Author: jhiblog

What We’re Reading: Sept. 12-16


Tim Barker, “The Congress for Cultural Freedom’s Ultimate Failure” (The New Republic)

The Economist (C.G.), “Comrade, where are you today?

The Economist, “Patricians of Parchment

Marie Gaille, « Impudique pudeur » (La vie des idées)

Claudio Giunta, “Una sommessa difesa del liceo classico” (Le parole e le cosa)

Serge Gruzinski, “How to be a Global Historian” (Public Books)

Denis Matringe, “The Kama Sutra and Its Audience” (Michael C. Behrent, trans.; Books and Ideas)

Tim Parks, “Writing to Belong” (NYR Daily)

Oliver Pfohlmann, »Der unaufhaltsame Aufstieg der Maschinen« (NZZ)

Ritchie Robinson, “The other Schlegel” (TLS)

And finally, Georges Lacombe’s 1928 film La Zône : Au pays des chiffonniers (Musée historique de l’environment urbain)


Natalie Zemon Davis, Lisa Jardine (1944-2015) (History Workshop Journal)

Johanna Hanink, On Not Knowing (Modern) Greek (Eidolon)

Joshua Cohen, The Last Last Summer: Donald Trump and the Fall of Atlantic City (n+1)

Dalia Mortada, Recipes From the Syrian Kitchen (NY Times)

Neil Bartlett introduces and Stephen Rea reads Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis (BBC Radio 4)

Jonathan Sheehan, Teaching Calvin in California (NY Times)

Dan-el Padilla Peralta, How to Incorporate Immigration Studies into High School Curriculum (NY Times)

Erez Manela et al., H-Diplo Roundtable: Susan Pedersen’s The Guardians (H-Diplo)


Noah Barera, Genug shoyn mit yiddish nivul peh (Yiddish Forward)

Hugh Eakin, The True Story of Palmyra (NYRB)

Alexandra Schwartz, Emma Donoghue’s Art of Starvation (New Yorker)

Jonathan Sheehan, Teaching Calvin in California (NY Times)


Andrew Higgins, In Expanding Russian Influence, Faith Combines with Firepower (NYT)

David Bromwich, What are We Allowed to Say? (LRB)

Dan Diner, Sind wir wieder im 19. Jahrhundert? (FAZ)


Gautham Rao, Sexy History, Legal History, and History Departments: Part I (Legal History Blog)

Patrick D. Watson, A Response to Jamie Zvirzdin’s “Observations of a Science Editor”, featuring set of remarkable (and remarkably constructive) exchanges on technical writing (Kenyon Review)

Ainoa Castro, Visigothic Script Leaf at Bloomsbury Auction (Littera Visigothica)

Threatened by Prejudices: French Revolutionary Textbooks

by guest contributor Hannah Malcolm

Most of these new textbooks were bound and were often tiny enough to fit in a child's pocket. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

Most of these new textbooks were bound and were often tiny enough to fit in a child’s pocket. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

During the French Revolution, statesmen faced the task of altering society in order to preserve the new Republic, which entailed developing a politics of virtue and culture. In response to demands for public involvement in government, the revolutionary assemblies published all laws and speeches in newspapers. However, given the novelty of representative politics, the government felt that simply making the new legal system widely available was not enough to enlighten public opinion. Specifically, the revolutionaries feared that prejudices left from the ancien régime would taint public opinion and individual judgment.

This strong distrust of prejudices had notable philosophical roots. In his Encylopédie article on judgment, Louis de Jaucourt began by stating that judgment should not be confused with knowledge that is acquired solely through the senses. Instead, “judgment is […] an operation of the reasonable soul; it is an act of research.” Similarly, in Le dictionaire universel, Antoine Furetière defined judgment as a “power of the soul” which has the capacity to “discern the good from the bad, the true from the false.” However, Furetière differs from Jaucourt by extending his definition to include “opinions of wise people” as well. In this sense, judgment can be the result of a personal trait, rather than defined strictly as a process. Furetière also includes definitions of préjugés, prejudgments or prejudices, as a preoccupation with an opinion that one has conceived; Jaucourt defined them as “false judgments of the soul.” These imprecise conceptions illustrate the uncertain nature of morality and politics at the time. Despite these subjective definitions, the revolutionaries believed that incomplete processes of judgment could be identified through their propensity to mislead the public. Because of this risk, the revolutionaries needed to actively educate the population, and they explicitly spoke of this mission in terms of public safety. People argued that without an educational system, the new generation would either be unable to continue the republic or, at the very least, they would continue to endure crises. The Committee of Public Instruction intended to establish a national school system to enlighten the public on the benefits of the Republic and their new role as citizens.

