Vossius Center for History of Humanities and Sciences

Spring issue 2017 History of Humanities

22 March 2017

History of Humanities, volume 2, issue 1 | Spring 2017 is published and available online. The journal is edited by Rens Bod, Julia Kursell, Jaap Maat, Thijs Weststeijn and is sponsored by the Society for the History of the Humanities.


The so-called practical and material turns that have occurred in recent historiography of science also apply to the history of the humanities. The present issue therefore begins with a “Theme” section on the practices of historical research in archives and libraries, by Markus Friedrich, Philipp Müller, and Michael Riordan. The six articles in this section deal with seemingly mundane aspects such as editing, copying, inventorying, and the handling of archival objects (including boxes and paper clips), as well as with the limitations of archival access, their ergonomics, and even their lighting and temperature. The authors contend that such practical aspects are relevant for understanding continuities in the humanities to a much larger extent than has previously been thought.

In this issue we introduce the “Theme” format, which typically contains half a dozen essays around a thematically coherent topic. This differs from the “Forum,” which consists of a smaller number of short papers (up to 5,000 words) on a single topic. The “Theme” and “Forum” sections of the current issue are loosely linked in that they both deal with materiality in the humanities—the former regards, among others, archival materiality, while the latter addresses materiality in art history. In the “Forum,” Sven Dupré and his colleagues explore the history of the analysis of materials and techniques in art.

The “material turn” is clearly one of the characteristic features of the humanities in the early twenty-first century. It has dislodged the centrality of the human element and foregrounded the social life of things, the agency of objects, and actor-artifact assemblages. Textual and language-oriented models of knowledge are complemented by studies of “tacit” and “embodied” knowledge. Thus historians increasingly engage with images, bodies, and material culture; literary scholars are looking into the physicality of writing, books, and print; and the new discipline of heritage studies tries to determine which objects, environments, and landscapes should be conserved for the future, and how. All this is concomitant with the increased importance of the digital world, which confronts its users with disembodied information while at the same time drawing attention away from text to images and immersive sensory experiences. The humanities disciplines are, moreover, at present indissolubly linked to electronic hard- and software that has a complex materiality of its own.

But can the “material turn” in the humanities be called a true paradigm shift? A historical perspective reveals a long pedigree. Time-honored disciplines such as art history have explored materiality from their inception in the eighteenth century. Pliny, in fact, discussed sculpture and painting among the wonders of the natural world. From Varro onward, antiquarianism provided the material complement to philology and historical scholarship—until it was replaced by archaeology, with its ambition to open the graves and cesspits of the past. Studies of music, long seen as different from the arts of the trivium because of its mathematical foundation, have frequently taken account of the material aspect of instruments and acoustics. The focus on language and text of the twentieth-century humanities is, moreover, a predominantly Western phenomenon: scholarship of the arts in China, for instance, rests on a millennial antiquarian tradition, and even writing itself, as essentially linked to the performative art of calligraphy, has had a material dimension that was largely absent in the modern West. Throughout the world, traditions of dealing with the remote past can often be studied only in terms of the remaining objects.

As historians of the humanities, our most obvious sources are texts about practices of the past that may or may not have involved paintings, parchment, theater props, bookcases, bones, ruins, and landscapes. Yet the humanities disciplines have frequently involved the embodied knowledge of musicians, actors, artists, conservators, and others, and sometimes material objects are precisely the primary historical sources we need. In the first two issues, History of Humanities laid out its comparative ambitions regarding disciplines and regions. Needless to say, the journal also welcomes submissions that compare different practices and materialities.

Published by  Vossius Center