/In the wake of Reinhart Koselleck’s seminal work on temporality (1979), historians studying past futures in Western Europe have argued that our current understanding of the future dates back to the period between 1500 and 1800. The medieval, Christian conception of time was largely cyclical in nature; the future was, ... (Show more)
/In the wake of Reinhart Koselleck’s seminal work on temporality (1979), historians studying past futures in Western Europe have argued that our current understanding of the future dates back to the period between 1500 and 1800. The medieval, Christian conception of time was largely cyclical in nature; the future was, above all, in the hands of God. By 1800 however, West-European societies had witnessed a series of socio-political changes that had manifested themselves at unprecedented pace. Scientific progress had gained ground at the expense of religion and the enlightenment had installed a firm belief that the condition humaine could be improved: the future had become open, uncertain and constructible; people were left with the feeling that time had not only been accelerating, it had also become secularised.
Recent studies have emphasized the gradual nature of this shift. Scientific innovations of the 18th century did not significantly reduce natural disasters, so statisticians and scientists kept a religious faith in their work (Clark 2006). Similarly, the majority of early modern chronicles reported both natural and divine explanations for epidemics, comfortably mixing religious and non-religious factors until well after the 17th century (Dekker 2021). The co-existence of a secular and religious understanding of the world ties in with Baker’s (2021) analysis of 16th century Italian merchant letters, in which new conceptions of the future co-existed with rather than ousted older types of future thinking. This finding is remarkable, given the importance of rational forecasting for mercantile success.
The present study zooms in on this pluritemporal mindscape of early modern societies by charting secular and religious types of future thought in four French and English merchant communities in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries (Johnson, Jeake, l’Hermite and Gradis). Did 16th century merchants appeal to God more often than their 18th century colleagues did? In which domains of their lives was religious future thinking the strongest? Did the secularization of time proceed at the same pace in England and in France, despite their differences in religious practice?
To ensure comparability across time and space, we collected qualitative and quantitative evidence on the future expectations of our merchants by systematically annotating their correspondences for all future references, both implicit and explicit, keeping track of variables like human and divine agency as well as the domain of life at stake.
Preliminary results indicate that merchants were more likely to appeal to God in situations that they themselves or their trustees had no control over (e.g. epidemics, war, long-distance travel or market fluctuations). This correlation holds for the entire period, despite the steady decline in formulaic appeals to God in opening and closing formulae. Overall, our findings corroborate the hypothesis that the conceptualization of the future that was dominant in early modern mercantile communities was pluritemporal at core: rational foresight and scientific explanations were gaining importance, alongside – but, crucially, not at the expense of – God’s control over the times to come. (Show less)