On the last page of the announcement for the textbook competition, the Committee again emphasized the importance of education in defeating prejudices. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

On the last page of the announcement for the textbook competition, the Committee again emphasized the importance of education in defeating prejudices. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

Therefore, in Year II of the revolutionary calendar, the Committee of Public Instruction announced a contest for new elementary textbooks. Among the many goals listed was encouraging students to abandon ignorance and prejudices. The procès-verbaux of the Committee indicate that many of the textbooks analyzed here were submitted to and reviewed by the Committee. These new textbooks consistently warned against the danger of prejudices. A book of weekly moral lessons declared that “prejudices are the tyrants of the soul.” Prejudices, under this understanding, encouraged one to act and think like a tyrant. This pithy phrase linked disavowal of prejudices to the commonly encouraged hatred of tyrants and suggested that that the latter would compel one to reject all influences of prejudices. In his textbook, François-Xavier Lanthenas argued that “The education which existed under the ancien régime […] was calculated […] to entrench prejudices.” They were clearly seen as corrupting vices which must be eradicated. Revolutionaries believed that this could best be accomplished through a national form of education and instruction, as summed up by Léonard Bourdon de la Crosnière’s statement that “instruction is the friend and companion of liberty and the most formidable scourge of despotism,” whereas France’s “enemies count on the ignorance of the people.” By providing access to knowledge, education would give students resources to attempt to discover truth.
Warning about the danger of prejudices. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

Warning about the danger of prejudices. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

By focusing their educational projects around the issue of judgment, the revolutionaries emphasized the centrality of rationality to their conception of society while also revealing their fears about the negative qualities of humanity. As Bourdon de la Crosnière phrased it in his pamphlet, the new education plans must “convert schools from prejudices, from ignorance, and from servitude into schools in which free, virtuous, and enlightened men are formed.” Yet the fear remained that individuals would not want to be educated. Lack of cooperation from the public could cripple the plans for public instruction, as education “depends a lot on the reciprocal will of the people who contribute to giving and receiving it.” Without this reciprocal desire for education, the moral faculties of the students will be destroyed. Revolutionaries saw the continuing prevalence of prejudices as evidence that people might not always be—or even want to be—rational. This voluntary irrationality exhibited itself in the various revolts throughout France, but particularly in the Vendée. Nevertheless, the revolutionaries maintained belief that education held the potential to perfect humanity. In his Manuel des Instituteurs, Pierre-Nicolas Chantreau emphasized that the primary goal of public instruction was to ensure that future generations would have neither the prejudices of the contemporary ones nor the inclination to form new ones. Destroying prejudices through education was seen as a way to guarantee the survival of the new Republic.

Textbooks meant for teachers, or pamphlets for the public, tended to be unbound folded sheets of paper tucked into one another. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

Textbooks meant for teachers, or pamphlets for the public, tended to be unbound folded sheets of paper tucked into one another. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

However, the continued delay from the Committee of Public Instruction to establish a school system led to a flurry of pamphlets and letters suggesting new structures or ways to provide education in the interim. Some of these letters suggested that training for law should encourage judgment, but the authors also worried that most students would not continue their education that far; one catechism taught students that all people were judges for the government. The pamphlets identified prejudices as one of the main problems in education—second only to the aforementioned governmental delay. In a pamphlet entitled L’université à l’agonie, Desramser, a university student, emphasized the necessity of making sure teachers “will no longer prefer their personal interests, tyrannical prejudices, or dangerous vices.” Prejudices, it was argued, stopped people from considering other points of view and therefore made it more difficult to reach political compromises. Returning to the conception of judgment as a process, Jaucourt allowed for the possibility of two judging individuals to come to different conclusions. Likewise, Bourdon de la Crosnière argued that if students do not learn to reflect on ideas that they disagree with, then they will be unable to form judgments. It is this reflection on abstract and dissenting ideas that separates judgment from mere reason. However, other articles in the Encylopédie made it clear that tolerance of dissent was founded on the belief that with time and proper education, all rational beings would, through use of judgment, come to the correct consensus.

'The University in Agony' by Desrasmer, student at the University of Paris. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

‘The University in Agony’ by Desrasmer, student at the University of Paris. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

The revolutionaries’ full-frontal assault on prejudices was not condoned by the conservatives of the time, even aside from the implication that religion qualified as a complex of superstitious prejudices. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke alluded to the revolutionary project to remove all prejudices from society and stated that the revolutionaries were rashly constructing “a scheme of society on new principles” and disregarding “the judgment of the human race.” What the revolutionaries saw as prejudices, Burke saw as “common judgment,” and he warned that abandoning it would lead to social chaos, as he saw this common judgment to be the result of previous generations’ wise decisions and necessary to social stability. When the revolution labeled these beliefs as prejudices, they claimed that they were irrational and not even based on experience. Therefore, they were able to frame them as hindrances to true judgment and dangerous to society and the political process.

