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Thinking about historical geography

3 March 2014

Cross-posted from www.themolinist.com. Follow The Molinist at its new home!
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Ever since last year’s post on historical placenames the topic has been sitting at the back of my mind. The post itself was spurred by the technical note to my MLitt dissertation, which explained the problematics of using the modern placenames ‘Spain’ and ‘the Netherlands’ to describe the places of origin of Luis de Molina and Hugo Grotius, the subjects of my dissertation. In as few words as I could manage, I explained that there was no such thing as ‘Spain’ as we understand it today and that ‘the Netherlands’ meant something a little different (it took more words in my dissertation but I was including a few more details). Because I cannot seem to completely excise the topic from my mind, I present you here with another set of disconnected ponderings on the subject of historical geography.

While those lines on the map might look stable and unmoving, they are as fluid and transient as the big, adjacent blue bit with fewer subdivisions. In my own short lifetime (25 years), no fewer than 23 countries have come into being (that I can think of) and, I think, 2 or 3 have declared independence but not yet been formally recognised by many or any other states. More states and empires have come and gone than any one individual could possibly know (heard of Strathclyde, Axum, or the Kushan Empire?). Across time territorial boundaries, and all the important human experiences and identities that go with them, shift radically (influencing and being influenced by those human experiences and indentities). While today The Netherlands is a coherent socio-cultural unit (within the larger polity that is The Kingdom of the Netherlands), in the 17th century (when I study it) it was a loose federation of Dutch-speaking territories, each (particularly Holland) jealous of its independence and historic privileges. Hugo Grotius had a sense of being at once a Hollander and a citizen of the United Provinces of the Netherlands but not, as we would understand it today, as being Dutch, even though the polity of which he was a citizen was a direct antecedent of the modern Netherlands. Had he been from Flanders, which today is part of the Netherlands but in his day was one of those United Provinces, would we today call him a Dutch jurist or a Belgian one?

I’m often driven to ponder the question of historical geography and the general meaningful/less-ness of geography when I am asked about the geographical boundaries of my research interests. This is a totally reasonable question. It makes eminent sense to restrict your research into a specific region, ethno-cultural grouping, or nation-state (not an exhaustive list) because it forms a coherent boundary to work within that is stable (in a sense) across time. This question also drives me nuts, because it just so happens that geography _as such_ is not a relevant restriction on my research interests or activities and when I attempt to define those interests in geographical terms (which means Iberia, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands, with a brief detour to Germany) the impression given is that my research is unfocused, overbroad, not yet narrowed down. This is demonstrably not the case (I’m currently researching Hugo Grotius’ appropriation and application of the consent theory of a loose group of thinkers from the Iberian peninsula, the Scandinavian part is my desire to study the reception of Grotius’ work [and his interpreter Samuel von Pufendorf’s] in Denmark-Norway and the Swedish Empire). Rather, though geography is a part of my actual research, that is, the content of my research, it does not meaningfully delimit my research. Now, I’m not going to make some trite claim about how my work ‘transcends geography’ or something equally pompous and meaningless but I am going to suggest that work like mine cannot meaningfully be delimited by human geography. In fact, I would suggest that the work that I do problematises some of our traditional thinking about early modern Europe’s ideological geography. Though it would be a major diversion to go into it in much detail, sufficed to say that Europe’s ideological borders were highly porous in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the transmission of ideas across confessional and political lines was the norm, rather than the exception.

One of the more fascinating, to me, questions about historical geography is the shifting landscape of core-periphery regions within and across coherent geographical areas. Castilian and Portuguese colonisation of what is today Latin American transformed the Iberian peninsula from a peripheral appendage of Europe, home to warring petty kingdoms and the receding Aragonese empire in the Mediterranean, literally a piece of the inheritance of an otherwise powerful European house, into the seat of arguably the greatest state in Europe, the very center of European politics and power. And this core-periphery shift within Europe required the creation of an entirely new core-periphery axis across the breadth of the Atlantic, through the subjugation of Central American peoples to Castilian imperial rule. This was one of opening movements in a centuries-long process of creating new core-periphery axes with once-peripheral European states establishing Europe as the global economic and political core (by virtue of the very same geographic trait, their location on Europe’s western edge, which was once responsible for peripheral status) which is only today being undone.

It’s also worth noting that, in the age of state centralisation, precursor to the rise of absolutism, regional identity was in a state of considerable flux. The Aragonese, who spoke Catalan, rather than the Castilian of Madrid, and jealously defended their own laws and political system (the Cortes), certainly did not identify with anything their academic counterparts in Castille might have thought of as ‘Hispania,’ despite the best efforts of the Spanish Habsburgs.

For the inexplicably interested, here is the relevant text from the technical note that started this whole line of thinking:

The political geography of Molina’s and Grotius’ homelands have shifted considerably since the 17th century. At the time of his writing, Molina’s native Castile was one of three nominally independent polities occupying the Iberian peninsula, the Crown of Castile, the Crown of Aragon, and the Kingdom of Portugal, united in a state of personal union under the Spanish Habsburg dynasty and therefore governed only semi-independently. The entire Iberian peninsula was commonly referred to by the Latin ‘Hispania,’ from which the modern English ‘Spain’ is derived. The country now known as ‘Spain’ came into being no earlier than 1715, with the union of the Crowns of Castile and Aragon under the new Bourbon dynasty at the close of the War of the Spanish Succession which followed the failure of the Habsburg line on the peninsula, by which time Portugal had long since won independence under the leadership of João IV of the new Braganza dynasty in the Restoration War of 1640. Though the modern term ‘Spain’ is frequently, and inconsistently, applied to the early modern Iberian polities, particularly to Aragon and Castile following the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1469, the term is anachronistic and potentially confusing, since contemporaries used it as a term of geographic and cultural convenience which may or may not have included Portugal. To avoid confusion, each polity will be referred to individually and the geographic region will be referred to as ‘Iberia.’ ‘Spain’ will not be used.

Though Hugo Grotius is commonly referred to as ‘Dutch,’ the polity of which he was a citizen was not the same as the modern holder of the demonym: the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Grotius was a citizen of the republican United Provinces of the Netherlands, which included the modern-day Netherlands (the region, not the transatlantic polity) and modern Belgium. ‘Dutch’ was, however, a contemporary term and Grotius was native to the region of the United Provinces which today is part of the Netherlands. The demonym ‘Dutch’ will be used but should be understood to refer to the United Provinces, which proper name will be used throughout.

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