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The Broken Spell: A Cultural and Anthropological History of Preindustrial Europe.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first general textbook on the history of mentalities in preindustrial Europe. Up till now, work on the history of mentalities has focused on a single country or region, or it has singled out one aspect of the preindustrial mental world for particular investigation. Only the Franco-centric and multi-volume History of Private Life published in France exceeds this work in range of coverage. While Spierenburg's work does not range as wide chronologically, it offers wider geographical coverage and focuses more consistently on the experiences of the common people. It is a welcome feat just to have brought the scattered and complicated material of everyday lives from the twelfth century to the verge of the nineteenth into a clear overview.

What Spierenburg means by mentalities is the "world outlook and emotional life" of the era--in other words, both the prevailing cosmology and personality types. Mentalities are not the same thing as "popular culture," which Spierenburg treats as just one means of expressing that cosmology. The challenge of writing a history of mentalities is to balance understanding the world view of preindustrial people in their own terms while making it accessible to our current understanding. In a sense, Spierenburg begins on the wrong foot by asserting rather too boldly that "|i~t is a basic tenet of the history of mentalities that the entire personality structure of people in the past was different from what it is today". This transposes a hypothesis that must be investigated into a premise of his presentation. The premise may well be right, but it may be wrong too. Fortunately, Spierenburg provides plenty of evidence for the "difference" of preindustrial people. The assumption of difference means that the first steps in his analysis must be to trace the bridge between our modern personality and that of the entirely different people in the past. He offers two main theoretical frameworks to serve as that bridge: Norbert Elias' notion of the "civilizing process" and Max Weber's notion of the "disenchantment of the world." He essentially accepts that Elias' and Weber's analyses are valid (with some modification) and uses them as the main props around which he analyzes individual cases. The spell that is broken is the "magic universe" that dominated the mindset of the people before those two processes took root. The magic universe was located in a broad public sphere centered on communal life, and the success of the civilizing process and disenchantment of the world came as that communal life was replaced and a whole range of experiences were shifted to seclusion. This "privatization" of life forms the third force that transforms the mental world. Therefore, Spierenburg's work is both an exposition of what preindustrial mentalities were like and a framework for understanding why they changed.

The strategy that Spierenburg adopts to explain the preindustrial cosmology is to identify its constituent parts. He explores different spheres in which the cosmology found expression in eight chapters of about equal length. The subject matter of the chapters are first, family structure, second, community and communal rituals, third, witchcraft and witch hunting, fourth, attitudes towards death, fifth, insanity, sixth, punishment and suffering, seventh, love and commitment in the family, and eighth the rise of the private sphere. It is not clear whether Spierenburg devotes equal time to each of these aspects because he believes they are equally revealing of the mental world or simply to provide the work with a kind of symmetry. He does group the chapters into two broader categories, "Family and Community" and "Vicissitudes of the Body," which identify the two main components of how people perceived the world. The latter category is inserted between two sections of the former. It is related most closely to Spierenburg's own primary research, so it is not surprising that it receives a thorough, yet subtle, treatment. In contrast, the chapter on community life, which has the title "The Silent Majority," tries to pack too many issues into too small a format. It takes more time to discuss the methodological arguments of other historians than any other chapter, yet still tries to include descriptions of popular piety, perception of time and the rhythm of the seasons, youth and rites of passage, charivari, peasant revolts, carnival and lent, folktales and popular culture, laughter, and ideas of social order. It is intriguing that many of the themes of this chapter are linked through a discussion of the "wild horde" or Herlekine, that supposedly served as an element of the magical in the rural world view.

The final chapter is a departure from the previous seven because it is more concerned with the trajectory of development than with laying out a general portrait. It argues that the emergence of the nuclear family in its modern form represented part of the process of privatization mentioned above. The private family (ultimately a haven in a heartless world, but at the time simply an increasingly differentiated segment of society with its own functions) came to replace the community as the location of social understanding. Spierenburg picks up the qualities of public life described in the previous eight chapters and shows how they were recast when situated in the modern family--what he calls the "Triumph of the Family." Sexuality and death became hidden behind the curtains, and a new social and cultural form emerged.

One of the strengths of this book that makes it particularly useful as a synthetic account is that it describes both the empirical results and the most prominent methodological arguments of leading practitioners of the history of mentalities. One encounters with pleasure familiar stories and figures, such as Martin Guerre, Menocchio, cat massacres, the Bull of Beutelsbach, Nehemiah Wallington, and Richard Napier. There are also several less familiar examples from Dutch sources. The bibliography at the end of the book is reasonably complete through 1986 and is a valuable resource for both students and instructors. One may quibble with a line of argument or emphasis here and there in the book, but on the whole it is a sensible and complete treatment. The prose does not sparkle, but neither does it bog down. Overall, therefore, this first effort at writing a textbook on the history of mentalities is a success. It captures the state of the field as it currently is and sets the stage for further research.
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Theibault, John
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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