This hesitation towards accepting a multiplicity of accurate outcomes is likely due to the moral and social qualities of judgment. One textbook author, Nanydre, argued that the public could not blame people for their mistakes if they are only based on prejudices and not from malicious intent. Without access to education, people might be unable to ignore their prejudices. However, as time passes, people would have more evidence needed to abandon their mistaken prejudices. Only after they have ignored opportunities for reform could they be then faulted for failing to learn. Although the Revolution rejected traditional Christianity, it did not intend to abandon morality. Public instruction was not merely the transmission of knowledge but also the instilling of virtue into citizens. The moral guidelines transmitted through education would prepare students to make proper decisions as citizens. Jean Chevret argued that inculcating civic virtues was no different than lessons in honesty. The revolutionaries thus sidestepped the issue of whether morals should be considered prejudices and instead only focused on those prejudices which they deemed dangerous to the new society.

Léonard Bourdon de la Crosnière's pamphlet on public instruction. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

Léonard Bourdon de la Crosnière’s pamphlet on public instruction. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

Despite this public engagement, the threat of prejudices led the Committee on Public Instruction to devote most of its time to educating the public, rather than focusing solely on children. Therefore, instead of instituting a national system of public instruction, it organized festivals, commissioned artworks commemorating revolutionary martyrs, established a new calendar, and otherwise reorganized society to make it inhospitable to prejudices. This change of direction was crucial as few schools outside of Paris accepted the new textbooks. The Committee’s incomplete work is unsurprising, given not only the short life of the First Republic, but also virtually every education system’s inability to completely eradicate prejudices from society.

Hannah Malcolm is an undergraduate at Appalachian State University. She is writing an honors thesis on public instruction during the French Revolution.

What We’re Reading: Sept. 5-9


Extra-parliamentary movements? Tim Barker, Beyond the Ballot Box: Occupy and Bernie (LRB)

Douglas Martin, Phyllis Schlafly, Conservative Leader and Foe of E.R.A., Dies at 92 (NY Times)
Stacie Taranto, Phyllis Schlafly and the Making of Grassroots Conservative Sexual Politics (Notches)

Stuart Middleton, Questionably Virtuous: Harold Wilson (LRB)

Sean O’Hagan, Nan Goldin in Reading gaol: why I’m making art in Oscar Wilde’s cell (Guardian)

Marc Perry, Uncovering the brutal truth about the British empire (Guardian)

Melvyn Bragg, Manchester: First City of the Industrial Revolution (BBC Radio 4)

Angela Chen, A Very Public Intellectual: NEH Chairman Bro Adams tries to make a case for the humanities (Chronicle)

Gavin Haynes, ‘Do not take a girl home from the tobacconists’: the Victorians’ guide to freshers’ week (Guardian)


Michael Anderegg, “Chimes at Midnight: Falstaff Roars” (Criterion Current)

Pierre Assouline, « Vices et vertus de la confusion des genres » (La République des livres)

François Azar, « Le charme trop discret du judéo-espagnol » (La République des livres)

Danielle Balicco, “La voce minima. Utopia e poesia in Paul Celan” (Le parole e le cose)

Eric Brandom, “Reading Péguy” (Learning Curve)

Laure Bordonaba, “Arthur C. Danto or the Duality of Worlds” (tr. A. Dorval; Books & Ideas)

Chenxin Jiang, “Several Types of William Empson” (The Nation)

Anna McSweeney, “‚Ghost Objects‘ – 19th century paper mould techniques and the portability of antiquities” (Bilderfahrzeuge Blog via OpenEdition)

Robert Talise interviews Martha Nussbaum on her new book, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (Oxford University Press, 2016; New Books in Intellectual History)

Adam Tooze, “When We Loved Mussolini” (NYRB)

And finally, Pier Paolo Pasolini parla della lingua italiana (Youtube)


Sandra M. Gilbert, A Life Written in Invisible Ink (American Scholar)

Donna J. Haraway, interview about her latest book, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (ArtForum)

David Kamp, Cover Story: The Book of Bruce Springsteen (Vanity Fair)

Kea Wilson, How Being a Bookseller Made Me a Better Writer (LitHub)

Jacob Mikanowski, Camera-phone Lucida (The Point)


Cynthia Ozick, “Master of the True Line” (Tablet)

Richard Pevear, Alice Sedgwick Wohl, and Judson Rosengrant, “On Translation” (NYRB)

Robert A. Burton, “A Life of Meaning (Reason Not Required)” (NY Times)

Elliot Ackerman, “What to Make of Military Endorsements” (New Yorker)


Adam Tooze, When We Loved Mussolini (NYRB)

Glen Newey, The Spirit of Charlemagne (LRB Blog)

Francis Wheen, George Orwell and the Whiff of Genius (The Spectator)


Eleanor Parker, “I, Who Will Already Be Dust By Your Time, Have Made Mention of You in This Book” (A Clerk of Oxford)

Rachel Fleming, “Would Margaret Mead Tweet?” (Savage Minds)

Long-Disputed Grolier Codex is Genuine” (The History Blog)

Emily Runde, “The Popess and the Vello-Maniac” (Les Enluminures)


Donal Harris, “Writing like a State: The WPA Guides” (LARB)

Peter Byrne, “Why Science should stay clear of metaphysics” (Nautilus)

Andrew Lanham, “Shakespeare contra Nietzsche” (LARB Marginalia)

Daniel Little, “Defining a Social Subject: Weber” (Understanding Society)

The American Historian, “Writing for a Popular Audience: A Roundtable” (The American Historian)

What We’re Reading: August 29-September 2

This week we say goodbye to founding blog editor Madeline McMahon, who is heading on to new projects. We’ll miss her, but you can follow her on Twitter to keep up with her activities.

