Germany's Global Connections
Christine R. Johnson, The German Discovery of the World: Renaissance Encounters with the Strange and Marvelous. Charlottesville, VA, University of Virginia Press, 2008. Pp. x + 304. $25 (paperback). ISBN: 978-0-8139-2734-3.
Christine R. Johnson's monograph on how Renaissance Germans interacted with and played a vital role in the early discovery of stable sea routes to both India and the Americas presents a host of interesting information useful to students and teachers of global history. Johnson's work tries to place German businessmen and scholars--primarily from southern German cities like Nuremberg and Augsburg--as influential in understanding the actions of Iberia's overseas adventures. One possible strategy in teaching students about this era of world history is to emphasize the role of finance (i.e., the Fugger family) and trace the movement of silver from the great mines of Potosí, first to Spain, then to German bankers, and then eastward through Persia and China. At each point, the vast amounts of silver displaced the local economies and changed the nature of trade – first the German economy, which served to aid reformers like Martin Luther, but even later the depreciation of silver in China and the unending quest for a product the Chinese would buy (eventually opium). However, the knowledge base of many readers ends here, which is exactly why this book should spark your interest. Johnson fills in lots of gaps and brings the common history of exploration, conquest, and trade (in that order, of course) into a different and sometimes broader perspective.
In the field of history, it seems that topics continue to search for the narrow and supposedly unexplored, and while this book began as a dissertation, it does not read as an ultra-focused and specialized piece of scholarship. Instead, Johnson wrote with an ease that facilitates a clear understanding and does a nice job of getting to the point without seeming aloof. As a case in point, Johnson unveiled her arguments in the introduction and at the beginning of each chapter. For instructors who try to assign books of varying quality to show students the importance of writing, this is a commendable example of how students should write directly and incorporate solid evidence into their prose.
Historians of Portugal and Spain have held the keys to this story of overseas discovery for some time, which Johnson sought to place within a different context. She justified the need for this work because, "although distant from the political and administrative exigencies of colonization, Germany was well positioned to generate knowledge about places" throughout the world because of the universities, trading networks, and publishing houses. Renaissance Germans had, according to Johnson, successfully used existing knowledge to "make sense of the overseas world."1 In other words, Spanish and Portuguese voyages enabled Germans to forge together a broader understanding of the world and disseminate their newfound knowledge throughout central Europe.
Although her argument was engaging and her writing style effective, her definition of the Renaissance was somewhat problematic; from my understanding the Renaissance was in its twilight, if not already effectively over, by end of the period under review (1492 until 1580). Historians understand the urge to put material into neat categories--which is not necessarily problematic--after all, drawing a line from the Renaissance to the Reformation and Enlightenment does not necessarily provide scholars with hard breaks; yet, her packaging opens up a questioning of her terminology, which Johnson fails to clarify adequately in the text. Scholars have long argued the existence of a "twelfth century Renaissance," which is perhaps passé to experts today.2 Nonetheless, Johnson did not clearly delineate the boundaries of this period. It is not enough to have a subheading on the definition of the Renaissance (in the otherwise solid introduction) and focus primarily on unearthing the role of Humanism in this history. It would have been better for the author to label this period as part of the Age of Discovery, which would have left her open to draw upon both earlier solidly Renaissance thinking (in Italy and Germany independently) and more strongly link it to the later Reformation. Indeed, Johnson noted, "the information about the newly discovered lands and people was recognized [by Germans?] as valuable only through being incorporated into existing patterns of knowledge" – in other words, Germans were engaged with the overall transformation of power in Europe from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic by the end of the 1400s. Moreover, Johnson noted that Renaissance scholarship had developed techniques for dealing with new information, which she claimed gave German--including Martin Luther--the "ability and confidence" to acculturate the old with the new.3 Johnson made a great point with that statement but one wonders about her marriage to the term Renaissance when this period clearly straddled a larger era of change.
Another minor trouble spot was the seeming totality of German evidence coming from a handful of southern cities. These clearly formed the epicenter of trade with the Italian city-states but Johnson made it seem as if cities like Nuremberg and Augsburg dominated trade with Iberia at the expense of other areas. Only a specialist in the field knows if this knowledge is self-explanatory, but Johnson never really explained why no other cities--Cologne, Frankfurt, Bremen, Hamburg to name a few--had developed the same level of contact with the Spanish and Portuguese. Spain controlled Antwerp during this time and, as a result, goods and ideas--including books, merchants, scholars, and commodities--would have traversed the Rhine River. Why the narrow focus? Was that simply to contain the manuscript into something manageable? Because of research limitations? Or perhaps something else?
Johnson divided her work logically into chapters that focused on travel narratives, cosmology, commerce, and the otherness of global trade. Many readers will appreciate the chapter that focused on travel, as someone who has delved into this field to find a useful mechanism of engaging students, which is reminiscent of the work Larry Wolff has undertaken on the intellectual perceptions of the 'Other' among Central and East Europeans.4 Wolff's work has proven valuable to alter the approaches of teaching global history through various key factors like travel, cosmological understandings, and the role of economics. Johnson kept her text lively and in touch with this scope of recent scholarship. Her examination of how existing ideas and methods migrated to German-speaking lands and made German commentators so-called experts on the outside world seemed important but at a few points it seemed that the argument had run its course and struggled to stretch beyond the research constraints.
Overall, while this is an accessible text, it is probably not suited for use in a lower-level or core global history course. Instead, it would seem to fit best in an upper-level or graduate course, including any class that focuses on Renaissance Europe/Age of Discovery, early modern global trade, or German history. It does not seem appropriate as a text for a general world history only because the topic might not hold the focus of younger college students, who might do better to read something that takes on a bit larger piece of the period's rich history. In addition, while the level of detailed footnotes, bibliography, and index is impressive, those three sections comprise almost a third of the entire text. Such detail is great if this is used in a graduate seminar but undergraduates would almost surely fail to appreciate the depth of research and only bemoan the added cost from the extra pages. Finally, the source material leans heavily on English and German (all the archival sources were from southern Germany), with only a smattering of Latin texts from the time. It would have added to the breadth of Johnson's work if there was a bit of Spanish or Portuguese source material – not simply Germans in Seville or Lisbon. This makes a good addition to the scholarship and is worth considering as part of a broader picture on Germany's role in the early global trade and perhaps as required classroom reading.
Robert Niebuhr currently teaches European and world history at Simmons College in Boston, MA. He can be reached at email@example.com.
1 See Christine R. Johnson, The German Discovery of the World: Renaissance Encounters with the Strange and Marvelous (Charlottesville, VA, University of Virginia Press, 2008), pp. 2–3.
2 See for example, R.N. Swanson, The Twelfth Century Renaissance, (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1999), and even much older works, including Urban T. Holmes, Jr. "The Idea of a Twelfth-Century Renaissance," Speculum, 26:4 (Oct., 1951), pp. 643–51.
3 Johnson, The German Discovery of the World, p. 10.
4 See for instance, Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), and Venice and the Slavs: The Discovery of Dalmatia in the Age of Enlightenment, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001).
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