For this first interview of the academic year, we chose to leave for the History Department to talk with professor Anne-Laure van Bruaene. Anne-Laure obtained her PhD in History with a dissertation on the chambers of rhetoric and urban culture in the Southern Netherlands (1400-1650). She now teaches (and has widely published on) early modern and urban history at Ghent University. She is part of the Belgian-Dutch interuniversity network “City and Society in the Low Countries (ca. 1200 – ca. 1850)”, a project which is now reaching its final research phase. In 2006 she was the laureate of the William Nelson Prize (Renaissance Society of America) for the best article in Renaissance Quarterly. One day back from her sabbatical, Anne-Laure sits lively at her desk when we enter to level our questions.
How did your interest for your research arise?
Since I am a true born townsman myself, I have always been fascinated by the city. I grew up in the centre of Ghent and lived there for a very long time. Now I live on the outskirts and I honestly miss the city centre – I often make a detour to the cathedral when I cycle home from work. Early modern (and just as much: present-day) cities are incredibly interesting objects of study because these built-up areas are junctions of organs, processes and urban phenomena: processions, joyous entries, chambers of rhetoric and so on. In fact, cities are more actors than objects. They are agents that are not only influenced by the citizens, but also influence these citizens themselves.
Furthermore, I have always had a sincere preoccupation with the sixteenth century, and the religious conflicts this era generated in particular. The person who inspired me to actually dig deeper into the sixteenth-century history of the Southern Netherlands and to conduct research was my professor Hugo Soly, who is now retired. He is a specialist on the field of sixteenth-century economic history and was the most interesting professor I ever had. He probably has no idea how greatly he influenced my academic career.
Do you consider your research in general as interdisciplinary and/ or ground-breaking?
‘Interdisciplinary’ is a complex word. In the early modern era, everyone was occupied with everything. Distinct disciplines like we know them today only have their origin in the nineteenth century. We see, however, an evolution (in my opinion a positive one) towards a research method in which multiple disciplines come together again. In recent historiography it is unimaginable to not work on different fields, there is always a common ground with other disciplines. If you are, for instance, engaged with cultural history, you will always have to include political, social and economic history. During my PhD I worked on chambers of rhetoric and consequently often found myself at the interface between literature and history. For the moment my historic research shows more overlap with art history.
I would not consider my own research as ground-breaking, but urban historiography does appeal to a broad public. And I believe it is important for academic researchers to destruct the academic ivory tower and to draw in the general public. Our department actively and gladly works together with STA·M, the city museum of Ghent. The museum uses the city (here: Ghent) to tell its story and to let visitors connect with their own history. We often present our own research in STA·M, so it immediately reaches a large audience. The History Department of our university has running exhibitions on World War I, the world exhibition of 1913 in Ghent, and migration. I am also closely involved with a project on the Dutch Revolt in the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam.
Have you ever experienced a ‘Eureka moment’ during your research?
That characteristic image of the historian who sits in the archives for hours on end is quite correct. The moment he then finds that one document or clue that confirms his assumptions, the historian would cry ‘Eureka’. Personally, I experienced my Eureka moment while carrying out research for my PhD and discovering that rhetoricians were not part of the elite, in contrast to what many academics thought at that time. When I learned that rhetoricians belonged to the middle class, the pieces of my puzzle started to fit. This perception offered a completely new perspective on the historiography of the middle class of the sixteenth century, as it appears to be that class the rhetoricians represented in their texts.
What is the most inspiring (literary) study you have ever read? And the most recent one?
I am a true admirer of the historical anthropology studies of the 1970s and 1980s, and of Natalie Zemon Davis in particular. ‘The Sacred and the Body Social in Sixteenth-century Lyon’ (in Past and Present, 90, 1981) is her most inspiring paper. This exemplary study on sixteenth-century Lyon charts the relation between Catholics and Protestants, and contains exceptional data about the living conditions in Lyon at that time. Her thesis is refreshing and convincingly structured around multiple arguments from divergent angles.
Currently I am reading Bring up the bodies by Hilary Mantel (2012). This weighty historical novel is part of a trilogy and contains countless historically correct facts. The events take place in my research period, the era of Henry VIII, yet even though I am familiar with the plotline, I was intrigued from the first page. I really enjoy reading it. It catapults you back in time and establishes a very broad and detailed image about the political issues, the rising religious movements and conflicts, and the social conditions in sixteenth-century London. Mantel has the gift to bring her characters to life and make their motives plausible. The book is so inspiring that I catch myself unconsciously searching for analogous arguments in my own research.
The image is the oldest printed panorama of Ghent, part of a woodcut series by Pieter de Keysere (1524). Anne-Laure Van Bruaene published an article on this print series together with Frederik Buylaert and Jelle De Rock (Renaissance Quarterly, 68, 3, 2015).
By Sarah Adams