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Mary Laven

mary lavenName
Dr. Mary Laven

Jesus College

What is your field of history?
Several fields: early modern religious and cultural history; the history of the Counter-Reformation; the Jesuit mission to China; gender; the body; sociability (in other words, how people talked, gossiped, ate, drank, played, and hung out together).

How did you come to specialise in this area?
As an undergraduate at Cambridge I read some brilliant studies of the impact of the Protestant Reformation on northern European society. I learned, for example, of how the adoption of Protestantism affected family life, and about the ways in which new kinds of devotion became rooted in Lutheran or Calvinist communities. But it seemed as though the history of the Counter-Reformation – the reforms enacted by the Catholic authorities in response to their splintered church – was always written from the top down. I wanted to break out of this model of institutional history, and to think more deeply about the role of Catholic religion in people's lives.

What sort of source material do you tend to use, and what are its strengths and weaknesses?
I love archives, and my favourite source is the trial record. Why? Because anyone can find themselves in court, whether accused of a crime, pursuing a law suit, or summoned to bear witness. In an age of low literacy, trial records therefore provide extraordinary access to the lost voices of ordinary men and women. Of course, what individuals say in that situation may not be 'the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,' but the element of fiction that they bring into their narratives only makes their testimony more compelling for the cultural historian.

Which individuals, events or forces are especially important in your area of history?
The individuals who would appear in most text-books on early modern Europe are the kings and queens who ruled the major territories: Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles V, Francis I, Philip II, Louis XIV etc. Their ministers might also feature: for example, Richelieu, who served Louis XIII, and Olivares, who was right-hand man to Philip IV. So too, perhaps, a handful of cultural heavyweights: the scholar Erasmus, the artist Raphael, the scientist Galileo, to suggest just a few.

And one could replicate that pattern for pretty much any period of European history, simply slotting in alternative rulers, and the names of other 'great men.' What makes the early modern period distinctive and unfamiliar (at least to those who are accustomed to reading modern history) is the unparalleled significance of religious figures: Martin Luther, that genius of information-management, whose timely criticisms of the Catholic church precipitated the split of Christendom; Calvin, whose ethic of discipline has been associated not just with a second wave of reform, but with the birth of capitalism; Francis Xavier, who took Christianity to India and Japan; Theresa of Avila, an inspirational reformer, who triumphed over the Inquisition to become a beacon of reformed Catholicism across the world.

Religious reform has always been the backdrop for my understanding of the early modern world. More recently, however, two other contexts have begun to shape my work: the discovery of new worlds outside Europe and the expansion of global trade.

How has your field developed over the course of your career?
Women's history was in the ascendant when I first started to do research; and social history was flourishing, not least at Cambridge. Since then, 'gender history' has become embedded in the discipline; and 'cultural history' has to some extent pushed social history to one side. Both of these trends suggest the importance that is now attached to considering perceptions and representations, alongside our traditional conception of 'facts' and 'experiences'.

An example would be to consider the way in which Protestant propagandists represented the pope as 'the whore of Babylon'. This 'fact' would not come under the rubric of 'women's history.' It doesn't relate to a woman; it relates to a man, though it draws on a misogynistic stereotype in order to criticise that man (implying his profligacy, immorality, lasciviousness, vanity etc.) Nor does the 'fact' of the anti-papal propaganda have much to do with social history. Although it purports to depict a 'whore', it would be unlikely to find a place in a social history of prostitution. Its best hope would be to make its way into a social analysis of popular print, perhaps contributing to a statistic on the number, price, and distribution of vernacular bibles produced during the Reformation era. And yet as a record of contemporary perceptions, the image is invaluable. It teaches us about the rules of criticism and insult that were in place in the sixteenth century; about the acceptability of certain prejudices; and about visual rhetoric – how to persuade with pictures.

Of course, the history of women still includes great uncharted swathes, and social history has a huge amount to teach us. New developments do not render older approaches obsolete.

Which areas of your field most urgently need further exploration?
Ordinary people. Those who, by definition, we don't know about. There is nothing new about this appeal, but it remains as urgent as ever. It's fine to study Calvin and Hobbes, but we need to remain alert to the situations in which their ideas were conceived, and received. As historians, we need to uncover new ways of gaining access to the 'reception' of ideas.

What characterises good history?
When the details tell us something we didn't know before.

How did your understanding of history change during your time as a university student?
Because I was a political person, I imagined that I would find 'political history' most interesting. But 'political history' was going through a very revisionist phase: it appeared to me to be all about contingencies, triggers, and quirks of fate. By contrast, intellectual history taught me a lot about political theory, but focused almost exclusively on the ideas of elite males. I was won over by social history, which shed light on the experiences of communities and on the negotiation of power. Only by looking at the deeper structures of society did it seem to be possible to understand the history of politics.

Where should somebody interested in your area of history go for further information?
Ulinka Rublack, Reformation Europe (Cambridge, 2007) – for a brilliant new analysis of the Protestant Reformation.

Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia, The World of Catholic Renewal (2nd edn: Cambridge, 2002) – puts the Counter-Reformation in global context.

Lyndal Roper, The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg (Oxford, 1989) – on the importance of gender to early modern religion (you'll find an analysis of the image of the Pope as Whore of Babylon in here).