Universal History and the Origin Narrative of European Modernity: The Leiden Lectures of Jacob Perizonius (1651–1715) on Historia Universalis

in Erudition and the Republic of Letters
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This article explores a central facet of humanist scholarship and pedagogy—namely, the writing and teaching of universal history—in the decades around 1700. In does so by examining one of the most prominent humanists of the European Republic of Letters: the Leiden classical scholar Jacob Perizonius (1651–1715). Through analysis of Perizonius’s unpublished lectures on universal history, it explores how ‘classicists’ (long before they commonly identified as such) could command geographies and temporalities far distant from Greco-Roman antiquity. Late humanist classical scholars like Perizonius used the ancient genre of universal history or historia universalis to combine everything from the fall of Rome to the emergence of Renaissance Europe into a single continuous narrative. In so doing, Perizonius helped forge a via media between antiquity and modernity at a moment when self-identified “ancients” and “moderns” frequently engaged in conflict. Perizonius’s synthesis proved immensely influential to Enlightenment historiography and beyond. As argued here, universal history enabled Perizonius to craft an origin narrative of how nostra Europa or ‘our Europe’ purportedly became modern.

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