Publication Date

March 1, 1992

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

K–12 Education, Teaching & Learning

A sixteenth-century man unable to consummate his marriage was successful after demons were driven from his body. Sir Isaac Newton, the great mathematician and scientist, devoted considerable thought and writing to the subject of alchemy. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries about 5,000 individuals were put to death for witchcraft in Switzerland, with many confessing to being witches. A group of eighteenth-century apprentices, wishing to express anger at their master and his wife, joyfully conducted a massacre of cats. In the colonial United States a young man and a woman would lie clothed in bed together, a practice called bundling. How do we and our students relate to an age whose assumptions and practices were so different from our own? How do we come to understand how the people of these periods perceived their environment? A key to comprehending what we might view as bizarre comes in the study of mentalité.

Mentalité is the study of how the people of a particular era viewed their world. What were the shared reference points and symbols? How were family relationships and the community defined? How were work and leisure time viewed? What does all this tell us about a people and a time? If a study of history constitutes in part an attempt to recreate the world as lived and experienced by its inhabitants, then a study of mentalité is not simply an augmentation of the traditional curriculum but a necessity for historical understanding. This seems particularly crucial for adolescents, who tend to view events from their own perspective and who have difficulty imagining a different point of view or different value system. In order to understand life in the early modern world, students must come to grips with a life devoid of steam- or electric-powered machinery, where many people could not read, and where a household might be an economic unit consisting of related and unrelated individuals.

This means that students must also be introduced to social history in order to grasp the realities of material life and social relationships for the masses of people. While the history of mentalité and social history are not interchangeable, they are clearly related. The study of mentalité requires an understanding of the lives of the people at large, not just the elite. It is concerned with the general popular culture and tries to find commonalities across class lines. It is broader than social history and seeks to comprehend attitudinal assumptions about areas as diverse as politics, religion, and family. Nonetheless, in looking at society at large, the historian of mentalité must come to terms with how the majority of people lived; a study of the ruling classes or political institutions alone cannot suffice to grasp the outlook of the people. Thus, in considering the mentalité of a period one must ground oneself in the material existence of the masses of women, men, and children. The foods people ate, the kinds of homes they had, and the relationships that existed between and within classes are all important areas of inquiry.

Clearly, too, as our focus changes from traditional approaches to consideration of social history and mentalité, we must evaluate the criteria we use to divide history into distinct periods. If those criteria are based on key political events, for instance, they might not apply to a historical view focused on evolving concepts of family. By understanding whether pivotal political, military, or intellectual events form the basis of the traditional periodization, we can analyze whether such periodization reflects a view of history appropriately steeped in mentalité.

Indeed, the question of periodization arises immediately in the study of the Renaissance: one must consider whether “Renaissance” is a proper term for a distinct period. Issues of interpretation come to the fore as we weigh the possibilities of the Renaissance going back to the twelfth century, as indicated by Charles Homer Haskins, versus Jacob Burckhardt’s view of the “lifting of the medieval veil,” W.K. Ferguson’s proposal of the period as a transitional age, and Joan Kelly-Gadol’s questioning of the term as applied to women. This last historian’s work makes clear that periodization needs to be reconsidered not just in terms of beginning or end points but more dramatically in terms of its relevance to a large group of individuals, such as women. A consideration of mentalité further forces a reconsideration of the traditional Renaissance/Reformation periodization. Perhaps the whole period should be rethought in terms of a complex of attitudes shared by the people of the early modern period.

My Advanced Placement course, therefore, comes to the concept of mentalité for the early modern period after a study of the Renaissance and Reformation. This is a particularly apt time because a consideration of Burckhardt’s Renaissance and Max Weber’s thesis concerning the Protestant calling as reflected in capitalistic activity can mistakenly lead students to view the early modern world as primarily individualistic, secular, and urban; in other words, similar to our own. We must try to recapture the essence of or feel for a world that placed a high premium on magic, that believed in witches, and in which, despite the advances in textual analysis and the study of Greek, literacy was not widespread. (Others might prefer to set the historical stage for the first semester by beginning with a consideration of the early modern mentalité. My fear would be that by the time students had studied the traditional text descriptions of the Renaissance and Reformation, they would have a less vivid memory of the reality of that world for the majority of its inhabitants.)

Thus, it is not a luxury but a necessary balance to stop and look at the reality of this world for the majority of its people. How did people perceive time, social relationships, family, and religion? What were their fears and hopes, and how were these expressed? How did they earn their living, and what were the material conditions of their existence? Sources I find useful in forming a tentative answer are the section of William Monter’s article, “Protestant Wives, Catholic Saints, and the Devil’s Handmaid: Women in the Age of Reformations” (in the second edition of Becoming Visible, edited by Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), which deals with witchcraft; the document-based question (DBQ) on witchcraft from the 1980 AP exam; the film The Return of Martin Guerre; the essay “The Great Cat Massacre” in Robert Darnton’s book by the same name (New York: Vantage Books, 1985); and, in conjunction with that, for another view of the guild system, Merry Wiesner-Hanks’ article in Becoming Visible, “Spinning out Capital: Women’s Work in the Early Modern Economy.” Selections from Philippe Aries’ Centuries of Childhood (New York: Vintage Books, 1962) or the DBQ from 1982 on English childrearing can also be useful. Let me elaborate.

