Sunday, January 31, 2010

Constructing the Identity of a Witch: Feminism and Self-Defining Religions in Twentieth Century Witchcraft Historiography*

*I wrote this article in mid-December of last year, and I'm just not getting around to posting it. It's sort of an overarching view of what I learned in much of witchcraft class, specifically the relationship of gender, feminism, and New Age religious belief on witchcraft historiography and the popular perception of witchcraft among lay audiences. Little did I know that this article would be published on slate.com a mere three days after I completed this article. If you have neither the time nor inclination to read it, it may be summarized, briefly, as an article designed to debunk many of the "demonstrably false historical claims" made by Wiccans, Neopagan, and other New Agers, who have based their growing new faith on a hodgepodge of ancient and medieval myths. Mark Oppenheimer's piece defines religion as a "madman's fantasy" that has simply failed to die out, though he castigates Wiccans in particular for their penchant for making a historical fact out of apocryphal mythology. Oppenheimer cites numerous examples of Wiccan tenets that can simply be proven wrong, and he warns that adherents to religions that rest on shaky foundations face a difficult battle to justify and validate their beliefs. For the most part, I agree with everything Oppenheimer writes, yet we come to two very different conclusions. While Oppenheimer sees a danger for Wiccans in continuing to believe easily falsifiable claims, I find this to be among the most important ingredients in most religions. As Rebecca Collins writes in "Concealing the Poverty of Traditional Historiography: Myth as Mystification in Historical Discourse", "myth and history are typically construed as antitherical approaches to the past" but goes on to say that all histories "contain some element of myth" and that the embracing of these myths "reinforces the shared values" of a culture. Myth-making bonds those who ascribe to its deeper meaning, regardless of its historicity. Oppenheimer writes that "it's one thing to have faith in things unseen; that's human. It's a whole other thing to have faith in an easily disproved historical conceit." True, but aren't all major religions engaging in exactly that? Most religions that rely on texts (essentially all major modern-day religions that are not animist) seem to have at least some basis in a history that has been molded to suit their spiritual needs. Wicca is no different, except that it has the perceived misfortune of emerging at a time when many of its historical claims can be refuted. Essentially, the argument I've made here is that, so long as Wiccans don't co-opt the historical reality and replace it with their own mythology, there seems to be no harm in believing something that is "demonstrably false"--as I said, I feel this is what all people of all religious traditions end up doing to some extent anyway. As with most posts of research papers and essays, I have removed many of the citations, though I have attempted to give credit for direct quotations. This was not originally meant as a research paper but a reflective essay, so I have not directly quoted very often.

It is impossible to discuss the history of witchcraft without addressing the question of gender. In many ways, however, it is even more difficult to assess the role of gender in the historiography of witchcraft studies because successive generations of scholars, feminist writers, and Neopagans have assigned importance to it based on diverse philosophical, political, and personal reasons. The twentieth century has witnessed a reinterpretation of the meaning of witchcraft as each of these groups have endeavored to assimilate the “idea” of witchcraft either to suit their own purposes or correspond to their preconceived notions of the past. Some feminist writers and philosophers have recast the witch craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a “holocaust of women” and inseparable from modern domestic violence, spousal abuse, and misogyny (Purkiss 17). Others have declared that the persecution of witches should be retroactively regarded as a historical facet of the modern legacy of violence towards women and historically treated as such. Likewise, many modern Wiccans and Neopagans regard the witch hunts with reverence, esteem as martyrs those who were executed, and redefine the past in mythic dimensions. This modern-day reclamation of the past allows followers of the burgeoning New Age religious traditions to imbue their beliefs with deeper narrative hermeneutics and interpret past persecutions with symbolic, spiritual meaning. Of course, many scholars have taken issue with these cavalier revisionisms. For example, Diane Purkiss criticizes these self-serving affirmations as a disingenuous form of narratology. She blames not only radicals and New Agers for this historical apostasy, but also careless academic historians of the early and mid-twentieth century for their failure to assess witchcraft by the standards of its practitioners. Without these academic reassessments, the feminist and Wiccan revisions would likely have taken very different forms. In all of these varied definitions, gender looms large. By examining the evolving notions of gender in the turbulent era of twentieth century witchcraft historiography, we can better appreciate these politically and philosophically charged reinterpretations of the past.

Twentieth century witchcraft historiography traditionally begins with Egyptologist Margaret Murray. Murray’s thesis, enunciated in The Witch-cult in Western Europe (1921), argued for the enduring existence of a pre-modern fertility cult that was overshadowed by the fa├žade of Christianity during the Middle Ages. This faith, predating all of the major world religions, hearkened back to the worship of a mother goddess, became conflated with the Dianic cult, and persisted into the Middle Ages until a concerted campaign by Church authorities attempted to eradicate it. Despite her difficulty in “grasp[ing] the historical method” and her “highly selective” use of sources, Murray’s appraisal of the subject became authoritative for nearly fifty years (Purkiss 62).

