Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Broadly Speaking: An Interview with Charlotta Forss

By Cynthia Houng

Charlotta Forss is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Stockholm University’s Historiska Institutionen. Forss’s article, “Mapping Atlantis: Olof Rudbeck and the Use of Maps in Early Modern Scholarship,” published in the April 2023 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, explores the role of maps in Rudbeck’s practices of knowledge making and scholarship.

Contributing editor Cynthia Houng interviewed Forss about how Rudbeck came to possess the expertise necessary to make and use maps, her current research on the history of saunas in Sweden, and her forthcoming book, Mapping the Idea of North.

Cynthia Houng: Let’s start with an easy question. Tell us about the beginnings of this project—how did you become interested in writing on Olof Rudbeck and his use of maps?

Charlotta Forss: I stumbled upon Rudbeck’s copy of Taflor, his compendium of maps and prints, at the Royal Library in Stockholm as I was working on another project. Rudbeck has made extensive emendations and commentary all over the maps, chronological tables, city plans, and prints of antiquities in Taflor. Ever since leafing through his book, which is enigmatic in its own right even without Rudbeck’s additions, I have been puzzling over early modern note taking on maps, looking for an opportunity to delve deeper into the ways Rudbeck’s work with maps shaped his research.

CH: Did Rudbeck continue working on medicine and anatomy after he began work on the Atlantica project in the 1670s? Do you see any traces of influence or cross pollination between Rudbeck’s interest in medicine and anatomy and his interest in history and geography?

CF: Rudbeck’s background in medicine can be seen through his language use and the way in which he conceptualized world geography as akin to anatomy. A striking example of this is the famous frontispiece of the Atlantica (reproduced in my article) where Rudbeck has depicted himself performing a sort of vivisection on the earth, peeling back the surface of the northern hemisphere to examine the historical geography that would prove to him that Sweden was the sunken continent Atlantis.

Though Rudbeck did not continue to pursue active medical research once the Atlantica began to take up more and more of his time, he did continue to hold a chair as professor of medicine at Uppsala University until 1691 (when he ceded the post to his son, Olof Rudbeck the Younger). He also had several side projects that related to medicine. For example, he began planting the first botanical garden in Sweden in 1655. Throughout his career, he taught students “in the garden” about the properties, medical and otherwise, of his large collection of plants.

CH: It is fascinating to see how Rudbeck’s interest in geography and in spatial ways of thinking influenced other aspects of his work. Botanical gardens are such an interesting way to spatialize botany and unfold botanical knowledge in space. Tangentially: North American readers interested in botany will recognize the Rudbeck name. Many familiar North American wildflowers–such as coneflowers and black-eyed Susans–belong to the genus Rudbeckia. Linnaeus chose this name to honor the Rudbecks for their contributions to botany.

CF: I agree, the botanical project is absolutely fascinating in its own right. This is also one among many instances where Rudbeck and his ideas figure in the background of later scientific developments. Linneaus was a student of Olof Rudbeck the Younger in Uppsala, who himself continued to develop the ideas first proposed in the Atlantica. It is a tantalizing example of scholarly generations.

CH: Your paper is largely concerned with how scholars used maps to construct knowledge, but I’d like to detour and ask, how did Rudbeck come to possess his expertise regarding maps and mapmaking? How did Rudbeck learn to draw? How did he acquire the skills to make maps? How did he develop his skills as a draftsman and cartographer?

CF: This is a question I have been thinking about quite a lot. There is plenty that we do not know about Rudbeck’s early life and education, but it is still possible to draw some conclusions both about Rudbeck’s experiences, and more generally about “geography” education in seventeenth-century Sweden, before the formulation of modern scientific disciplines. The latter is also a topic I addressed in my doctoral thesis, “The Old, the New and the Unknown: The Continents and the Making of Geographical Knowledge in Seventeenth-Century Sweden.”

To begin with, it is likely that Rudbeck got some of his interest for inventive geographical presentation already at home. His father Johannes Rudbeckius was a professor of mathematics in Uppsala and later bishop in Västerås, in central Sweden, where he also founded the first gymnasium in the country. Johannes Rudbeckius made two world maps and several chorographic maps, all of which are oriented with south at the top of the map. This was a time period when geographic conventions, that we often take for granted, were not yet fully established; yet, Rudbeckius (or perhaps his publisher) still felt the need to comment on the design of one of the world maps that “One should not be surprised that this map is placed [in a way] that differs from common practice, since it is structured so as to show the situation of the world and specific places from the vantage point of us, the people in the North.” I would like to think that it was formative for Rudbeck to have a father who was both knowledgeable in mapmaking, keen to emphasize a northern worldview, and open to the idea that geographical presentations could vary in creative ways.

