Ron Makleff

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Department:
History
Term:
AY 2015-16

My dissertation project (Monuments of Information: The Archives of State Formation in Northern Europe, c. 1380-1880) reexamines the old question of the formation of the modern state in western Europe by honing in on the turbulent history of how one archive was manipulated and utilized by a series of five different polities. By looking at archival inventories, which list and describe the contents of archives according to a contemporary mental schemata of what information is important, the project traces the fixing of princely rule onto state territory. It also follows the transformation of documents from objects with an aura of power into pieces of paper to be mined for information, and the subsequent transfer in the nineteenth century of this aura of power onto the nation in the form of archival monuments. My focus, and most of my research, is on the Chamber of Accounts archive in Lille, France, a frontier site of document accumulation and storage under three very different princely regimes and, later, two nation-states: the Valois Burgundian dukes 1385-c. 1500, who collected in Lille the archives of their newly conquered territories; the Habsburg Emperors c. 1500-1667 who strove to make their archives usable by engaging in comprehensive inventorying projects; and the Bourbon kings of France 1667-1709 and 1713-1789, who mined the Lille archive for politically useful information and shipped copies to Parisian libraries for easy access; and the French and Belgian nation-states, which each used documents of the Lille Chamber of Accounts archive as part of a national project to publish their documentary national patrimony. Yet this project is far more ambitious than the history of a single archive. From the empirical basis of the Lille archive, my research seeks to challenge accounts of the predictable, linear development of modern institutions. Neither the archive nor the state were inevitable results of increasingly rational administration; rather, they followed idiosyncratic and unpredictable paths marked by folly, confusion and information overload. To destabilize the concept of the solitary archive, my project also teases out connections between different archival repositories connected in networks of information sharing. In all five networks of which Lille’s archive was a part, inventories of other archives were used to share information across sometimes vast polities. In all these networks, the archive extended beyond its physical bounds.