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A European at Eighty

Patrick Bahners, in today’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, pays tribute to the British historian Peter Burke.

Burke’s medium, he writes, has always been the concise general work, normally a deceptively slim book on a devilishly big subject (the Renaissance in Europe, for example, 340 dense pages in my French-language edition). His historical canvas too has usually been a continental rather than a national one. Within that canvas he may examine customs and beliefs (what the French call mentalités) or popular culture: his book Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe reveals more of its subject matter in its German title, Helden, Schurken und Narren: Europäische Volkskultur in der frühen Neuzeit (Heroes, Rogues and Fools: European Folk Culture in the Early Modern Period). The Social History of Knowledge, Burke’s study of the evolution of the world of learning in modern Europe – its structures, institutions and practices and the modes by which it was controlled – required two volumes (from Gutenberg to Diderot and from the Encyclopaedia to Wikipedia), but they are still two relatively slim volumes. Peter Burke doesn’t seem to do baggy.



Burke’s published work is predominantly synthetic, based on the reading and sifting of already published texts rather than on work with archives, the latter being what some practitioners tend to regard as the only real historical craft. And of course there can sometimes be jealousies and resentments. One historian, a specialist in early modern Spanish history, became irritated by Burke’s quotations (in Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe) from what seemed obscure sources in languages, like Catalan, Polish and Hungarian, not much understood by English academics; languages furthermore that he guessed Burke himself could neither read nor speak.

In this, however, he was mistaken. On his arrival at Cambridge in 1979 Burke was asked by the eminent historian Geoffrey Elton how many languages he could work in. About a dozen was the reply.

Burke’s grandmother on his mother’s side came to England from Łódz in Poland and his grandfather from Wilna, then in the Russian empire, later in Poland, and now (as Vilnius) the capital of Lithuania. His father’s family came from Galway and his parents met at German classes. As a student he learned Polish to pursue his academic research. While Geoffrey Elton, born Gottfried Rudolph Ehrenberg and a refugee from Nazi Germany, devoted himself to the study of England's history and constitution, Burke was to write virtually nothing about England.

While one historian critic (the same who doubted Burke’s linguistic abilities), reviewing Popular Culture, expressed the view that there was no more a European folk culture than there was a “European family”. Burke, however, believes that he comes from such a family. “I have tried,” he said, “to bring together my two sets of grandparents, who come from the most westerly and easterly shores of Europe. To be a complete person, I must look at Europe as a whole.”

Peter Burke celebrates his eightieth birthday today.

16/8/2017