Tarald Rasmussen Strange Maps of the PastLast week I was at the second annual RefoRC (Reformation Research Consortium) conference hosted by the theology faculty at the University of Oslo. Tarald Rasmussen of Oslo gave a plenary, “The Uses of Comparative Methods in Reformation History,” which argued persuasively for historical approaches that are not limited to merely national interests, particularly defined in terms of contemporary national identity. The test case he focused on was that of early modern Scandanavia, and Rasmussen showed the benefits of more regional rather than nationalist perspectives.

One of the challenges, of course, is to find support for such research agendas when national or state agencies are the primary source of funding. But Rasmussen also made clear that there are analogous intellectual topographies to those we usually think of mapping, like national boundaries and geographical features. We run into ideological understandings of history that are anachronistic in a similar way, looking for the history of a particular idea or construction that is uniquely contemporary, and did not exist in the same way in the past.

Some natural questions follow: what “nations” are missing from our maps today (mental and otherwise) that were there in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? Just how different might a more accurate intellectual as well as spatial topography of the early modern period look?

In some ways these are impossible questions. How can you know what you don’t know? But the basic methodological point is valuable, and a first step toward reorienting and recontextualizing such historical study: the way things are now are not the way they always were, and the way people think today are not the way they always thought. This is in part what John Thompson is pointing to when he discusses reading Scripture “with the dead” as a way of eliciting this cognitive dissonance. He hopes that “reading old commentaries will also evoke the strangeness of the past, even the Christian past…. We should hope to find writers in the past who argue with us, and with all our contemporaries.”

Take a look at the following and think about the implications of some of these considerations as you see nations, empires, and city-states pop in and out of existence between 1000 AD and 2003 AD.