The film The Return of Martin Guerre, or appropriate excerpts from it, marks a wonderful change of pace for students and through a vivid visual medium makes the early modern world come alive. Students are easily drawn into this story of a husband who disappears, only to return years later and be accepted back into his old role without question. Questions arise about how people determined identity and viewed the passage of time. What was expected of wives whose husbands left? This last question becomes particularly poignant as the returned husband is accused of and finally proven to be an imposter. Both in the film and in the Darnton essay, students can see the function and working of a charivari, despite the fact that they depict different geographic locations and centuries. (The charivari was a noisy, boisterous serenade by young men, generally used to ridicule cuckolded men or those whose marriages or relationships did not fit into the accepted norm.) In the film, Martin Guerre, who is unable to consummate his marriage, is subjected to a charivari. The film provides a window onto family structure, agricultural methods, conflicting ideas of land ownership, and the rarity of the ability to write, an interesting contrast to the world they left of Petrarch, Castiglione, and Pico della Mirandola (although perhaps a little closer to that of Rabelais). The students also get to see the workings of the judicial system in France, a useful introduction to the parlements as well as an avenue for understanding both the witchcraft charges and trials. They see a world in which sexuality is far more open than in theirs, in which different assumptions are made about loyalty, gender roles, and community relationships. This is a world that is materially and spiritually very different from their own, but it is not a closed-off world. It is connected to the larger world by government officials and by travelers. Its reality demands to be confronted, not stereotyped. The film brings an earlier world, in its many levels of complexity, to life. The study of mentalité helps us understand and decipher that world.

The DBQ from the 1980 exam provides documents to help students come to grips with the reality of the witch craze and offers a useful balance to the narrative of the Monter article. Both lead to a discussion of who believed in witches and why. Why were women so often targets? What assumptions were there about women and their role in society? Why did the spate of accusations and trials end? While the DBQ and the Monter article address the issue of witchcraft directly, the role of the supernatural is clear as well in the film, when Martin Guerre finds it impossible to consummate his marriage until an evil spell is removed.

The Darnton essay forms a logical link with the work on witchcraft and the film even though it deals with the eighteenth century rather than the sixteenth. Darnton raises the issue of the connection between witchcraft and cats, and he traces the way in which a charivari of apprentice printers delineates the interlocking symbols. In both the essay and the film the student can see the charivari, although applied to different circumstances, as an expression of male youth culture.

The Darnton essay forces the student to confront the notion that we begin to understand a society when we “get the joke.” It describes a massacre of cats perpetrated by the printer apprentices of a bourgeois Paris master. Among those massacred is the mistress’s favorite cat. Students somehow must begin to see the cat massacre from the perspective of the apprentices and understand as well the joy they felt in the telling of the story. (Incidentally, students might address at the same time the difference between historical understanding and condoning. Students sympathetic to animal rights might consider why we find horrendous what the apprentices found hilarious. Because we come to understand the apprentices’ viewpoint, does that mean we find it less horrifying?) The joy for this community of workers was not just in the act itself, but in the reenactment and retelling of the event as well. The essay helps students enter into a world where, although literacy is increasing, news is still spread primarily through oral readings and tellings. Furthermore, it clarifies the use of popularly shared symbols, such as cats, being associated with witches and a charivari being associated with weak husbands. The cat massacre was rich in symbolism that was clear to its participants. Darnton’s essay also leads to a consideration of social classes, particularly the bourgeoisie as viewed by the workers, and the evolution of the role of guilds and apprentices. Certainly, parlements, evolving social classes, and changing guild roles are ideas that reappear.

Thus, the examination of mentalité creates a good reference point for later discussion as well as a corrective to overly contemporary views of the early modern period. Students are aware of a world in which spirits still had some reality, in which there were certain ritualized ways of expressing group norms, in which the oral tradition was still strong and there were understood shared symbols. This is not to imply that the sixteenth- and eighteenth-century worlds were the same. Toleration for the charivari and for male adolescent misbehavior in general was declining. The witchcraft panic had come to an end by the eighteenth century and the world of spirits had a less prominent place. Nonetheless, a study of the French Revolution makes clear how important the role of symbols and the dramatic portrayal of an event remained. In all of this, mentalité provides a common thread, a means of greater understanding.

While I do not devote any later units as thoroughly to the concept of mentalité, I do try to maintain a regular consideration of the reality of the world to the people who were living at a particular time. Certainly it is equally important to gain an understanding of the nineteenth century, where social classes, gender relations, and material conditions were drastically different from both the early modern period and from our own time. For this we have a wealth of materials, from the art work of Daumier to the literature of Dickens, the writings of Engels and Mrs. Beeton, and the testimony on factory working conditions given to English parliamentary commissions. Such sources give a sense of the social reality for the working and middle classes. From these we must extract whatever shared vision all classes held and distinguish this from a world view that might have been more class-based.

This can be relevant to our century as well. After studying the horrors of World War II, I initiate a discussion of the idea of evil as we of the postwar world perceive it, burdened by our historical knowledge of genocide and by prevalent moral relativism. I use art and the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Hannah Arendt. How have these twentieth-century horrors shaped our perception of our own world and of our relationships with each other? Do we in the Western world share common assumptions about human nature and about science? Are there any rituals or symbols we hold in common? Is there a common attitude toward work and leisure time? Such questions can help us hold a mirror to ourselves.

The study of mentalité in the early modern period helps us to avoid an anachronistic view of the period. Mentalité also assumes there was a common way of viewing the world in a given era, despite the numerous class and gender differences, and without denying the significance of those differences. In the contemporary world we are keenly aware of our diversity, sometimes less aware of what we have in common. It is difficult to view ourselves as outsiders might, or as historians a century or two from now will. An intriguing question to consider at the close of the course is, therefore, what is the mentalité of the Western world today?

Patricia J.F. Rosof is on the faculty of Hunter College High School, where she serves as high school editor of Hunter Outreach, a newsletter of the Hunter Campus Schools that aims to share innovative teaching ideas. She has published most recently in Peace Weavers, edited by J.A. Nichols and L.T. Shank (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987).