Forum: Historians and Words

Christopher Hill continues the forum on words historians use by arguing that things exist before words describe them.

Seventeenth-century Baconians used to insist that things were more important than words. Provided we know exactly what things our words indicate, I think they were right. Twentieth-century historians sometimes forget that things had to exist before words could describe them. In his book, Seventeenth-century Britain 1603-1714 , John Morrill, for instance, recently argued against 'applying to individuals in the past' criteria unknown to them: we must 'be more sensitive to contemporary vocabulary and conceptualisation'. There was no seventeenth-century word 'to conjoin "mere" gentlemen and yeomen, or yeomen and urban mastercraftsmen': in describing seventeenth-century society we should not use tools of analysis evolved later.

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