms of traumatogenic change, this chapter also considers the culturally traumatic experience of foreign exile and/or political and cultural marginalization under hostile domestic regimes, combined with cultural memories of recent past conflict and violence.

In recognizing that the experience of trauma predates its definition, and that modern definitions of trauma require adaptation and remolding to fit early modern contexts, the chapters included in this collection uncover what we can learn from this approach about the early modern experience more broadly, but also what we can learn about the malleability and flexibility of the concept of trauma and the history of human responses to, and narration of, extreme events, giving invaluable insights into some of the most pressing issues of today. This is particularly the case given that the final phase of this project took place in 2020. As such, contributors and editors of this collection on early modern trauma were concentrating on this topic while simultaneously experiencing a moment of collective trauma ourselves as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world and forced us all into global lockdowns. In addition, the Black Lives Matter movement, which began in the United States and quickly spread across Europe, served to highlight deeply ingrained and enduring transgenerational and cultural traumas that continue to influence the modern world and which were primarily drawn from the early modern era. With this in mind, Cynthia and I very much hope that the work included in this volume can serve to reinforce the connection between past and present, and to offer a starting point to consider how we can identify core human experiences and understand them in their own context as well as in relation to our own time and place.

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