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.


Chris Brooke, Doctors in the House: UK MPs’ PhD theses (The Virtual Stoa)

Matthew Reisz, Obituary for Alison Winter, 1965-2016 (THE)

L.D. Burnett, A Bright Space (USIH)

Donna Zuckerberg, We can’t cite everything — but should we even try? (Eidolon)

Michael Newton, ‘I love you, you defiant witch!’: Charles Williams (LRB)

Sarah Larson, Watch “Howard’s End”—Then Read It (New Yorker)

Emily Swafford, “There Be Monsters”: Debunking Five Myths about Career Diversity for Historians (Perspectives)

David Cannadine, Prime Ministers’ Props: Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s Matchsticks (BBC Radio 4)

Melvyn Bragg, The Matter of the North: The Rebellious Tongues of the North (BBC Radio 4)

… and I wrote a thing on my personal blog about The History Boys.


André Aciman, “W.G. Sebald and the Emigrants” (New Yorker)

Albert Bensoussan, « La merveilleuse défaite d’Albert Cohen » (La République des livres)

Helmut Böttiger, »Als der Mensatisch zum Laden wurde« (Deutschlandfunk)

Peter Cowie, “Flashback: Jeanne Moreau” (Criterion Current)

Durs Grünbein, »Die Farben des Führers« (Die Zeit)

Hisham Matar, “The Book” (New Yorker)

Susan Meiselas, “In Pursuit of Beauty” (Magnum)

Gabriele Pedullà, “Oltre Carl Schmitt” (Le Parole et le cose)

Adam Tooze, “›Knave Proof‹: The Macroeconomics of Stabilization in Europe and the U.S., 1919-1926” (L.I.S.A. Wissenschaftsportal der Gerda Henkel Stiftung)

David J. Wingrave, “‘I Promise You I’ve Never Tried to Cause Trouble’: A Conversation with Geoff Dyer” (Public Books)

And finally, “Les plus beaux clichés de Marc Riboud” (1923-2016; Le Figaro)


William D. Nordhaus, “Why Growth will Fail” (NYRB)

Gabriel Rockhill, “Why We Never Die” (NY Times)

Jason Stanley, “My Parents’ Mixed Messages on the Holocaust” (NY Times)

Anne Roiphe, “My Husband Quit Smoking, Then He Started Again: And that was fine with me: He was a 20th-century Jew” (Tablet)


Charles West, “How (Not) to Edit a Medieval Chronicle,” on a text I have never quite been able to figure out (Turbulent Priests)

Sadie Bergen, “Trans-ing History on the Web: The Digital Transgender Archive” (AHA Today)

Kristofor Husted, “Your Dilapidated Barn Is Super Trendy” (NPR)

Rachel Stone, “The Creation of Carolingian Homosociality” (Magistra et Mater)

Emily Swafford, “‘There Be Monsters’: Debunking Five Myths about Career Diversity for Historians” (Perspectives)


Catherine Fletcher, The Forgotten History of Florence’s Mixed-Race Medici (LitHub)

Dwight Garner, About That Ouija Board: How Langdon Hammer Summoned a Poet’s Spirit (NY Times)

Lauren McKeon, The Disappearing Act (Hazlitt)

What We’re Reading: August 22-26

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.


Robert F. Worth, “In the Attic of Early Islam” (NYR Daily)

Mary Beard, “Unholy Roman Emperor” (TLS)

John T. McGreevy, “Civil Religion for a Diverse Nation” (LARB)

Michael Kimmelman, “The Craving for Public Squares” (NYRB)

Aaron R. Hanlon, “Are PhD Students Irrational?” (LARB)


My research group in New York is hosting a public event on “The Victorians and the Moderns” on the morning of September 16. All are welcome!

