In a time of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ we may long for an earlier, purportedly simpler world in which facts were simply facts. But were facts ever that simple? How did past generations separate fact from fiction; truth from falsehood; and proof from hearsay? Tradition has it that written proof once ruled supreme, whether it concerned early modern scholarship or litigation, the spiritual world of demons and the saints or the worldly realm of land rights and taxation. As historians in different fields have since realised, proof was an omnipresent, but nevertheless contested practice that bred fierce conflicts about degrees of trust, the nature of truth, the boundaries between scholarly disciplines, and the purview of official institutions.
The historiography on proof is varied, and scholars work in parallel traditions; historians of science are inspired by Bruno Latour; historians of religion look at wonders and miracles; historians of scholarship discuss authenticity and forgery; cultural historians are fascinated by the witness. Proof, in short, has enjoyed much critical press within today’s scholarly disciplines. Rarely, however, have scholars integrated these individual observations to probe the shared European legacy of proof. This conference seeks to provide an international forum for an interdisciplinary exchange about the concept of proof in its different early modern guises. It invites scholars – from political to religious history, from law to the history of art and science – to think about the common intellectual problems that once underlay practices of proving in the early modern period.
With its focus on the period from roughly 1400 to 1800 it hones in on what we posit was a crucial phase in the history of proof. The early modern period is traditionally affiliated with the construction of precisely the disciplinary boundaries that continue to separate different strands of contemporary research on proving. Proof itself underwent a similar transformation: different ways of proving became specific to separate disciplines. To understand, then, why such a fundamental concept as proof is still too often studied within and hardly across separate scholarly disciplines we need to return to the very moment when different forms of proof were articulated for different spheres of life and thought. But instead of making the mute point that disciplines develop exclusive forms of proving, our conference seeks to understand the processes by which the disiplinization of proof could ultimately come about: for instance, to what extent did the articulation and definition of proof contribute to the development of disciplinary boundaries, and vice versa? Did its articulation in one discipline influence the development in others? Did certain traditions of proving influence this process in disproportionate ways? Did the early modern period develop a hierarchy of proof?