The first serious attempt to call her views into question appeared in the 1970s. Norman Cohn and Richard Kieckhefer challenged the notion that a cult existed underground and outside the mainstream of established social structure. Kieckhefer demarcated a specific chronology of witchcraft persecutions and noted the incorporation of diabolism, the pact with the devil, and heresy in the elite conception of the crime of witchcraft. Cohn recognized that events in antiquity and the Middle Ages, at least in part, provided a template for later witch hunters in their persecution of witches. Just as the Romans had accused the early Christians of cannibalism and infanticide and the medieval Church had accused the Waldensians and Cathars of devil-worship, so too did the elite authorities of the early modern era accuse women of witchcraft. While Cohn and Kieckhefer utilized the historical record more effectively than Murray, their results yielded accurate information about only one component of the story. Cohn’s treatment of the high-level, theological legal discourses employed among the clergy failed to accurately represent the beliefs and practices of the persecuted women themselves. Though Cohn’s discussion of the upper class impressions of witchcraft marked a vast improvement over Murray, women were reduced to mere scapegoats and victims without a voice of their own. Gender was addressed, insofar as Cohn acknowledged that women comprised the majority of the accused, but it did not become a concentrated topic of study until the next generation of scholars.

As Cohn tacitly admitted in this exemption, the dialogue between elite and peasant varieties of witchcraft had little in common, but one familiar factor for both was the expectation that most witches were women. Modern historical research into gender in the early modern era has prompted a reevaluation of its significance in the witch hunts. In what ways did gender affect witchcraft? In the terminology of Christina Larner, the early modern crime of witchcraft was “sex-related” but not “sex-specific” because femaleness was not necessarily a requisite for witchcraft. However, early modern persecutors and prosecutors clearly conceived of the crime as archetypically female. In he article “Who Were the Witches?” Larner contends that witch-hunting was woman-hunting specifically when women deviated from the societal norms delineated by masculine authorities, and prosecutors were armed with a deep tradition of medical knowledge, religious doctrine, and culturally inculcated expectations to denigrate women. Authorities who persecuted witches deferred to the Bible in order to bolster their claims that women constituted the weaker sex. As daughters of Eve, masculine elites believed women were prone to temptation, lascivious in nature, and more easily deceived by the devil. The Bible contained direct passages referring to the power of witchcraft. One regularly quoted text details the account of the witch of Endor. The Israelite king Saul visited this necromancer to summon the ghost of the prophet Samuel in order to divine his future. Samuel admonished Saul for defying God’s will, and Saul, despondent and fearful, ultimately committed suicide (1 Samuel 28:3-25). Even more frequently quoted was the simple command from Exodus that “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18). Clearly, the Bible warned the elite prosecutors of the dangers of the crime of witchcraft, and these prosecutors increasingly equated it with women.

The greatest impact on the archetypal image of the female witch derived from the Malleus Maleficarum. This work was the most influential of the so-called witch hunting manuals and it corroborated scriptural conceptions of this increasingly female crime. First published in 1486 by the German Dominican professor of theology, Heinrich Kramer, the Malleus promulgated, for the first time, a codified definition of witchcraft for the elites. This work sought to defend the existence of witchcraft from its critics, describe the activities of witches, and explain why the greater preponderance of witches was to be found among women rather than men. The Malleus asserted that women were “chiefly addicted to evil superstitions” because the devil more easily “corrupts their faith,” and affirmed that “their slippery tongues are unable to conceal from their fellow-women those things which by evil arts they know." For the clergy, witchcraft came to encompass heresy, and it constituted the most heinous variety, since it involved a rejection of God and a compact with the devil. Deferring to St. Augustine, Kramer argued that “the abomination of witchcraft arose from this foul connection of mankind with the devil,” and this interweaving of diabolism with the idea of the witch signified the dire consequences of the crime. The Malleus also drew from more sources than simply Biblical and patristic—the Western classical heritage of Cicero, Seneca, and Aristotle substantiated these negative stereotypes of women as witches. The potent combination of scriptural authority and classical precedent entrenched the idea of female weakness in the minds of the elite clergy. The Malleus also discussed the crime of maleficium, or harmful magic, which became increasingly intertwined with the particularly female crime of witchcraft. By the early sixteenth century, the typical witch had emerged as a woman, usually lower class, and often devoid of any male figures in her life. Historiographically, the impact of the Malleus often denotes a point of divergence among more traditional male historians who view the Malleus as one among many important early modern primary witchcraft sources, and feminists who accentuate its preeminence among lesser works (Purkiss 11).