Archive on 4: Dial-a-Poem (BBC Radio 4)

Jason Stanley, My Parents’ Mixed Messages on the Holocaust (NY Times)

Musab Younis, Racism, Pure and Simple (LRB Blog)

Corin Throsby, Byron burning (TLS)

Melissa Morris, Hogshead Revisited: a short-term fellowship report (Omohundro Institute blog)

Colm Tóibín, Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis — one of the greatest love letters ever written (Guardian)


Laur M. Jackson, “Out of Cite” (The Awl)

Emmett Rensin, “The Union Libel: On the Argument against Collective Bargaining in Higher Ed” (LARB)

The Skin and Bones of History” (Magistra et Mater)

Beck Lawton, “The Great Medieval Bake-Off” (The Medieval Manuscripts Blog)


José Manuel Prietos, Atomic Light (NYR Daily)

Musab Younis, Racism, Pure and Simple (LRB Blog)

(interview) Svetlana Alexievich and John Freeman, How the Writer Listens: Svetlana Alexievich (Literary Hub)


Frederic Jameson, “Raymond Chandler in LA” (Verso)

Adam Gopnik, “Learning from the Slaughter in Attica” (New Yorker)

Rajan Menon, “Realpolitik or Realism?” (New Rambler Review)

John T. McGreevy, “Civil Religion for a Diverse Nation” (LA Review of Books)

Dana Goodyear, “A Monument to Outlast Humanity” (New Yorker)

Eating for Others: The Nineteenth-Century Vegetarian Movement in Germany

by contributing editor Carolyn Taratko

“Vegetarianism is not only a question of the stomach but also one of society.” This may sound familiar to readers, as articles such as “Eat less meat to avoid dangerous global warming, scientists say” grace our newsfeeds and remind us of the environmental consequences of meat consumption. In fact, this quote comes not from a recent Guardian article but from Hermann Krecke, an advocate of a vegetarian lifestyle and member of the Eden Cooperative Fruit Settlement outside of Berlin around the turn of the twentieth century. Nineteenth-century vegetarianism represented the first popular wave of the movement, with an especially substantial following in Germany. Adherents share some key attributes with what we would recognize as vegetarianism today, but the two also differ in significant ways. While today vegetarianism is regarded as a dietary preference, historically it was associated with a certain worldview. I hesitate to trace a direct line of continuity between contemporary vegetarians and their nineteenth-century antecedents: the group has always been a heterogeneous one, perhaps best defined by a commonly held conviction that reform of society begins with the individual. These differences aside, it does appear that the larger social implications of dietary choices have circled back into contemporary consciousness.

Cover of Edener Mitteilungen, journal of Eden Settlement, 1931

Cover of Edener Mitteilungen, journal of Eden Settlement, 1931

Instead of an ethical imperative concerned with climate change, or even animal welfare, vegetarianism as practiced in nineteenth-century Germany took up the problem of social relations among humans. While an aversion towards the slaughter of animals was frequently cited as one justification for renouncing meat and adopting a vegetarian lifestyle, it was actually secondary to a group that saw itself as an association of modern practitioners of ascetism and remained skeptical of the increasingly visible manifestations of large industry and capitalism. These troubling developments catalyzed a turn inwards among members, who aimed to reform themselves without waiting for social norms or laws to change. At the Eden Settlement, founded in 1893 and perhaps the most well-known among the communities, the three doctrinal pillars, depicted in the form of three hardy trees on their crest, signified a sort of holy trinity of reform goals: reform of self, reform of land (Bodenreform), and reform of the economy. With that approach, German vegetarians hoped to alleviate some of the problems related to poverty.

Beginning in the late eighteenth century with the decline of the old corporate social structure, it became fashionable for middle-class individuals (primarily men) to organize in forms of associational life through the structure of the Verein. As Thomas Nipperdey has noted, the number of associations in Germany exploded between the late eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries. It was during this time that the first vegetarian association formed. While the earliest associations crystallized around general interests (for example, an interest in reading or patriotism), over time the trend skewed towards a greater degree of specialization. Amid the proliferation of associations for singing, education, and social reform, the Verein für naturgemäße Lebensweise (roughly “the association for a natural lifestyle”) was founded in the 1860s by a cohort of committed vegetarians. The association popularized a “natural lifestyle” which involved abstention from meat. In 1892, it was renamed as the Deutschen Vegetarier Bund, thus putting the avoidance of the meat at the center of their identity as a group.

Yet what was originally called a “vegetarian lifestyle” was not self-evidently a meat-free diet. Eva Barlösius has convincingly argued that membership in the Verein (and later, the Bund) was not about a specific diet, nor was it narrowly about abstention from eating meat. Instead of representing a core tenet of common belief, a meat-free diet was merely one strategy for communicating difference between members and non-members (Barlösius, 11). Members advocated abstention from alcohol and tobacco as well as meat; a “natural lifestyle” entailed a good deal more than a plant-based diet. Writings from early practitioners, including Gustav Struve and Theodor Hahn, focused on a life of introspection and simple, coarse clothing, as well as natural cures in addition to a plant-based diet. As Barlösius notes, avoiding meat was one practice that both distinguished and united members of a group who often had differing agendas.

