Early modern comparative topics and emerging trends

Authored by: Dean Phillip Bell

The Routledge Companion to Jewish History and Historiography

Print publication date:  October  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138193611
eBook ISBN: 9780429458927
Adobe ISBN:


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Until the latter part of the twentieth century, Jewish history was typically focused on religious and communal leaders and concerned with intellectual and political developments. Discussions of the early modern period—whether it was demarcated as a separate historical period or not—also focused attention primarily on European, Ashkenazic Jewish communities and typically focused on internal developments or the series of apparently unending persecutions and pervasive marginalization suffered by Jews. As noted in the chapters on historiography in this volume, more recent historical studies, especially those applied to the early modern period, have broadened in several ways to include more sustained examination of women (see Chapter 39), the poor, and other marginalized groups within Jewish society, 1 as well as those who somehow deviated from communal and religious norms. The interrelations between Jews and non-Jews have been more thoroughly plumbed, with a focus on Jewish empowerment and the process of acculturation (adjudged by most historians to be positive and regenerating) as opposed to assimilation (typically presented as reflective of a weak position of Judaism within and in relation to the dominant cultures in which Jews lived). The result has been that recent histories have focused much more on the rich possibilities of Jewish life and significantly downplayed the traditional emphasis in Jewish historical studies on what was once termed the “lachrymose.” With changing conditions today and a sense that perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of a rosy-colored past, some recent histories are revisiting the very real difficulties Jews have faced in history. More recently, Jewish historians have taken more interest in Sephardic history and especially in the experiences of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire and under Muslim rule more generally, as well as in the Americas and along the Atlantic seaboards. Similarly, there has been a shift in focus to Jews of the middle and lower classes. In all of these cases, historians have turned to new sources, asked new questions of old sources, and cultivated a curiosity about what we can learn of the daily lives of early modern Jews.

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