Modern witchcraft scholarship has emphasized the role of gender in the witch hunts through simple statistical analysis of the historical sources. While precise numbers are difficult to ascertain, almost all trial records demonstrate that a majority of those prosecuted and executed were female. According to Darren Oldridge, the average number female witches across Europe and North America between 1560 and 1660 amounted to roughly seventy-five percent (WR 8). Both H.C. Erik Middlefort and Christina Larner claim a higher percentage at eighty percent for Europe as a whole, and Middlefort remarks further that perhaps as many as ninety percent of witches were women for lands under German control during the height of the witch hunts. The numbers for North America are similar. According to Richard Godbeer, up to seventy-nine percent of all witches and eighty-four percent of demoniacs were female (Godbeer 68 and 114). Obviously, at the very least, the statistical evidence demonstrates a correlation between witch-hunting and women-hunting.

Numbers, however, can be skewed to stress a particular ideological message or to affirm a particular identity contingent upon these quantitative extremes. While the ratios of men to women in the early modern witch hunts have been well established, the raw numbers themselves have not. Purkiss quotes feminist writer Mary Daly, whose drastic inflation of numbers in Gyn/Ecology expresses her desire to compete with more notable massacres in the past. Daly cites the witch craze as an event that decimated “millions of women” in early modern Europe and America, and Purkiss criticizes her for quoting these number as if they represented a mark of distinction in feminist history (Purkiss 13 and 17). Similarly, Wiccan spiritual leader Starhawk, in her original publication of The Spiral Dance, estimated the number of women executed at nine million, or nearly one hundred times higher than even most liberal of scholarly estimates (Starhawk 208). In a later edit, Starhawk revised this figure to “a low of one hundred thousand” while still allowing for the upper range. She qualified the original approximation as “probably high” and averred that “nobody knows exactly how many people died in the persecutions” (Starhawk 208). This augmentation, whether purposefully misleading or not, indicates a desire on the part of both feminist writers and Wiccan spiritual figures to sympathize with and find personal meaning in the tragic historical event. Unfortunately, their embellishment of these quantities diminishes the seriousness one can afford them, and it situates these revisionist authors in the awkward position of consciously striving to surpass more recent and well-documented violence. Purkiss has criticized both radical feminists and Wiccans for attempting to cast the murky events of the past as a “holocaust of [their] own” and for directly opposing the more “paradigmatic atrocity” of the Holocaust of 1942-1945 (Purkiss 6 and 17).

The rhetoric employed by early modern persecutors and prosecutors of witches and the sheer numerical data available certainly lends credence to the thesis that witch hunting is “sex-specific,” but as E.J. Kent argues, the evidence for the prosecution of males for similar crimes indicates that “sex-related” is a more accurate descriptor. Though maleficium remained a particularly female offense, men were often accused in England and New England of harmful practical magic in the economic sphere. Just as women faced accusations over property damage to household items, livestock, or crops—items related to domesticity and fertility—men skirmished “over rights to land and resources.” Males accused of witchcraft generally encountered allegations from other males who regarded their activities as misrepresenting normative masculinity. For example, John Godfrey of colonial Massachusetts met opposition to his peripatetic lifestyle because it failed to conform to the standards of late seventeenth century colonial behavior for males. What may appear to modern sensibilities as the prototypical masculine male—unmarried, unsettled, and without a family—appeared to colonial observers as a “poor practi[tioner] of patriarchy” and this “cut across the paradigmatic idealization of masculine virtue.” The existence of male witches, even if their numbers were small compared to women, confirms Larner’s explanation of witchcraft as “sex-related” rather than “sex-specific.”

How have modern feminists, wiccans, and Neopagans come to understand gender given the reinterpretations it has undergone among academic historians? Purkiss stresses that each group has used the concept of the witch to “construct [an] identity” conforming to the features of its past most relevant to the individual exegete. Historians themselves are not immune to this criticism, and Purkiss performs a postmodern deconstruction of many of their arguments, especially those arguments that appear entirely unaware of their own biases and shortcomings. For example, Purkiss is severely critical of the “Enlightenment” bias that characterizes a substantial amount of early witchcraft historiography. These historians not only ignored the importance of gender in defining witchcraft but also gave prominence to the rise of skepticism and the decline superstition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While important, this aspect of witchcraft continues to focus too narrowly on the resolution of the “problem” of witchcraft while obscuring the actual participants in the trials (Purkiss 59-60). In a way, Murray can be read as a reaction against this form of Whiggish historiography. The emphasis on the progress of science and reason over superstition and irrationality constituted one of the many important chapters in this school of history. By positing a timeless, unbroken link with a religion from the ancient past, Murray essentially denied the progress of religion from “primitive” to more advanced forms—the fertility cult of the pre-modern era was only subsumed by Christianity rather than replaced by it.