Gustav Struve

Gustav Struve

On the other hand, such a strict focus on social distinction and the social structure of the association as Barlösius presents obscures the ideological and scientific bases of the movement. The development of nutritional science increasingly thrust meat into national debates about health and the “social problem.” In the first place, food safety came to the fore on the international stage. Uwe Spiekermann has highlighted the role of pork as a contentious issue in relations between the US and Germany from 1870-1900, as food inspection became professionalized in the wake of trichinosis outbreaks on both sides of the Atlantic. This was an oft-cited reason given by vegetarians, such as leading figure Struve in his 1869 publication Pflanzenkost, die Grundlage einer neuen Weltanschauung. While disease outbreaks presented one risk inherent in a meat-laden diet, another took the form of more pronounced economic disadvantage. The growth in meat consumption and production was regarded by some as a source of continuing pauperization and undernourishment. According to one calculation, annual per capita meat production in 1855 was 19.6 kg. By 1895 this figure had practically doubled; by 1914 it had reached 45 kg. Several prominent experts (Max Weber among them) regarded the shift in dietary preferences and resulting undernourishment, or nutritional “gap” as they called it, to be the origin of alcoholism and the abuse of spirits among the working class. All in all, the growing presence of meat at the table was one noticeable sign of the changing times.

Continued speculation about the influence of diet on the character of man flourished among the vegetarians. In echoes of the materialist debates of midcentury, when Feuerbach published his now famous dictum “Der Mensch ist was er isst” (Man is what he eats) in a review of Jacob Moleschott’s work, vegetarians argued that meat consumption predisposed humans to a fiery temperament, not least because the act of killing was part and parcel of meat production. While the vulgar materialism of Moleschott (which held that thought and emotion had a material basis that could be found quite literally in food) had been rejected by orthodox scientists, variations of it lived on. The association of meat with an excess of energy, both violent and sexual, appears frequently in contemporary journals. Some, such as Struve, cited the improved temperament of vegetarians and drew the conclusion that war would become impossible among nations of plant-eaters. It became increasingly difficult to socialize in such spheres without sharing the opinion that meat was a moral and social ill in modern Germany.

Today, since awareness of the carbon emissions of livestock rearing has become mainstream, we have a new, climactic justification for vegetarianism. This line of reasoning holds that we in the west who are fortunate to have such a wide selection in our diets should choose wisely. According to the climate vegetarians, choosing wisely is not only a matter of personal health, but also involves a calculus for the welfare of the planet and for others in less advantaged regions, especially the global South, where climate change has and will strike with particular vengeance. The climactic justification for a vegetarian diet in some ways resembles that of the turn–of-the-century vegetarians in Germany, who saw their choices in nourishment not only as an individual dietary choice, but an ethical commitment to mankind.

What We’re Reading: August 15-19


Jo Livingstone and David Wolf, Can the Academic Write? (Awl)

Alec Macgillis and Propublica, The Despair of Poor White Americans (Atlantic)

Gurminder K. Bhambra, Brexit, Class, and British ‘National’ Identity (Discover Society)

Madeleine Schwartz, Dressing for the King (NYRB)

Christopher de Bellaigue, Eton and the Making of a Modern Elite (Economist)

James Warner, Lacanian Jokes of the Day (McSweeney’s)


Emma Smith, Beating the Bounds (TLS)

Sam Anderson, David’s Ankles: How Imperfections Could Bring Down the World’s Most Perfect Statue (NYT Magazine)

Julia Wang, The Burden of Being Asian American on Campus (Atlantic)

Mark Ford, I gotta use words (LRB)


Amanda Arnold, Why the Futurist Cookbook Was the First Lifestyle Blog (Literary Hub)

Victoria Fiore, My Beautiful, Deadly City (NYT)

Ingrid Rowland, The Mystery of Bosch (NYRB)


Adolph Reed, Bernie Sanders and the New Class Politics (Jacobin)

His Hsu, Song of the Summer: Feminine by Julius Eastman (New Yorker)

Ingrid D Rowland, The Mystery of Hieronymus Bosch (NYRB)

Elizabeth Drew, American Democracy Betrayed (NYRB)


Richard Bernstein, Pragmatic Encounters (Notre Dame Review of Books)

Brian Barth, Sports Stadiums and Other Cows (Nautilus)

Daniel Little, Liberalism and Hate Based Extremism (Understanding Society)

Phillip Cole, On the Borders of Solidarity (Eurozine)

William Voegeli, The Era of Big Ideas is Over (Claremont)

Giving Up Stuff, Then and Now

by contributing editor Jake Purcell

Several people have said to me that I would have made a good medieval monk. I never asked why: mostly out of self-preservation, but also because I’m fairly confident that they are wrong.

I like my things way too much. Examples include a bowl that a neighbor used to give out Halloween candy, a table I got from a friendly stranger on Craigslist, the several pieces of furniture that I have spent many days of my life building from rough planks of construction-grade pine.

I’m not a hoarder or a social climber or even that much of a consumer. Instead, that stuff represents social connections, remembrance, and investment of labor. According to a certain set of modern sensibilities, these attachments could be considered benign. There are at least two groups of who would disagree: hardcore minimalists and certain early medieval nuns.

