Peter Burke

Peter Burke is the author of Sociology and History and of a book on Montaigne in the Oxford ‘Past Masters’ series. He lectures in European history at Cambridge and is a fellow of Emmanuel College.

A Welcome for Foreigners

Peter Burke, 7 November 1991

‘I Judge that Spain is a pious mother to foreigners and a very cruel stepmother to her own native sons,’ complained the 17th-century painter Jusepe de Ribera, a Valencian who spent most of his career working in Naples. This variation on the theme of the prophet without honour in his own country will doubtless strike a chord for many writers and artists today, from Australia to Brazil. It also sums up the central argument of Jonathan Brown’s new book The Golden Age of Painting in Spain, which emphasises Spain’s cultural dependence on foreigners. The author claims that even in its so-called ‘Golden Age’, here defined as the period 1480-1700, Spain remained ‘on the periphery of European art’. Brown therefore refuses to write a history of Spanish painting, a category he demolishes in a few incisive introductory pages entitled ‘The Frontiers of Spanish Art’.

Like sociology and anthropology, the study of art and literature, especially the art and literature of the Renaissance, seems to be taking a historical turn in the Eighties. To a historian like myself this trend is obviously encouraging. Indeed, for a historian the problem is not so much to explain the rise of the so-called ‘New Historicism’ associated with Stephen Greenblatt and his friends and followers, as to account for the hostile reactions to it. Why should it be considered subversive to replace literary texts in their historical contexts? Is the movement dangerous because it is historicist or because it is new?

Grassi gets a fright

Peter Burke, 7 July 1988

One of the most intriguing features of the dramatic clash between Galileo and the Holy Office of the Inquisition is its apparently endless capacity to generate new hypotheses about the aims of the protagonists and even the minor figures in the cast. What was Galileo himself trying to do? Was he simply a disinterested investigator of nature, a man of science who found himself involved in theological controversy, more or less by accident? Was he a committed Copernican, as fanatical in his own way as his ecclesiastical opponents? Or was he a devout Catholic with his own ideas about the direction in which the Church should move? What were the aims of the Inquisitors? Were they disinterested investigators of deviators from orthodoxy, whoever these turned out to be, or were they trying to trap Galileo? If the latter, was anyone encouraging them from behind the scenes? What was the role of the Pope in all this – the pro-intellectual Urban VIII, in whose time Galileo was condemned, and the anti-intellectual Paul V, in whose time he received his first warning? What was the role of the Jesuit cardinal Roberto Bellarmino? It seems fairly clear that in 1616 Galileo was enjoined not to hold the proposition that the Sun is in the centre of the universe, that in 1633 he was tried by the Roman Inquisition on a charge of ‘vehement suspicion of heresy’, and that he was condemned to indefinite imprisonment, later commuted to house arrest in his Tuscan villa. Beyond this small zone of clarity, however, many important points remain obscure.’

One of the most lively debates currently engaging the attention of historians, more or less the world over, concerns the so-called ‘revival of narrative’. Ought written history to concentrate on the story of great events, or is the description or analysis of structures an equally important part of the historian’s business? At a time when the pendulum seems to be swinging back to narrative, it is encouraging to find a scholar as gifted as Simon Schama moving in the opposite direction. His first book, Patriots and Liberators, published in 1977, told the story of a major episode in Dutch political history, the revolution of the late 18th century, in a fluent narrative divided into 12 chronological chapters. The new book, on the other hand, is not so much a story as a portrait. It offers, as the subtitle proclaims, ‘an interpretation of Dutch culture in the golden age’ (more or less the 17th century). The author seems to have experienced a conversion to cultural history. Not, as he is quick to point out, the history of Culture with a capital C – ‘theatre or poetry or music’. His concern is to describe and interpret what he calls the ‘social beliefs and behaviour’ of the Dutch, their ‘physical and mental bric-à-brac’, their cultural ‘furniture’. In other words, he is interested in culture in the wide, anthropological sense, or, as he sometimes puts it, in the ‘national personality’ or collective mentality’. A confessed eclectic, Schama has drawn some of his inspiration from social anthropologists (from Emile Durkheim to Mary Douglas), some from Freud, and some from the history of mentalities – the Dutch word is mentaliteitsgeschiedenis – as currently practised in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere.’