Paradoxically, though Murray’s theory has been soundly rejected by modern scholars, at least one historian has erected a theoretical framework similar to Murray’s but on a much smaller scale (Purkiss 44 and 61). Carlo Ginzburg’s focus on the peasant classes and folk religious beliefs of the Friulian region of northern Italy implies a similar undercurrent of popular folk beliefs largely ignored by centuries of elites. However, these peasant attitudes are vitally important for understanding the local culture of the region. Following the political and religious restructurings of the Counter-Reformation, the clergy—and with it the Inquisition—took a much keener interest in the beliefs and practices of the lay peasantry. In the case of the benandanti—an actual agricultural fertility cult in Friuli, Italy—Ginzburg stresses that it was the elite process of integrating contemporary peasant practices with preconceived notions of the witch cult and sabbat that created the specific classification of witchcraft. The benandanti believed that their spirits rose out of their bodies at night and traveled to do combat with witches and demons in what they referred to as “night battles.” It would take the Inquisition to conflate the benandanti’s own concept of a “night battle” with that of the witch’s sabbat and thus equate them with the very evil they believed they were exterminating. Unlike Murray, Ginzburg discovered a popular religion that likely existed in concert with Christianity. Rather than two completely divorced spiritualities, these folk beliefs fused with peasant interpretations of Christianity to create a distinct regional, religious culture. In some ways, twentieth century faiths that rely on both ancient and modern precedents are undergoing the same types of acculturation.

Neopagans and Wiccans have co-opted this strategy for their own religious purposes. As self-defining associations, these groups have essentially utilized the historical record as their scripture. Religions almost always must interpret their histories symbolically in order to approach their deepest meanings. Purkiss discusses the psychoanalytic trend among historians who study the supernatural, but it seems even more applicable to the discourse that Neopagans and Wiccans employ to express their extremely varied belief systems (Purkis 77). Neopaganism draws on myriad historical traditions in a conscious attempt to revive, in modern form, the pre-Christian and non-Christian religions of now extinct ancient cultures—Celtic, Nordic, Egyptian, Native American, and so on. The “disorganized” appearance of this fluid set of beliefs does not imply that it is not a legitimate faith. Rather, this appeal to cultures disparate in time and place indicates not only the ease with which new traditions may be assimilated but also that those who adhere to these new (and old) faiths tend to be suspicious of organized religion in the first place (Purkiss 31-32).

The question remains: to what degree can one alter the past to gratify one’s own spiritual needs? At what point in comprehensive reinterpretation does logos become mythos, dissociated entirely from the historical record from which it draws? Purkiss criticizes these approaches when the alteration of the historical record to suit the symbolic needs of the religion becomes so extreme that it confounds all coherent meaning. For example, Purkiss chides those Wiccans, such as Zsuzsanna Budapest, who contend that their religion draws from a spiritual well that extends back in time to an ancient matriarchal society where women ruled fairly and effectively, coexisted peacefully with nature, did not go to war, and emphasized beauty over cruelty (Purkiss 41). This myth materialized out of the discoveries at the Minoan palace of Knossos on Crete by Arthur Evans, and despite the lack of conclusive evidence for a gender-equal, nonviolent society, many modern Wiccans attest to this past as factual in order to legitimize their own beliefs when coaxed by others (Purkiss 41). Is this selective scholarship akin to Murray’s? Or, is this the kernel for a new, modern-day mythology?

This process of self-definition remains ongoing at all times—from the benandanti, caught between Friulian folk beliefs and a lay peasant version of Christianity in sixteenth century Italy, to Wiccans and Neopagans, many of whom must rebuff allegations of Satan worship and child abuse. Perhaps the most successful example of this type of self-definition in action is Starhawk’s appropriation of witchcraft to describe the goddess religion she and her cohorts practice. From a historical perspective, Starhawk’s Spiral Dance is rife with errors. For example, Starhawk states that “the rising male medical establishment welcomed the chance to stamp out midwives and village herbalists, their major economic competitors” (Starhawk 208). However, most historians today recognize that very few midwives were ever persecuted for witchcraft, and these historians have, in a sense, dismantled that myth (Purkiss 21 and WR 59, 258). In this case, myth carries the negative connotations of a mistakenly-held conviction. For Starhawk, it denotes a literature signifying a deeper truth. She readily acknowledges that “witchcraft has always been a religion of poetry, not theology. The myths, legends, and teachings are recognized as metaphors for that That-Which-Cannot-Be-Told” (Starhawk 210). By approaching Starhawk’s works as primary sources of a new religious tradition rather than as misinterpreted historical secondary sources, her assertions cease to be erroneous history and become the mythology of a goddess religion.