I’m wary of suggesting that tech-bubble beneficiary Graham Hill and the Merovingian Queen Radegund, to take an example of each, have all that much in common. But this is an instance in which the medieval past, however different, can help to illuminate the present. Both individuals organized their lives around the ideal of giving up property: minimalism in the parlance of the former, poverty (though not as we would understand it today) in that of the latter. In both instances, the renunciation of property also sits uneasily alongside their elite status, which I do not think is a coincidence. The comparison illuminates several features of the minimalist movement, including its formal similarities to early Christian ascesis and the incessant revival in the Middle Ages of “apostolic poverty.”



Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Venantius Fortunatus Reading His Poems to Radegund offers a dreamy depiction of life at the Convent of the Holy Cross. Though with Radegund’s connections to the Byzantine court, Venantius’s Italian training and bona fides, and perhaps an architectural plan borrowed from Jerusalem, it might be right to think of the convent as an international cultural hub.

Poverty—in the sense of the renouncing of legal ownership of money and moveable and immoveable goods, and not in the sense of lacking the resources to meet basic needs of survival—ebbed and flowed as an ideal throughout Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. The version which which I’m most familiar relates to the institutionalization of female monasticism in the cloister under an abbess and defined by a set of rules. In Gaul, bishops articulated this vision of monasticism in a haphazard and localized fashion through diverse church councils and monastic rules; it was enacted in practice through widespread royal and noble endowments of monasteries according to different religious preferences and through the administration of bishops who could be more or less interested in the extent to which nuns held to a cenobitic (communal, as opposed to hermetic) ideal.


One well-known example is the Convent of the Holy Cross at Poitiers, founded in the mid-sixth century by Radegund, a Merovingian queen. Radegund’s convent adopted the Regula ad virgines of Bishop Caesarius of Arles, written and revised throughout the early sixth century for a convent that he founded and that his sister headed. Caesarius wanted, above all, for the nuns and convent to be as removed as possible from the world around them. But independence was a difficult ideal to manufacture in practice, largely because of property. Individual nuns had to give up their own property in an effort to divest themselves of markers of difference from the other sisters and of all sorts of bonds of obligation with people outside the convent. Unfortunately, giving away property generated yet more obligations, and any given nun could also inherit property at any future date. All these claims also had to be given up. Once inside the convent, the nuns could not even have their own locked chest or cupboard; almost everything was shared. For Caesarius and those who followed his rule, any reveling in the material should be avoided. But materiality that anchors you in a particular social context is the most pernicious inhibitor of transcendence.

Because the vow of poverty was so important to theoretically pure visions of cloister, one nun could accuse another of—horribile dictu—owning something. In 589, some forty nuns fled the convent. According to the event’s chronicler, Gregory of Tours, the errant monastics denounced their miserable living conditions and the impious behavior of their abbess, Leubovera. Chrodieldis and Basina, the leaders of the revolt and members of the Merovingian royal family, struggled to get secular or religious authorities to address their legal complaints, so they gathered a group of armed men, occupied the nunnery estates, and eventually kidnapped the abbess.

An unbelievably protracted jurisdictional conflict ensued, but Chrodieldis finally got her day in court. There, her effort to show that the abbess had ruled unjustly centered almost entirely around various failures to adequately avoid owning things. Leubovera had misused monastery funds, she owned her own property, she had exchanged goods and done so in secret, and she had used silks and precious metals for purposes other than decorating the oratory. These charges, and others, all violated specific provisions of Caesarius’ Regula.

There is something particularly galling about this series of accusations. Chrodieldis was a princess; Leubovera is usually assumed not to have been especially high-born. A princess claimed that someone of lesser status failed to embody poverty well enough. And she did so in order to reorder, according to the hierarchy of secular society, a space where status was not supposed to matter, where it was even supposed to be a hindrance to holiness. It is difficult to avoid the impression that what matters here is knowing the rules of the game, rather than actual renunciation. At least one savvy nun could conceive of an accusation of ownership as a legal strategy that was, of course, ultimately a strategy for righting the social order. (Her argument failed, but only because she could not prove the facts of her case.)

The ability of elites to co-opt supposedly equalizing spaces or values and remake them in their own image is one of the disturbingly pernicious aspects of the renunciation of poverty. The most prolific minimalists today, those who receive New York Times and New York Magazine profiles, are male millionaires who have decided to downsize to seek happiness. Encouraging others to live in small spaces and make do with a limited amount of stuff does wonders for their personal brands. The wealthy who live a restrained lifestyle receive speaking fees, advertising revenue from traffic to their websites, and book deals as a result; those who inhabit small apartments or eschew accumulation out of need do not.