Peter Burke, 15 October 1987

‘Patrons are patrons,’ a citizen of Florence wrote to the Grand Duke, Ferdinando de’Medici, in 1602: ‘the patron is accountable to no one.’ But what exactly was a patron in Florence or elsewhere in Renaissance Italy? Despite the existence of a large literature on art patronage, the question received few direct answers till the publication in 1981 of a book focused on England: Patronage in the Renaissance, edited by Guy Lytle and Stephen Orgel. Taking their cue from Lytle and Orgel, F.W. Kent and Patricia Simons have turned the proceedings of a conference held in Melbourne in 1983 into a valuable volume of essays on patronage in Renaissance Italy. What is particularly interesting about both collections is the fact that they discuss two kinds of patronage and, at least on occasion, the relations between them. The traditional investigation of artistic patronage has been juxtaposed with the study of ‘social patronage’ – the networks of ‘friends of friends’ familiar to social anthropologists (and indeed to classicists), but neglected till recently by historians of Italy.’


Peter Burke, 21 May 1987

Historians are always claiming that their particular topic of research has been unjustly neglected by their predecessors. The claim, usually exaggerated, occasionally turns out to have some justification. Yet it is rarely so obviously justified as in the case of Professor John Elliott’s rediscovery of a major Spanish statesman of the 17th century, the effective ruler of Spain for more than twenty years and the contemporary, the rival and the opponent of Cardinal Richelieu. A choleric man, obsessed with honour and reputation, it is just as well that Don Gaspar de Guzman, Count-Duke of Olivares, is unaware of the long shelf of books devoted to his rival, in painful contrast to the handful of studies concerned with himself. In fact, the handful can be reduced to three. One was written in the leisure hours of a conservative politician, Antonio Canovas del Castillo; another was the result of the possibly more abundant leisure of a physician, Dr Gregorio Marañon (whose patients included General Franco); and the third is Elliott’s own book.

State Theatre

Peter Burke, 22 January 1987

Art and Power. The connections between the two have come to preoccupy political historians and art historians alike in the last few years. ‘Culture and society’, the slogan of the 1960s, has been almost effaced – for better or worse, or for both – by ‘the politics of culture’. Political historians are coming to take paintings, poems and buildings more seriously as part of their evidence, while art historians are increasingly concerned with replacing the artifacts they study in their political settings.’


Peter Burke, 20 March 1986

The rise of the professional art historian in the later 19th century has been a mixed blessing. Making paintings, statues or buildings are activities which are as much a part of history as making treaties, making motorcars, making war, making love, or making the crops grow. It was good to have art taken seriously by historians of the calibre of Heinrich Wölfflin, but a pity to have it subtracted from the territory of the ordinary historian, the general practitioner. The declaration of art-historical independence impoverished general history, and encouraged a history of art which stressed the internal history of styles at the expense of the social and intellectual milieu.

Men’s Honour, Women’s Lives

Peter Burke, 6 March 1986

‘And if you know of any impediments, either of consanguinity, affinity or spiritual relationship, or of any other reason why these two should not be joined in holy matrimony, you are bound to declare the same to us as soon as possible.’ As a child, hearing the banns read out in church, I used to wonder idly what kind of ‘other reason’ there might be. In fact, the canon lawyers distinguish quite a number of such reasons, including force, error, insanity, homosexuality, and also impotence, the subject of Pierre Darmon’s study, published in French in 1979 and now available in English translation.

The Exotic West

Peter Burke, 6 February 1986

To anyone with a sense of irony, the history of encounters between cultures is peculiarly fascinating, so often have the consequences been the opposite of what their initiators either intended or expected. The experience has befallen many political leaders who have tried to adopt the minimum of Western technology necessary to resist Western dominance. The process has also worked in reverse, however. Western missionaries who went east to spread Christianity tried to adopt the minimum of indigenous culture necessary to gain acceptance for themselves and an audience for their message. As they tried to adapt themselves and their doctrines to a new environment and a new language, they found themselves not infrequently accused by fellow Christians nearer home of having been converted by the very people to whom they were supposed to have been preaching the true faith.