Christina Larner posed the question, “was witch-hunting women hunting?” and answered with the now famous hypothesis that it was “sex-related” but not “sex-specific.” Gender was a causal factor as evidenced by the fact that women made up the overwhelming majority of witches, but it was not necessarily the direct cause because the accused were persecuted for being witches, not women. The considerable amount of evidence demonstrating correlation proves that gender was a defining factor in the persecution and prosecution of witchcraft. But this is a historical question, and, as we have seen, not all those interested in witchcraft are specifically interested in the same types of historical evidence. Early witchcraft historians largely overlooked gender in favor of rational and empirical explanations for it decline, while Margaret Murray’s interest in gender corresponded to her belief in the existence of ancient fertility cults. Many radical feminists have so singularly focused on gender that they render the greater dynamic historical mechanisms at work during the witch hunts unintelligible and unimportant. Neopagans and Wiccans have incorporated the notion of gender into their mythology and are in the long, syncretic process of building a religion. Provided that we do not read the admittedly unhistorical as history, these diverse interpretations of gender in the canon of witchcraft studies, literature, and scripture may thrive together.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Books I Read in 2009


For the first time ever, here is a yearly book list. I've been meaning to start doing this for years, but instead of keeping track of the books I do read, I end up keeping track of books that I intend to read. I compiled this while I was bored at the office today and should have been working on either editing a paper I'm presenting next month or, ironically, doing some reading. As far as I can remember, this is every book I read in 2009. This list includes books I did not finish, provided that I read over half of them, but does not include the many books out of which I read a chapter or two. The latter was mostly via reading assignments from classes or books I used for research. After looking at them all together, I did notice a few things I did not expect. Firstly, there are more women writers on this list than I anticipated. A little over a quarter of the books I read last year were penned by females. While perusing my own bookshelves, I'm often struck by the embarrassing dearth of quality women writers represented in my collection. I don't think I'm sexist; it's just that somehow more of the books I read happen to be written by men. One reason this was probably different this year is because women are rather healthily represented in history, especially social and cultural history written since the 1970s. Secondly, I read more non-history than I expected as well. A little over a quarter of the books I read last year were non-history, and among those, nearly half were fiction. I read much less fiction than I once did, but it's nice to see it represented if only a little. And it was reasonably diverse fiction as well, ranging from science fiction to historical fiction to literary fiction to Gothic to thriller to, er... gross, sexual coming of age tale? These are roughly listed in the order in which I read them. So, here's the list:

+ = books that I did not read in their entirety but read enough of (i.e. over 50%) that inclusion is merited
* = books that I had read before but reread this year
bold = books that I especially recommend reading
@!%& = books that I especially recommend avoiding at all costs

The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington
The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels
Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity by Elaine Pagels and Karen King
Frankenstein by Mary Shelly*
Astrology by Zohar @!%&
The Fated Sky: Astrology in History by Benson Bobrick
A History of Western Astrology by Jim Tester
The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons of the Dead ed. by Robert Segal
The Holy Grail by Norma Lorre Goodrich + @!%&
A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes
Dreams, Memories, Reflections by Carl Jung
Medieval Thought by Gordon Leff
The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe by Valerie Flint * +
Science and Creation by John Polkinghorne
Freedom of Choice Affirmed by Corliss Lamont
The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot
Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life by Stephen Jay Gould
Religion and Science: Contemporary and Historical Issues by Ian G. Barbour
Psychology and Alchemy by Carl Jung +
Wetlands by Charlotte Roche
The Language Instinct by Stephen Pinker
How the Mind Works by Stephen Pinker +
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
Angels and Demons by Dan Brown
Morandi's Last Prophecy by Brendan Dooley +
The Making of the West, Volume 1 by Lynn Hunt et. al.
Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral by Philip Ball
The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found by Mary Beard
Polis: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City State by Mogens Herman Hansen
The Histories by Herodotus +*
The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides +*
A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom by Andrew Dickson White +
Andrew Dickson White: Educator, Historian, Diplomat by Glenn C. Altschuler
Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic by Ingrid Rowland
Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition by Frances Yates
The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller by Carlo Ginzburg
The Devil's Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England by Richard Godbeer
The Devil in the Shape of a Woman by Carol Karlsen*
The Witchcraft Reader ed. by Darren Oldridge
The Witchcraft Sourcebook ed. by Brian Levack
Witches of the Atlantic World ed. by Elaine Breslaw
The Witch in History by Diane Purkiss
Europe's Inner Demons by Norman Cohn*
The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past by Keith Windschuttle +
Not By Fact Alone: Historical Essays on the Reading and Writing of History by John Clive +
Faces of History: From Herodotus to Herder by Donald Kelley
Modern Historiography: An Introduction by Michael Bentley
Confession by Guibert de Nogent*+
Feudal Society: The Growth of Ties of Dependence by Marc Bloch +
The Historian's Craft by Marc Bloch +
Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom
The History of the English Church and People by the Venerable Bede +*
The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours +
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon+*
The Old Regime and the French Revolution by Alexis de Tocqueville+
Domenico Scandella, Known as Menocchio: His Trial before the Inquisition, 1583-1599 by Andrea del Col
Beer and Philosophy ed. Stephen Hales