The comparison between early medieval monasticism and the current minimalist movement is not quite as strained as it looks, in particular because minimalism has all of the trappings of early Christianity. There is always a conversion narrative. It offers happiness, financial well-being, and relief from many ills of contemporary life, like feeling out of control. Calling yourself a minimalist denotes not just an aesthetic, but an enlightened cosmology that separates practitioners from others: there is more to life than the increasing accumulation of stuff. (The reader is usually allowed to define for her- or himself what the “more” is.) Like those of any good religion, the principles of minimalism are easily modulated according to class and gender. The magazine profiles of male Silicon Valley entrepreneur-minimalists are one corner of a vast landscape that also includes wildly popular “simple living” blogs primarily by and for young women with children, as well as more masculine-skewing personal finance communities centered around frugality and Financial Independence/Retire Early. “Minimalism Is for Everyone; Be More with Less.”

Minimalism’s similarity of form to early Christianity highlights some uncomfortable differences as well. Medieval monastics renounced property to seek perfection of self and community, but most minimalists comment only on the relationship between self and stuff. Minimalism offers no critique of systems that produce stuff, of how economies are organized, or of the social or environmental impact of consumption. These blinders lead to the very strange state of affairs that someone who owns several electronic devices, flies long distances on a weekly or monthly basis, and stays primarily in short-term domiciles is understood to consume less than someone with an apartment and a slightly larger wardrobe, which is complete nonsense by any normal metric of sustainability or impact. Minimalism claims much of its status because it offers special, countercultural insight. In comparison with early medieval monasticism, which attempted to build from the ground up systems that separated entire communities from the demands of the material world, minimalism’s exhortation to own less to feel better appears neither particularly well-thought nor all that radical.

What We’re Reading: August 8-12

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.


Historians of Britain, British Empire, and related fields might want to check out the program and details for this year’s North American Conference on British Studies, to be held in Washington, DC in November.

Eleanor Parker, ‘On hærfeste ham gelædeð’: Anglo-Saxon Harvests (A Clerk of Oxford)

L.D. Burnett, Holding On to What Makes Us Human (Chronicle)

Ella Haselswerdt, Re-Queering Sappho (Eidolon)

Interview with a Bookstore: Heffers in Cambridge, celebrating 140 years of bookselling (Guardian)

The Whale Menopause (BBC Radio 4)

Cecilia Kang, How to Give Rural America Broadband? Look to the Early 1900s (NY Times)


Jane Eagan “An Unexpected Discovery: Early Modern Recycling” (Merton College Library Conservation Blog)

Caroline Duroselle-Melish “Don Quixote on an Early Paper Cover” (The Collation)

Don Skemer, “Commonplace Books and Uncommon Readers” (Princeton)

Andrew McGill “Can Twitter Fit Inside the Library of Congress?” (The Atlantic)

Michael Sorkin, “The Donal Trump Blueprint” (The Nation)

Barack Obama, “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” (Glamour)

Poems of Li Po & Tu Fu, Translated by Arthur Cooper (Penguin Random House, 1973) – I picked this up on Tuesday night at a sidewalk stall on 1st Avenue at 12th Street run by The Brother in Elysium. If you’re in the East Village, he’s often there.


Geoffrey O’Brien, The Genius of James Brown (NYRB)

A Brief History of the Olympic Games (The Economist)

David Cole, The Drone Presidency (NYRB)

Jeremy Butman, Against Sustainability (The Stone, New York Times)


Timothy Beck Werth, The First Trans Woman in Western Fiction (The Awl)

Robert Macfarlane, The Secrets of the Wood Wide Web (New Yorker)


Matthew Lister, Alien Ideas: The Political Philosophy of Immigration (The New Rambler Review)

Nathaniel Rich, When Parks were Radical (The Atlantic)

Chris Drudge, Distraction can make you a faster cyclist (Nautilus)

Nicole Caruto, Twelve Key Findings in Deliberative Democracy Research (Daedalus)

John McWorter, The Rag Man – Scott Joplin (American Prospect)


Mary Beard, What Does the Latin Actually Say (A Don’s Life)

Guy Halsall, Gender in the Merovingian World (Historian on the Edge)

Roman Gold Curse Tablets Found in Serbia (The History Blog)

Announcing 2015 Forkosch Book Prize Winner

greifThe editors at the Journal of the History of Ideas are pleased to announce that the winner of the 2015 Morris D. Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history is Mark Greif, for his The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973 (Princeton University Press).

Statement from the judging committee: In The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973, Mark Greif is in pursuit of the mid-century Americans who pursued the idea of human nature, despite their dark fear that such a thing might not exist. If some philosophies of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment had insisted that there was something intrinsically dignified in mankind, confidence in that belief took a beating during the racism, genocide, and global war that defined all public life from the 1930s onward. Greif demonstrates that the perceived “crisis of man” represented both concern that universal human nature (and human rights) might not exist and anxiety that such rights might not be extended beyond the white men who had traditionally represented mankind, to the exclusion of others. As a problem in moral philosophy, the crisis of man was profound—so much so that it flowed abundantly into American literature. Rather than accept the problem, Greif endorses a re-enlightenment to revive conviction that humans have basic, intrinsic value. This book will be at the heart of many arguments over twentieth-century thought.