2. Limits to knowledge



Our knowledge of the social and economic history of the early modern period is largely fragmented. On the one hand there are hundreds of detailed studies that look at various local phenomena and processes of the period. Such research is often of excellent quality and with a high degree of scientific relevance, but it remains difficult to determine the extent to which the relevant conclusions may be generalized. On the other hand, there are also many general studies of society in the same period, but these are usually unable to provide the necessary degree of detail for an exhausting knowledge of social processes. This imbalance is due to a lack of the statistics and statistical studies necessary for a comprehensive description of society.

Historians depend on what the past has left them. A lot of research material has survived, but this is unevenly distributed. The further back we go, the fewer are our sources and the more difficult they are to interpret. Old archives, moreover, provide a biased picture of the past; they reveal primarily the activities of individual members of an elite, rather than the great mass of people. Quantitative approaches often constitute the only means to a view of the lives of ordinary people and of basic social developments. Collecting statistical material is for historians of early modern times a labour-intensive activity. The source material available to them is difficult to quantify for research purposes.

1. Science in ferment
2. Limits to knowledge
3. The need for early modern statistics