God in Heaven send us peace

Peter Burke, 18 April 1985

Geoffrey Parker’s new book on the Thirty Years’ War is the first major study of the subject to appear in English for nearly half a century. To be more exact, it is now 47 years since the publication of a book on the war by C.V. Wedgwood, as she was then. That graceful and perceptive study – a remarkable achievement for a 28-year-old historian – remains an example of traditional narrative history at its formal best. The author delights in the kind of historical set-piece which had appealed to Gardiner, to Gibbon or to Clarendon. Each new character who comes onto the stage provides the occasion for a formal portrait. We hear of the florid complexions and the addiction to alcohol of John George of Saxony and Christian IV of Denmark, of the ‘mouse-coloured hair’ and shrill voice of the Elector Maximilian of Bavaria, of the habitual kneeling and hunting of the Emperor Ferdinand II, of the royal bearing of Gustav Adolf of Sweden, and the pathological sensitivity to noise of the imperial general Wallenstein. Major events, like the battles of Breitenfeld and Lützen, and striking incidents, such as the sack of Magdeburg and the so-called Defenestration of Prague, when three supporters of the Habsburgs were thrown from the palace windows, are recounted at length and in style. It is a long book, more than five hundred pages of it, and a leisurely one, with time for recounting anecdotes and for dwelling on the surface of events as well as on their significance. It is saved from superficiality by the author’s strong sense of the dramatic, and more especially of the tragic. Written in the shadow of Munich and the Anschluss, the book was designed to reveal the futility of war. ‘Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, futile in its result’, the Thirty Years War was, she said, ‘the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict’. The participants ‘wanted peace and they fought for thirty years to be sure of it. They did not learn then, and have not since, that war breeds only war.’’

Making saints

Peter Burke, 18 October 1984

There may not be any royal road to the understanding of an alien or half-alien culture – contemporary Japan, or the Medieval West – but one path which appears to lead into the interior is the study of that culture’s heroes. If we can only discover why, say, kamikaze pilots or Medieval saints have been singled out for honour, so the argument goes, the basic values of the culture which admires them will be revealed.’

The Impostor

Peter Burke, 19 April 1984

The story is simple but compelling. Indeed, it may well be called ‘prodigious’, a term which is prominent on the title-page of the account of the case published in 1561. Martin Guerre was a peasant, of Basque origin but settled in the village of Artigat in the French South-West, between Toulouse and Foix. He married a local girl, Bertrande de Rols, when they were in their early teens; ten years later, he disappeared. Eight years after that, a man came to Artigat and announced himself as the long-lost Martin. He was accepted by Bertrande, and, at first, by the Guerres and by the village, but after a time the rumour spread that the real Martin, who had lost a leg in the wars, was elsewhere, and that this one was an impostor whose real name was Arnaud du Tilh. The village split on the issue: when it eventually came to a trial, over thirty witnesses came forward to testify that the man was indeed Martin Guerre, while more than forty said that he was not. The court found against him, but he appealed. At the second trial, at Toulouse, the prisoner seemed to have convinced the court, but just as sentence was about to be pronounced, a man with a wooden leg stumped into court, claiming to be the real Martin Guerre, back from his 12-year odyssey. When his wife and family set eyes on this second claimant, they immediately recognised him as the genuine article. The impostor was executed.

Braudel’s Long Term

Peter Burke, 10 January 1983

Fernand Braudel has pulled it off twice. For most French historians, the massive thesis required until recently for the doctorat d’état is their one piece of sustained research, after which they graduate, or subside, into writing learned articles, or textbooks for schools and universities. Even Gibbon felt a profound sense of relief when he wrote the last lines of the last page of the Decline and Fall, and he did not take up any other grand project. Braudel is different. His thesis, on The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, was certainly long enough and ambitious enough – the first edition of the book ran to some six hundred thousand words, and it has since been considerably enlarged. As a result of the war, most of which he spent in a German prisoner-of-war camp near Lübeck (according to legend, writing his thesis from memory in exercise books which he posted to France), Braudel was not able to publish his Mediterranean till 1949, when he was 47. It was almost immediately recognised as a major work, and before long its author took his place as the head of the French historical Establishment, with a chair at the Collège de France combined with the presidency of the ‘VIth Section’ of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, a position from which he was able to direct French historical research. Despite these distractions, he began work on a second major book, publishing the first volume when he was 65 and the second and third volumes when he was 78. If this does not give him the long-distance record among historians, it does at least put him into the semi-finals, along with Joseph Needham.