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Genesis Revisited


A year ago this week, I started the blog "Conversations with Philemon". It began, at least in part, as a New Year's Resolution designed to get me writing more since I had noticed a sharp decline in the amount of writing I had been doing from the end of college to the present. In that capacity, it has succeeded marvelously. I haven't counted but I think I've probably written somewhere in the vicinity of 75,000 words over the course of the year. The 52 posts from 2009 didn't quite reach the 100-post goal that I intended, but I'm neither disappointed nor am I surprised. The exigencies of life often get in the way of the things we'd like to do. This blog has also been an exercise in the theory that people do their best (and most) work amidst the busy-ness of daily life. I posted less in my off-time over the summer and winter break than I did in the comparatively hectic spring--during which I was working overtime, preparing to move out of Michigan, and getting everything together to start graduate school--and fall, which was my first semester of graduate school. To be fair, not everything I wrote was original material. In fact, close to 1/3 of the total posts, and probably a rather higher percentage of total words, were previous writings that I edited for posting. Most of these, of course, were history papers of some sort, but since this blog is at least partially devoted to history, I think this was an acceptable modus operandi.

Has this process taught me anything? I'm sure it has, but I'm not entirely sure what that is yet. Do I write more now than I did a year ago? Most definitely. But has this blog gotten me into the habit of sitting down to pound out my thoughts in written form? Maybe. The necessities of graduate school and of my future academic career have assured that I'll never be in want of writing anymore. Right now, that has turned into great fodder for some extensive blog posts, but I have a feeling that as the years roll on, should I keep up with this blog, it may very well turn into a more personal journal. Or, conversely, it may become a place only for posts of my papers and research. Frankly, I'm hoping to avoid both. The diversity of this blog has been one of my favorite aspects, and although my interests obviously gravitate toward history, I enjoy that looking back on my posts, I've written on topics ranging from particle physics to probability theory to socialism to poetry to synchronicity. If I have anything like a new goal for this blog for the coming year, I'd say it would be something like "introduce even greater diversity into my topics." I think, on occasion, I'd also like to be able to post shorter works too. One of the reasons I think I only made it to 52 posts is that I spent the better part of a week working on some of them. Another goal may be something along the lines of "it's OK to write twice as many posts that are half as long." Not really my style, but it might break up the monotony of some of these posts (even I find the contents dull sometimes).

It's hard not to look back on the year of blogging and think about the year in general. It's difficult for me to think of another year in my life that was as eventful as 2009. I moved twice, lived in three states, worked in (not the same) three states, witnessed the inauguration of America's first black president, applied to, was accepted to, and began graduate school, visited New York City for the first time, rediscovered my love of hiking, and read more than I think I've read in any single year of my life. Despite some minor economic hardships in those last months in Michigan, it was a pretty good year. It's also hard not to look back on the decade. Over two-thirds of my life, so far, was spent in the Aughts or the Naughts or the Naughties or the zeros or the 2000s or whatever the hell we're going to call them. I began the decade not even as a legal adult. Thus, my entire adult life, so far, and the most momentous events of my life occurred in that decade. I graduated from both high school and college, moved out of my parents house, lived several places, owned three cars, traveled to Mexico and all around the US, met some of the best friends I will ever have in this life, and fell in love with Kirsten. It's hard to top that last one. I think most people look back on their twenties as the best time in their life, and I probably won't be any different. This decade encompassed most of that age and even though on the whole, this decade probably does not rank terribly highly in American history, I will always recall it fondly.