On a more general level, students were taught the basic elements of world geography in school as well as at university. This teaching happened both through lectures, and through instruction around maps and globes. Some of this education was tied to history and politics, where students were supposed to use geographical and chronological knowledge as “the two eyes of history,” helping them elucidate what had happened and where. Related to this, much of the education on geographical knowledge was tied to religious instruction. For example, knowing the ancient place names of modern localities could aid students in understanding events in the Bible. Finally, geography was also taught as part of mathematics. This included both descriptive geography and instruction about how to read and make maps. Outside of the university, and from the 1620s onwards, education in practical surveying techniques was organized through the newly instated Land Survey Office. The early modern Swedish state invested a good deal of manpower and resources into the mapping of the realm.

Rudbeck was a student at Uppsala University, and he also spent time in Leiden as part of his educational training and research. His biographer Gunnar Eriksson has noted that the time in Leiden was particularly important for Rudbeck’s later work on technical instruments (see The Atlantic Vision: Olaus Rudbeck and Baroque Science (Canton, MA: Science History Publications, 1994). Perhaps Rudbeck also received instruction in mapmaking in Leiden? Regardless, he was considered to be a proficient mapmaker back home, receiving commissions from friends and acquaintances to make various maps.

CH: In your article, you discuss Rudbeck’s processes of annotating and commenting on both maps made by others and maps that he made himself. You also note that Rudbeck would sometimes redraw maps made by others, like “the Dutch map of the Argonauts’ travels” that he included in his Taflor (Uppsala, 1679). What do we know about Rudbeck’s personal library? Did he annotate all of the maps in his personal library, or only select maps? Did he annotate his books, as well? Did Rudbeck also keep commonplace books? Do similar notes show up in both places?

CF: Unfortunately, Rudbeck’s library is not preserved in its entirety. However, his distinctive handwriting appears in the margins of numerous books at Uppsala University Library. It seems that these were library copies that Rudbeck borrowed and “amended.” He also made an extensive commonplace book that is preserved at the Uppsala University Library, in addition to the folder of his maps and the copy of Taflor kept at the Royal Library in Stockholm.

This has allowed me to study Rudbeck’s note-taking techniques in some detail, and to compare how he used different kinds of media in his work. His central ideas do appear across the material, but the notations on his maps relate in particular to topics such as travel, land usage, and placenames. In my article, I argue that the format of the map tied this information to Sweden’s geography in important ways, that the alphabetically and topically organized commonplace book did not.

CH: Were Rudbeck’s practices of annotating and “revising” maps (by drawing new features or changing the location of features already extant on the map) commonly used by other early modern scholars interested in historical research?

CF: There is evidence that other early modern scholars annotated maps, and maps were definitely used in creative ways to present credible arguments, both in Sweden and elsewhere. In fact, it is clear that Rudbeck expected his audience to be familiar with this kind of scholarly practice, since he used maps (his own and those made by others) to build his argument throughout the Atlantica. Still, there is also a lot we do not yet know about the use of maps (in contrast to the production of maps) in early modern scholarship!

CH: Are other contemporary historians (or geographers, etc.) studying the use of maps by early modern scholars?

CF: There is a growing interest in the use of maps in scholarship, as exemplified in Phillip Koyoumjian’s article “Ownership and Use of Maps in England, 1660–1760.” Questions relating to map use more generally in society also crop up in numerous articles in volume 4 of The History of Cartography (Cartography in the European Enlightenment), edited by Matthew Edney and Mary Pedley.

CH: You write about the intimate connection between ideologies of statehood and empire and Rudbeck’s scholarship and writing, noting that Rudbeck’s “research agenda for the Atlantica” was “closely associated with the interests of the Swedish Empire.” How did Rudbeck first gain favor with Charles XI and other members of elite Swedish society? Did Rudbeck have any qualms regarding the conjunction between his Atlantica project and the Swedish imperial project of expansion and colonization? Was Rudbeck himself a proponent of the Swedish imperial project?  

CF: Rudbeck got the attention of the royal family already in his twenties when he exhibited his discoveries of the lymphatic system to Queen Kristina. Later on, he found a powerful patron and promoter in the nobleman, statesman, and chancellor of Uppsala University, Magnus Gabriel De La Gardie, who seems to have been instrumental in securing funding and favor for the Atlantica.