Peter Burke, 16 September 1982

Louis XIV can hardly complain of being neglected by posterity. The stream of books about him shows no sign of running dry. Even so, the simultaneous appearance of two studies of Louis from Les Editions de Minuit is a little surprising: did the right hand know what the left hand was publishing? What is more, both books are concerned with the King’s public image, rather than his policies or his private life. One book deals with court festivals, the other with the portrayal of the King in texts and medals. However, if the authors share a general concern with the relationships between power and imagination, they do not see these relationships in quite the same way. Jean-Marie Apostolidès has written a lucid and elegant, if somewhat superficial, essay on the politics of spectacle. His framework of analysis is Marxist in the Althusserian manner, and his chief concern is with the place of the arts in the ‘state apparatus’. He assumes rather than argues that France in Louis’s reign was passing through the crucial moment of primary accumulation in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. He also assumes that the function of spectacle was mystification. It was, in his neat phrase, ‘ideology made concrete’. Apostolidès describes how the arts were pressed into royal service by Colbert, who was in effect Louis XIV’s minister of propaganda as well as his expert on finance. Under Colbert came men of letters such as Jean Chapelain, who wrote reports – which still survive – on the suitability of his contemporaries for royal pensions, and Charles Perrault, whose fairy stories were his relaxation from official business. Chapelain and Perrault were among the four original members of the so-called ‘Petite Académie’, set up by Colbert to co-ordinate propaganda for the regime in various media.


Peter Burke, 18 March 1982

‘India and parts of Ethiopia teem with marvels,’ wrote Pliny in his Natural History. ‘The Gymnosophists stay standing from sunrise to sunset, gazing at the sun with eyes unmoving, and continue all day long standing first on one foot and then on the other in the glowing sand. Megasthenes states that … there is a tribe of human beings with dogs’ heads, who wear a covering of wild beasts’ skins, whose speech is barking … Ktesias describes a tribe of men called Sciopods (Umbrella-Feet), because in the hotter weather they lie on their backs on the ground and protect themselves with the shadow of their feet.’ Pliny went on to describe the appearance and customs of Amazons, Anthropophagi, Brahmins, Cyclops, Pygmies and other peoples, including the Astomi, who lack mouths but live by smelling apples, and the Blemmyae, whose heads ‘do grow beneath their shoulders’. Pliny’s account fascinated Medieval artists and writers: there are illustrations of the Apostles going and preaching ‘to all nations’ which contain representations of these ‘monstrous races’; and some Medieval lives of St Christopher describe him as belonging to the Dog-Heads (Erasmus, on the other hand, suggested, tongue in cheek, that he was a Cyclops).


Peter Burke, 19 November 1981

Why Florence? What made this particular European city so important for the arts in the Renaissance? It’s a problem many historians have tried to solve. The latest is Professor Goldthwaite, an old Florentine hand who has moved from a study of the ways in which the Florentines made their money to a study of the ways in which they spent it.

Rolling Stone

Peter Burke, 20 August 1981

In the late 1950s, when I went up to Oxford, one of the liveliest and most provocative lecturers in history was Lawrence Stone of Wadham. He was already a controversial figure who had, as we all knew, crossed swords with Hugh Trevor-Roper over the state of the Elizabethan aristocracy and with Geoffrey Elton over the question of Tudor despotism. Stone’s favourite theme at that time was ‘The Coming of the English Revolution’. Looking back from the later 17th century, Lord Clarendon once remarked that he was ‘not so sharp-sighted as those who have discerned this rebellion contriving from (if not before) the death of Queen Elizabeth’. One wonders what he would have made of Stone’s lectures, in which we were taken back to the reign of Henry VIII, and learned as much about population movements and the educational system as about religion and politics. It was the total history of the English old regime which was the true subject of these spell-binding lectures, delivered in the hall of Wadham beneath a large portrait of Lord Birkenhead, towards whom the lecturer would sometimes gesture to provide a latter day example of that typical 17th-century phenomenon, the ambitious political lawyer.

Medieval Dreams

Peter Burke, 4 June 1981

One night in 1130, King Henry I had a nightmare. He dreamed that he was being attacked, first by a crowd of peasants, then by a group of knights, and finally by a number of clerics. For many historians, this detail, recorded by the chronicler John of Worcester, would be no more than a fascinating piece of useless information. For Professor Jacques Le Goff, it is a clue which helps us to understand the 12th century a little better. Le Goff, whose collected essays, written between 1956 and 1976, and published in French in 1977, have just made their appearance in English, is one of the liveliest and most stimulating historians at work in France today – no small praise at a time when Ladurie has just published another monograph, and Braudel is still active.

