Professor Landes teaches History at Boston University and is Director and co-founder of the Center for Millennial Studies.
I backed up through time into the Middle Ages. In my earliest studies, I focused on "modemity" as traditionally defined -- a society of continuous and cumulative change whose technological capabilities transform both natural and social environments. The Weberian focus on the unintended consequences of religious activity, highlighted the importance of medieval developments, in which lineaments of modernity first appear in religious garb. As some medievalists now would argue, the current periodization (Medieval = 500-1500) is profoundly misleading: the cultural mutation that first appears in western Europe in the course of the eleventh century marks a divide of at least the same magnitude as the changes ca. 500 and 1500. One can fruitfully view the period 1000-1500 as deserving a separate place in our self periodization, indeed belonging to the (early) modern period proper. It was during these centuries that a profoundly backward Europe (tenth century) first generated the cultural dynamic which permitted it to "catch up" and reach parity with the other great civilizations (Islam, China) in terms of social and economic capabilities. This was the first phase of European "modernization." What we call early modern, then, is really early secular. The economic activity, the psychological attitudes, the technological prowess, the aggressivity of commoners, the novelty of intellectual discourse -- all these appeared first in the form of explicitly religious behavior in the previous half-millennium. Such a reperiodization has major implications, not only for the way we conceive of the transformations of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, but also for the current identity crisis of "post-modem. "
The primary focus of my work is chiliasm, i.e., the belief that the End of time will bring a period of earthly peace and plenty in which the meek (the powerless) will at long last have the reward of their patience and hard work. This perennial hope and recurrent expectation, long dismissed as a marginal fantasy by historians, is, however, a privileged medium for understanding relations between elites and commoners in the West, for locating not only the tensions and conflicts between them, but also those rare and particularly consequential moments when elites and commoners came together in joint efforts and generated new social dynamics, new forms of organization and intercourse (e.g. the eleventh century). The focus of my work concerns precisely the interaction between these two populations, high and low, which most civilizations seek to separate and which, for reasons I am trying to understand, Western thinkers and actors have often sought to unite. The results of these unifications, however rare and ephemeral, have been, unintentionally, to generate the currents and institutions of modernity.
Work in Progress
Recent Writings on the Millennium (new link!)