How our ancestors viewed the future

What did people in the past think about the future and how did this affect their actions? This is the question the EU-funded Back2theFuture project will try to answer. It will draw on a highly innovative combination of close and distant reading methods for more than 15 000 letters written in Dutch, English, French, German and Italian – by and to European merchants – in the period 1400-1830. According to the researchers, these practical documents will allow them to identify the merchants’ thinking and shed light on their future expectations. By reviewing letters from various European regions and over a span of several hundred years, the project will be able to identify transformations.

From the eighteenth century onwards, the future was considered as open, uncertain and constructible – the way we tend to perceive the future today. In contrast, early modern Europeans believed that the future was beyond the control of man. The aim of this project is to challenge such grand narratives on past futures, which are generally highly linear and focused on modernity, have a fuzzy chronology and thin empirical base, biased by learned text. Moreover, these hypotheses fail to do justice to the presence and interplay of various (multi)temporalities and do not link future expectations to the concrete actions of men and women in the past. Most historians simply ignore the topic, since past futures are extremely hard to find in the written record. Hence, they focus on the actions of men and women in the past rather than their motivations. To gain more insight in how people in the past thought about the future and how this affected their actions, this project draws on a highly innovative combination of close and distant reading methods of more than 15,000 letters written in (varieties of) Italian, German, French, Dutch and English by and to European merchants in the period 1400-1830. These practical documents enable us to reconstruct different types of future thinking of these merchants and to assess how these thoughts powered their actual behaviour. Better still, they also shed light on the future expectations of their non-merchant correspondents: their wives, children and other family members, clerks, clergy, nobles, craftsmen, etc. A comparative analysis of the letters from these different social groups, written in several languages, in a variety of European regions and during distinct moments, allows us to identify the impact/speed of potential agents of change that loom large in the literature (capitalism, the Reformation, probability calculus, and the Enlightenment) more carefully. With this methodology, we will be able to provide fine-grained explanations.