Moderns and Masons

Peter Burke, 2 April 1981

To omit architecture from cultural history would be absurd, but to integrate architecture, with its peculiar blend of abstraction, fantasy and technology, into a general history of culture is considerably more difficult than integrating images and texts. Where they are not obvious, utilitarian or problem-solving, the intentions of architects are remarkably hard to pin down. The limitations of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s famous Outline of European Architecture (1943) illustrate the difficulty. So illuminating in other respects, the book is less than satisfactory in its treatment of buildings as expressions of ‘Western Civilisation’. It communicates a diffuse sense of connection between Michelangelo’s poetry, Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises and late 16th-century churches and palaces, but the nature of these connections remains vague. To be told that the Escorial, say, was ‘more a monastery than a palace’, or that ‘Spanish etiquette stood for a discipline as rigid as that of the early Jesuits,’ does not take us very far towards understanding either the Escorial or the court of Philip II.


Peter Burke, 5 March 1981

Every student and every teacher knows the importance of the ‘seminal article’, which packs into a few pages more ideas than many books. In the field of European history, one such article was ‘Foreign Mercenaries and Absolute Monarchy’, published in 1957 by Victor Kiernan. Professor Kiernan has many historical interests, and he moved on to The Revolution of 1854 in Spanish History (1966), and The Lords of Human Kind (1969), a discussion of 19th-century European attitudes to the rest of the world.

How Venice worked

Peter Burke, 6 November 1980

‘While the Athenians, Spartans and Romans did not survive for more than six hundred years, this Republic has lasted for more than a thousand, because it was founded by Christians and given the most excellent laws in the name of Christ.’ So wrote the 16th-century Venetian diarist, Marin Sanudo, about his native city. Venetians believed that their republican regime had the secret of eternal life, and they persuaded others to believe this too. After the execution of Charles I, the British government consulted the Venetian ambassador on the question of how republics survived. The traditional answer, which received its classic formulation early in the 16th century in a treatise by the patrician cardinal Gasparo Contarini, was in terms of checks and balances. Venice endured because it was harmonious, and it was harmonious because it was a judicious combination of the three possible forms of government: monarchy (represented by the Doge), aristocracy (the Senate) and democracy (the Great Council, a general assembly of adult male nobles).

Rabelais’s Box

Peter Burke, 3 April 1980

When Alcibiades, in that dialogue of Plato’s entitled The Symposium, praises his master Socrates, beyond all doubt the prince of philosophers, he compares him, amongst other things, to a Silenus. Now a Silenus, in ancient days, was a little box, of the kind we see today in apothecaries’ shops, painted on the outside with such gay, comical figures as harpies, satyrs, bridled geese, horned hares, saddled ducks, flying goats, stags in harness, and other devices of that sort, light-heartedly invented for the purpose of mirth, as was Silenus himself, the master of good old Bacchus. But inside these boxes were kept rare drugs, such as balm, ambergris, cardamum, musk, civet, mineral essences, and other precious things. Just such an object, according to Plato, was Socrates. For to view him from the outside and judge by his external appearance, no one would have given a shred of an onion for him, so ugly was his body and so absurd his appearance, with his pointed nose, his bovine expression, and his idiotic face … What is more, he was always laughing, always drinking glass for glass with everybody, always playing the fool, and always concealing his divine wisdom. But had you opened that box, you would have found inside a heavenly and priceless drug: a superhuman understanding, miraculous virtue, invincible courage, unrivalled sobriety, unfailing contentment …

Born to Network

Anthony Grafton, 22 August 1996

Anyone who teaches the High Renaissance in an American university knows how distant it has become. On first contemplating the nudes that fascinated tourists and connoisseurs for centuries,...

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Incriminating English

Randolph Quirk, 24 September 1992

Among various worries I have about the degree subject English, the most serious is the decline (to near vanishing point in many universities) of historical language study. One accepts, of course,...

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Fallen Idols

David A. Bell, 23 July 1992

The French, a people normally not plagued by a lack of national pride, revere very few of their past leaders. Consider the following list: Richelieu, Louis XIV, Robespierre, Napoleon, Clemenceau,...

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Ancient and Modern

M.A. Screech, 19 November 1981

Does Luther explain Hitler? Oberman, an international Dutchman at home in Tuebingen, asks the question only to toss it aside: the Reformation was not a ‘German tragedy’. Into this...

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Good History

Christopher Hill, 5 March 1981

Professor Hexter made his mark in the learned world over forty years ago with an article in the American Historical Review called ‘The Problem of the Presbyterian Independents’. He...

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