Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Memory: concepts and theory

The terms ‘social’ , ‘collective’ or ‘public’ memory, are often contrasted with ‘private’, ‘individual’ or ‘personal’ memory. All these terms derive from a fairly new and interdisciplinary scholarly field that is often referred to as ‘memory studies’, and that according to some critics has developed into a ‘memory industry’.1

2008 - 2013
Judith Pollmann
NWO Vici NWO Vici

However diverse the approaches and premises en vogue in memory studies, they commonly trace their scholarly roots to three sources. First, there were the ideas developed by Maurice Halbwachs in his Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire in 1925. Halbwachs was the first to argue that individual memory develops in interaction with that of social networks and the larger community. As the product of social change, moreover, memory was itself a process, an ever changing representation of the past. In a second development, and using very different methods, the psychologist Frederick Bartlett showed in 1932 that in the process of remembering humans rely on summaries or ‘schemes’ of the past – when a person ‘recollects’ what happened, he or she will reconstruct a memory from these schemes, often adding or changing details. Finally, building on the work of the German scholar Aby Warburg, students of literature focused on the medieval and early modern ars memoriae, techniques for memorizing that bear an interesting resemblance to Bartlett’s schemes.2 

'Memory' in different disciplines
For reasons that are hotly debated but that are not really germane to this proposal, little was done with the first two of these notions until the 1980s, when ‘memory’ suddenly began to make an appearance in a range of different disciplines. The work of psychologists was demonstrating the extent to which memory is subject to change over time and (self)manipulation, issues that became politically controversial through the ‘recovered’ memory of alleged victims of incest and the trial of John Demjanjuk.3 Meanwhile, historians and social scientists who studied twentieth-century memory practices refined Halbwachs’ insight that there is a relationship between changing social discourses, practices and expectations, and the way in which individuals will remember the past.


Whereas Halbwachs used the term ‘collective memory’, many students of literature and some philosophers prefer the term ‘cultural memory’, while historians and social scientists mostly use the term ‘social memory’. In practice these differences in terminology point less to diverging definitions of communal memory, than to different approaches to studying it. Halbwachs chose an approach based on sociological categories – family, class, religion. Many students of ‘cultural memory’ come to the subject with a strong interest in recollection, repression and the subconscious, sometimes informed by psychoanalytical thought, and trace these in literary and visual sources. Both because of a lack of suitable sources and because of issues of genre, the methods and approaches that they use are not very appropriate in an early modern environment.5 Students of ‘social memory’ tend to focus more on the social environment of memory and ask how individual stories about the past interact with existing narratives and other forms of commemoration. This, it seems to me, is something for which evidence can be found in early modern societies.6

The working assumption of this proposal is that both public and personal memory in the early modern period were shaped by a lively interaction between orality, manuscript and print, ritual and material culture, in which memories promoted ‘from above’ interacted with memories ‘from below’.7 Some scholars have presented social memory as a realm of resistance against the public, dominant version of memory that is known as ‘history’. If traditional history was a discourse about the past that was produced by the victors and that privileged those who had generated written evidence, memory, by contrast, might be seen as the repository of knowledge of ‘people without history’, or traumatized communities who might remember as an ‘act of faith’.8 Yet while it is certainly true that social memory can be used very effectively as an alternative for dominant and state-supported views of the past, it seems unhelpful to construct our understanding of social memory around its a priori opposition to dominant, literate or state-associated memory.9

Social memory

Indeed, more often than not social memory is the result of a blend between public and personal memorization. For example, the story about food shortages in World War II which I heard an elderly lady tell to her granddaughter on the evening of 4 May 2006, was very much a personal memory. Yet as she told it while they were queuing to lay down their flowers at a war monument, after the two minutes’ silence at the Dodenherdenking by which the Dutch commemorate the dead of World War II, the telling of the tale interacted with, and was probably shaped by, a very public form of commemoration. I believe that similar processes can be detected in the seventeenth century; the history plays about the Revolt that were being staged by exiles from Flanders and Brabant in the Republic could be highly political public statements in discussions about war and peace. Yet, as we shall see below, their political commitment was undoubtedly kindled by the frequent rehearsal of personal memories about the circumstances that had forced their families to leave Flanders and Brabant.   

As the German scholar Jan Assmann has emphasized, the social memory of an event will change once there is no one alive to tell the tale from their own experience, or to have heard it told by those who experienced it themselves. In an effort to bridge the gap between ‘social’ and ‘cultural’ memory, Assmann argues that at this stage ‘communicative’ memory (kommunikatives Gedächtnis) will transform itself into ‘cultural’ memory (kulturelles Gedächtnis).10 As our project will cover a period of about 135 years, we will examine whether we can see such a transition at work, and investigate the ‘floating gap’ between these two forms of memory.   

