Chronicling Novelty

The diffusion and acceptance of new knowledge in the Netherlands 1500-1850

For innovation to happen it is not enough that new ideas and technologies are being invented. Cultural factors play an essential role in their acceptance and appropriation. Recent scholarship hypothesises that Europeans after 1650 became more receptive to new technology and innovation than their ancestors, and so enabled the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. The spread of new knowledge and techniques among scholars and specialists between 1500-1850 is indeed well-documented. Yet since acceptance by specialists does not guarantee wider acceptance, we will study how and to what effect, new knowledge actually anchored among the wider public.

This project investigates the circulation and evaluation of new knowledge, ideas and technologies among a non-specialist public of middle-class authors in the Netherlands, who kept handwritten chronicles to record events and phenomena that they considered important. The project will develop a method to use them in large numbers and comparatively, so as to track and analyse the circulation, evaluation and acceptance of old and new ideas and information over time and spatially.

In collaboration with the Royal Library of the Netherlands and with the help of volunteers and student assistants the project will create a large high quality annotated corpus of texts from the period 1500-1850. In collaboration with the computational linguists at VU the project will develop tools to trace patterns in topics, perspectives and appreciation of novelty and to identify passages that require further qualitative analysis by close reading. In this way, the project will assess the circulation of new ideas, their reception, and the impact on attitudes to novelty and tradition in wider society.

This interdisciplinary project has been awarded a NWO Vrije Competitie grant for the period 2018-2023.