What are my new goals, my New Year's and New Decade's Resolutions? My immediate New Years' Resolution is to become, by this time next year, proficient in reading French and Latin. I'm halfway there with the French, and I just started learning Latin over winter break so I'm kicking it into high gear. May 2010 be the year of languages! In terms of the decade, I suppose I have some personal goals and some professional ones. I certainly hope that, sometime between the age of 27 and 37, I get married and start a family. It would also be nice to own my own home as well, rather than continuing to rent from tiny apartments, though both of these, essentially, are contingent on my accomplishment of the professional goals. By the end of this decade, I would like to have completed my PhD in either history or the history and philosophy of science and be gainfully employed as a professor at a university. By the end of the decade, I also hope to have published at least one book. And if I have time, it might be nice to be the drummer in a band. Haven't done that in a while. So, there you have it. Ten years of goals and aspirations. Wish me luck. Ave atque vale!


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Semester's Worth of History


It's been a rather longer hiatus from bloggerdom than I thought it would be. I didn't post at all in December and haven't posted anything in nearly six weeks. I have no excuses, and perhaps worse than no excuses, I forewent my chance to really post some good ones since I had three weeks with literally nothing to do but eat turkey and stuffing, drink wine and wassail, and watch full seasons of LOST and Star Trek. Instead that's all I did, and though I read a few books I'd been wanting to get through before the new semester began, I also spent a lot of time sleeping till noon and and staying out at night drinking with friends. Poor me, eh? So, I've finished my first semester as a graduate student and am in the process of beginning my second. I thought I'd make my triumphant return to the world of internet posting with a little reflection on that process and what I hope the new year has in store for me in academia.

Firstly, while I haven't been particularly surprised by the workload, the amount of reading I've done over the past four months is pretty staggering. With only two classes, one of which was a graduate/undergraduate mix and thus less intense, plus thesis research (which I did little for, since I haven't even fully settled on a topic yet), the reading was still at a high level. I haven't counted specifically, but I think I read somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 pages of text over the course of the semester, totaling somewhere around twenty-five full books and significant portions of perhaps sixty to seventy others. The amount of writing I did was also rather high (higher than usual, from what I've been told), totaling at around 115 pages--two lengthy research papers, five shorter reading analyses, two non-research papers, and two finals. Still, I never felt particularly overwhelmed, and after I mastered the arts of skimming and picking precisely the most important passages of texts without reading them in their entirety, the voluminous content breezed by rather quickly. I also managed to avoid having any serious panic attacks, although the one all-nighter I pulled to finish a 15 page final paper I had not had a chance to work on until the night before it was due, left me gasping for breath somewhere around 3 AM as I had serious doubts I would meet the 10:30 AM deadline. Of course, it all worked out though.

What has this process been like and how has it changed my outlook on the idea of history? I think one of the biggest lessons I've learned thus far is the difference between the study and practice of history. Studying history tends to be easy: you absorb all of the information in front of you by reading and understanding the arguments presented by historians. The practice of history, however, is usually a lot more challenging. One must know the proper research paths to take, how to evaluate the sources (not to mention the necessity of studying language to broaden one's source base), how to recognize the various points of views the authors bring to the table, how to approach history from the theoretical frameworks of the day while never denying the actual information one must find to confirm one's own theories (this of course, does not always happen, which is why one should derive theories after the research). This is a contentious topic in history, as many historians have been accused (and rightly so) of simply searching for information that confirms their arguments. I think the biggest difference between studying history as an undergraduate and studying it as a graduate student is the amount of theory and criticism employed at this level. This seems obvious in retrospect, but it never dawned on me as an undergraduate that this aspect of historical study was missing from my education. As an undergraduate, for the most part, one studies history, in the words of the founder of the professional history, "wie es eigenlich gewessen ist" or "as it actually happened." That is not to say that controversy over interpretation is not acknowledged, but in general, professors lecture, students take notes as authoritative, and papers and tests are written and taken to prove that a certain level of knowledge has been achieved. Not so, graduate school.

Most of the classes we take are on the theory and philosophy of history, rather than on the accumulation of knowledge. It is essentially assumed that you will do that sort of legwork on your own, and when class time arrives, the goal is not to regurgitate these facts, but to argue your case based on the evidence you've amassed. While this may not seem like earth shattering information (and it's not), I do find it interesting that history seems to be one of the few disciplines that is taught this way. Theory and criticism are not at all a part of the undergraduate experience. To me, this is a bit like being a biology major and never being introduced to evolutionary theory, or studying philosophy without ever understanding what metaphysics or epistemology are. I also received a bachelor's degree in English, and after the first few introductory courses, the coursework became rather theoretical to some degree, or at least we were initiated into the vocabulary of the trade. I had two courses on literary criticism as an undergraduate. Courses are rarely even offered on historical criticism or historiography at the undergraduate level.

