The History of Knowledge

In recent decades there have been so many intellectual turns (global, emotional, material, performative) that it becomes difficult to think about them without feeling dizzy. All the same, the ‘informational turn' and the ‘archival turn' are worth reflecting on. The sudden rise of interest at the start of the century in the history of information, or the history of knowledge, is surely connected to current debates about the kind of ‘information society' in which we are living. Also linked to this interest is the ‘archival turn', in which historians, who have long studied in archives, have begun to take them seriously as an object of study in themselves, asking how they came into existence, why they have been organised in particular ways and whose purposes they serve.

Archives and Information in the Early Modern World makes a valuable addition to the growing literature on this topic. Sixteen scholars have contributed to this volume, which concentrates on early modern Europe, but includes chapters on the Spanish Empire and ‘the East Asian Information Order'.

Between them, the authors discuss a number of ambitious and deceptively simple questions. What counts as an archive? For whom and for what purposes were archives established? What was their relation to the rise of a distinctive early modern state? Who had access to the records? How were they arranged? How were they actually used? The answers to these questions naturally vary a great deal in the case of different parts of Europe in the period under discussion, but some themes recur. We learn, for example, that an archive was a status symbol, as well as an instrument of government. It was also crucial for the rise of the ‘information state', sometimes described as the ‘paper state' because bureaucracy depended on the increasing availability of cheap paper.

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