Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Chair of Early Modern European History

Research Profile

The field of early modern history investigates the period between c.1500 and c.1800. Historically as well as historiographically, this period thus forms a bridge between medieval history and the history of the modern period proper. More than merely representing a time of preparation for the advent of modernity, the early modern period was a key phase of human history in its own right which was shaped by its own dynamics and distinct historical phenomena.

This awareness of the highly dynamic nature of the early modern period drives the research and teaching undertaken by the Chair of Early Modern European History at Humboldt University. It is our conviction that the study of early modern history provides fresh and critical approaches to understanding such seemingly familiar modern phenomena as political structures, religious practices, and social norms. Yet while the early modern period is in many ways a ‘foreign country’, at the same time it often feels ‘familiar’ because of the period’s dynamics of transformation as well as its potential for modernization. Characterized on the one hand by long-established, traditional forms of social organization, the period is distinguished, on the other, by a multitude of long-term as well as short-term social changes. Such processes of transformation are evident, for instance, in the field of religion, where the emergence of distinctly confessional cultures has shaped European societies for centuries; and they are no less prominent in the general trend towards greater formalization in the realms of politics, administration, and diplomacy. In this context, the time brackets of 1500 and 1800 are dealt with flexibly and—understood as cultural conventions which carry with them particular interpretative models—serve the purpose of evaluating what was ‘premodern’ and ‘modern’ about the early modern period.

While the modern world of nation-states is clearly the result of the transformations which took place during the early modern period, this outcome was neither a necessary, nor an inevitable conclusion of early modern developments. For this reason, the early modern period cannot be studied in purely national frameworks but requires a European—and at times even a global—perspective. Such a perspective needs to go beyond the focus on the Holy Roman Empire and its territories which has traditionally characterized early modern history in German universities. While this observation is trivial, within the traditions of the field, it is by no means self-evident.

Overcoming parochialism is all the more important, as the early modern period itself is characterized by strong tensions between processes of ‘Europeanization’ and ‘globalization’ on the one hand and processes of territorialization and nationalization on the other. While it is legitimate, therefore, to study territorial and national issues in separation, doing so still demands reflecting their European dimensions. The same can be said of the global dimensions of these phenomena. After all, global history and European history are not contradictory and mutually exclusive approaches but instead complement each other—not least because a concept of Europe as an imagined space and a setting for historical action came into being only gradually over the course of the early modern period.

Building on these foundations, the Chair of Early Modern European History provides a space for the study of the early modern history of the European continent in its broadest sense with a particular, though not exclusive, focus on its political, religious, and intellectual history. In this context, the field’s traditionally strong engagement with historical theory and the resulting plurality of historical methods is just as important to our scholarship as the critique of the historiographical traditions of different European countries.