Shortly after entering the program, a second year graduate student, following an engaging discussion on how to be a historian, told me that "You will find out rather quickly what type of historian you are," by which he meant that the theories we accept and the theories we regard as bullshit will differentiate themselves rather early in our career. So far, I'm not entirely sure that I agree. Perhaps it's my moderate personality or my ability to find the positives and negatives in modes of discourse or perhaps I'm just wishy-washy, but I have not quite found any particular historical framework that I feel is either the theoretical approach to take, nor have I found any that I feel to be complete bunk. One recent trend in historical studies is, since the late 1970s and early 80s, postmodernism, which is extraordinarily difficult to define. As far as history is concerned, postmodern theory treats "truth" (and oftentimes fact as well) as entirely subjective and tends to view historical thinking and writing as more of a humanities study than a social science. In this ideational structure, literary criticism and linguistic theory inform history more than research into the past itself. Everything, as they say, is "text". While I believe that the vocabulary and rhetoric employed by postmodernism has enriched historical study, I think that the denial of factual information has done something of a disservice to the profession itself. One of my major problems with postmodernism has little to do with the more arcane and jargon-laden arguments set forth by the theoreticians and more to do with the imprecise definitions utilized by the field. I plan on writing a bit more on this later, but for now, suffice to say that, in my view, postmodernism contradicts itself by making a "truth claim" that "there is no truth" and by failing to understand the interplay between subjectivity and objectivity. Western thought in general, but postmodernist thought (and for that matter scientific, rationalist thought) in particular, regards subjectivity and objectivity as essentially binary or entirely separate from one another, rather than as a continuum, which I believe they are. That is to say, something is not either objective or subjective, but most forms of knowledge are somewhere along the continuum, and one can observe facts and make arguments that are more or less objective than other arguments. A denial of all objectivity (which many postmodernists do) is, to me, as illogical as denying all subjectivity as well. In any case, some postmodernists historians have an "anything goes" attitude, which celebrates bias, in a sense, by saying that since no one is really ever capable of true objectivity, we should embrace subjectivity. For my part, as a historian, I think it would be absurd to claim that we don't approach our subject with bias, but it would be equally absurd not to mitigate these tendencies and attempt to rely on evidence (and where it takes us, even if it takes us somewhere we do not wish to go) at all costs.

Finally, it's been an interesting experience working with undergraduates. I've had some contact with different levels of education via my two years as a substitute teacher in high school and middle school and my summer grading standardized test for the state of Kentucky. So far, the undergraduate experience has been less trying on my nerves but no less challenging intellectually. Obviously, in dealing with a higher level of student, one expects a higher degree of intelligence, writing ability, behavior, and so on. For the most part, this is true. As a teaching assistant, I haven't had any discipline problems with any students in my classes. I have to say though, that while many times students surprise me with their lack of certain basic sets of knowledge, most of them generally seem as competent in historical knowledge as I would expect the average college freshman to be. The class I TAed for had around 120 students, and their grades ended up following a pretty standard bell curve, though the apex of the parabola hovered around the low-B rather than the mid-C mark. Probably around a dozen students in the class were able to write sparkling essays in relatively polished prose that demonstrated a fair amount of knowledge, just as there were around a dozen students who believed that Italy was Sweden, the French Revolution occurred in the Early Middle Ages, and AIDS caused the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. And this is after listening to a semester's worth of lectures. Most students who can't handle it drop after the first few weeks but it's not uncommon for students who think that the Mediterranean Sea is named the "Sea of Calamity" to be there taking the final on the last day of class along with the history majors.

I look forward to my future semester. I have a class called Hermits and Heretics: The History of the Medieval Church, 300-1450, which looks promising, and I'm furthering my historiographical studies with both European and non-Western historiography as well as American historiography. Plus, I'll begin my thesis in earnest this semester through the prospectus course all first years must take in their second semester. I still don't know exactly what my thesis will be on, though it will almost certainly be on a late medieval or early modern history of science topic. Currently some ideas include looking at the evolution of the soul/body to mind/body dualism among natural philosophers from, say, Albertus Magnus to Rene Descartes. Another idea is to pick one country during a particular time period (or, after taking Hermits and Heretics, perhaps the Church) and look at its specific legal attitude towards astrology. I have a few others but haven't fleshed them out yet. I guess that's what the prospectus class is for. You can be sure, dear reader, that, like it or not, I'll probably be posting about it along the way. It's good to be back to the world of blogging and the world of academia.