A final point to investigate is whether processes of social memory in early modern Europe were actually similar to those in the modern world. Pierre Nora, one of the founders of memory studies in the 1980s, distinguished between a primordial world before the French Revolution in which milieux de mémoire had still been able to function, and a modern world of historical remembrance in which only lieux de mémoire were left.11 While critics agree that Nora’s notions of pre- industrial milieux de mémoire were poorly founded, the idea that ‘modernity’ has had an impact on memory remains widespread. For Aleida Assmann, the years around 1800 were the moment at which the ‘art of memory’ was replaced by the ‘force (vis)’ of memory, in which memory became the motor behind new social developments.12 Others have mentioned mass communication and state formation as the catalysts for profound changes in collective memory.13 Yet such interpretations seem to ride on the back of other assumptions about early modern European culture, such as its alleged lack of a public sphere, its poorly developed notion of the ‘self’, or its deficient historical consciousness, that have already been challenged by historians of the early modern period.14 At the same time, the gap between history and memory that many modernists discern is much less evident in early modern culture. One obvious task for the team is to develop a better-founded understanding of the distinctive features of early modern social memory.

The novelty of its this project lies (a) in its comparative exploration of the impact that memory practices had on the forging of new identities in the seventeenth-century Low Countries, (b) in its examination of a wide range of media and memory practices, (c) in its focus on the relation between personal and public memory practices in early modern society, and (d) in the attempt to establish what was distinctive about early modern memory practices. 

The Low Countries offer an ideal laboratory for a student of comparative memory development; a population that shares a past is divided in two opposing camps which develop different canonic versions of that past. Moreover, it offers an opportunity to compare a state in which the central authorities did much to spread a canonic version of the past, with the much more diffuse and decentralized memory practices that prevailed in the Republic. 

The main methodological innovation of this project consists in its approach to the sources. By approaching ‘public’ memory as any form of memory available in the public sphere, we consciously look beyond the state as an engineer of social memory. We define ‘personal’ memory as any form of remembrance in which persons establish a link between themselves (or their ancestors) and past events. By broadening the source base for personal memory to any form of evidence for storytelling about the Revolt, we are circumventing many of the problems that are associated with reconstructing personal memory in this period. Thus our storytellers do not have to have been eyewitnesses, and we do not need to know what their own source for the story is. By focusing on the act of ‘telling the tale’, we are also capturing a much greater diversity of memory acts, that are less restricted by genre than would be a concentration on memoirs alone. Equally, it is no longer a disadvantage that our storytellers are ‘playing to the gallery’; instead, that gives us vital information on what made their tales relevant. 

The proposal comes at a time when there is a growing yet also quite disparate interest in early modern memory in evidence. It should come exactly at the right moment to position itself at the heart of debates and scholarly developments that are not just relevant for memory studies, but that will show how the study of early modern memory can help us to gauge the impact of devastating civil conflicts on identity formation.

  • For overviews and analyses of recent developments in the field see e.g. Fentress and Wickham, Social memory. Jeffrey.K. Olick and Joyce Robbins, `Social memory studies. From 'collective memory' to the historical sociology of mnemonic practices’, Annual review of sociology 24 (1998); Astrid Erll, Kollektives Gedächtnis und Erinnerungskulturen(Stuttgart and Weimar, 2005); Karen E. Till, `Memory studies,` History workshop journal62 (2006) and Winter, Remembering war. A very critical view of the ‘memory industry’ in Kerwin Lee Klein, `On the emergence of 'memory' in historical discourse’ Representations69 (2000). 
  • Maurice Halbwachs, Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire (Paris, 1925); Frederic C. Bartlett, Remembering. A  study in experimental and social psychology (Cambridge, 1932), and see also G. Wolters, Het geheugen. Herinneren en vergeten (Amsterdam, 1998), 61-62. An influential discussion of ars memoriae in Frances Yates, The art of memory (London, 1966). For a discussion of these three roots see also Erll, Kollektives Gedächtnis und Erinnerungskulturen
  • Ido de Haan, Na de ondergang. De herinnering aan de Jodenvervolging in Nederland, 1945-1995 (Den Haag, 1997); Winter, Remembering war; Wolters, Het geheugen.
  • E.g.Elizabeth Tonkin, Narrating our pasts. The social construction of oral history, Cambridge studies in oral and literate culture 22 (Cambridge, 1992). 
  • Erll, Kollektives Gedächtnis und Erinnerungskulturen
  • On these different terms and approaches see e.g. Ibid; Till, `Memory studies.` 
  • Adam Fox, `Remembering the past in early modern England; oral and written tradition. ,` Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 9 (1999). Good examples of such interaction in Paxson, Solovyovo
  • Tonkin, Narrating our pasts; Winter, Remembering war; 34-36; Y. H.Yerushalmi, Zakhor, Jewish history and Jewish memory (Seattle, 1982); Klein, `On the emergence of 'memory'’ 
  • Good examples of dissenting memory in Fentress and Wickham, Social memory
  • Jan Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen (Munich, 1992), 56 
  • Pierre Nora et al., Les lieux de mémoire, (Paris, 1984). 
  • Aleida Assmann, Erinnerungsraume. Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedachtnisses (Munich, 1999). 
  • Olick and Robbins, `Social memory studies. From 'collective memory' to the historical sociology of mnemonic practices’, 112-122 
  • E.g. Peter Lake and Steve Pincus, `Rethinking the public sphere in early modern England’, Journal of British studies 45 (2006).; Judith Pollmann, Religious choice in the Dutch Republic.The reformation of Arnoldus Buchelius (1565-1641) (Manchester, 1999), 16-24; Sandra Langereis, Geschiedenis als ambacht. Oudheidkunde in de Gouden eeuw. Arnoldus Buchelius en Petrus Scriverius (Hilversum, 2001).

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