If one thing is certain, it is that Rudbeck did not have a humble personality prone to self-criticism. That is to say, I do not think he had any qualms about aligning his research with imperial ambition. However, he was well aware that his research was controversial. In addition, his style of writing is at times rather humorous. I have been pondering whether Rudbeck believed everything he argued for. This is a difficult question to answer without getting entangled in anachronistic reasoning though. I think historians of scholarship do best in taking what historical subjects said they believed at face value, not trying to second guess or attribute ideas to them that they did not, or even could not, have had. Still, I am not the first to wonder at Rudbeck’s style of expression. It is perhaps best exemplified in the words inscribed on his tombstone: “Imortalem Atlantica, mortalem hic cippus testatur,” which loosely translates to “The Atlantica testifies to his immortality, this stone to his mortality.” That is not the monument of a humble person.

CH: In a recent interview, you reveal that your current research deals with the topic of the sauna in early modern Scandinavia. Can you tell us more about this work? What sparked your interest in the sauna?

CF: Thank you for asking about this, early modern bathing is a topic that fascinates me. I have an ongoing research project on health and morality in the early modern Swedish sauna, or bathhouse, funded by the Swedish Research Council. For this project, I combine perspectives from the history of medicine, the history of the body, and social history to examine the sauna as a place of health and a place of socializing in early modern Swedish society. Evidence from medical advice books, travel accounts, journals, and court protocols show that people visited the sauna when they felt unwell, but also that this created moral tension around undress and secrecy.

CH: I am so ignorant about the history of the sauna, I just have to ask you some basic questions: How was the sauna invented? When did saunas become popular in Sweden?

CF: The practice of taking sweat baths has a very long tradition in northern Europe, with slightly different trajectories in the Nordic countries, Russia, Northern Germany, and Ireland. The oldest archaeological remains are several thousands of years old (or so archeologists tell me). Saunas were popular in Sweden (including Finland) in the medieval period, and they continued to remain popular throughout the eighteenth century. Public sweat baths in France and Germany, in contrast, seems to have closed earlier due to a combination of concerns surrounding both health and morality.

The use of newly digitized court records has been instrumental for my research. The fact that I can search large amounts of texts to find crimes committed in the sauna (and there are plenty) has been absolutely fascinating. For those interested to learn more, keep an eye out for my chapter in the forthcoming volume: Mari Eyice and Charlotta Forss eds., Health and Society in Early Modern Sweden (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, forthcoming 2023).

CH: Are you working on any other projects that you would like to share with our readers?

CF: Apart from my forthcoming volume on health in early modern Sweden, I have handed in another manuscript to the publisher only this last month. It is a monograph, entitled Mapping the Idea of North (Oxford: Bodleian Library Publishing, forthcoming 2024) in which maps take center stage, and where Rudbeck makes a cameo, too. In the book, I explore how the idea of north has been portrayed in different historical and cultural contexts from antiquity to the early twentieth century, highlighting themes such as the importance of indigenous knowledge, exotification, and the difficulty of portraying ice on maps. There is also a chapter on the significance of polar bears, whales, and codfish on maps of the north, and I spend plenty of time on the early modern scholars who believed that the North Pole consisted of a whirlpool surrounded by rivers. Incidentally, this last was an idea that Rudbeck, in a rare role as the voice of reason, firmly rejected as based solely on fictitious conjecture.

CH: The North Pole as a whirlpool!! Can you tell us a little bit more about this? Like, how did this concept come into being?  

CF: The idea that there was a whirlpool at the North Pole was central to a fourteenth-century travel narrative entitled Inventio Fortunata that several influential early modern map and globe makers consulted, among the Gerhard Mercator, John Dee, and Martin Behaim. The anonymous traveler behind the narrative claimed to have witnessed a massive whirlpool that drew water into the earth, surrounded by four landmasses with rivers between them. In the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher’s rendition, this led to the conclusion that the water would be expelled again from the earth’s interior at the South Pole. Episodes like these made Mapping the Idea of North a fun book to write, and it gave me plenty of food for thought for reasoning about early modern imaginaries of the environment!

CH: Finally, what are you reading now? Give us three things—books, movies, music, etc.—that excite you right now.

CF: I have just finished reading a lovely novel by the Norwegian author Lars Mytting, called The Bell in the Lake. It is set in north Norway during the last decades of the nineteenth century and details the fate of a medieval Norwegian wooden stave church—an unusual move to say the least—as a means to tell a tale of the coming of modernity, love, friendship, and the relationship of an isolated community to the natural (and perhaps supernatural) world. It made me want to take a trip to rural Norway, though perhaps not during the winter.

It is always risky recommending things you have not finished yet, but I would still like to put in a plug for Babylon Berlin, a TV series set in Weimar Germany. An intriguing story line, good acting, great fashion, and fun interior design, paired with that eerie sense of foreboding that historical hindsight can give, makes this well worth a watch.

One last recent reading that has stayed with me is Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate (London: Scribner, 2018). It is a companion piece to Campbell’s collection of poems entitled Disko Bay (London: Enitharmon Press, 2016), and it details her travels through the Arctic in a low key, reflective way. There are plenty of travel books about the northernmost reaches of our globe, but this one manages both to evoke a sense of wonder, and to question the basis for that wonder.

CH: These are fantastic suggestions. I am excited to work my way through all of your recommendations. I think it will be refreshing—and delightful—to read about the Arctic North while living through a hot and humid New York summer.

Thank you, Charlotta, for your time today.

Cynthia Houng is a writer and editor based in New York City, and a doctoral candidate at Princeton University. Her dissertation project, tentatively titled The Art of Judgment and the Judgment of Art, investigates the development of rubrics of aesthetic and economic judgment and valuation in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe. When she is not struggling to decipher mercantesca script, she writes about contemporary art and other aesthetic things. Follow her on Instagram: @cynthiahoung

Featured image: Olof Rudbeck surrounded by ancient authorities, dissecting geography to find a hidden history beneath. Olof Rudbeck, Et Nos Homines in Olof Rudbeck, Taflor (Uppsala, 1679).

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Broadly Speaking: An Interview with Gianamar Giovannetti-Singh

By Alexander Collin

Gianamar Giovannetti-Singh is a Freer Prize Fellow of the Royal Institution, incoming Lumley Junior Research Fellow in History at Magdalene College, Cambridge and a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow (2023–26). He completed his PhD in 2023 with a dissertation on how the Manchu conquest of China in 1644 transformed the sciences across Europe. The dissertation reorients common accounts of the history of science by showing that several scientific debates typically deemed “European” originated in China. His postdoctoral project, “Southern Africa and the Early Modern Globalization of Knowledge,” aims to examine how early modern Europeans drew on their knowledge of East Asia to make sense of the unfamiliar at the Cape of Good Hope.

He spoke with Alexander Collin about his recent JHI article, “Astronomical Chronology, the Jesuit China Mission, and Enlightenment History” (volume 84, issue 3).  

Alexander Collin: In keeping with the spirit of your article, which is so much about the agency of Chinese scholars and political actors, let’s start with the astronomy itself. What is it that is distinctive about the Chinese astral sciences, either conceptually or technically, that makes them so attractive and interesting in this period?

Gianamar Giovannetti-Singh: First of all, I should stress that I’m not primarily a historian of Chinese science or a Sinologist, but more a global historian of “European” sciences, so others will have more informed views on this subject. For me, the most interesting thing about the Chinese astral sciences is their inseparability from matters of political power. Chinese astral sciences tended to be divided into two branches: One, tianwen—roughly “heavenly writing”—had some similarity to judicial astrology in Europe and involved interpreting signs in the skies and determining their effects on the earthly and human realms. The other, lifa, had to do with calendrical calculations. What connected these two sciences was their relation to politics. Practitioners of lifa would try to predict the time of astronomical events in the night sky, and based on how accurately they predicted them, experts of tianwen would then construct a narrative around that, linking it to the legitimacy of particular imperial political actions.

AC: And structurally speaking, in terms of the personnel, you have people doing the astronomical, technical prediction side of this and people on the political side of this; are they the same people, or are they distinct intellectual and professional groups? How does this work institutionally?

GGS: So, each dynasty from the late Zhou (1046–256 BCE) in the third century BCE onwards has an astronomical bureau, called the Qintianjian in Chinese, or the “Tribunal of Mathematics” by Jesuits, which is staffed by civil servant astronomers responsible for the observations and for designing the imperial calendar every year.

Within the astronomical bureau, though, there were different sections. So, there was a Muslim section, established during the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), a Han Chinese section that followed the “Grand Concordance” system of calculation, and a Christian section, which began with the Jesuits in 1644. It was a fraught environment where each group was competing to make the most accurate predictions. And these predictions would then be used by politically inclined officials, not necessarily by the people who made the observations themselves.

AC: When the Jesuits first establish their missions in China, are they coming with a preexisting knowledge of or interest in Chinese astral sciences? Or is this something they develop as they’re there on the ground?

GGS: It is something that’s largely developed on the ground in China. The Jesuit mission in China began in the 1580s. Two Italian missionaries, Matteo Ricci and Michele Ruggieri, were the first Jesuit missionaries to enter China, although the Jesuits had been interested in East Asia since the very start of the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits assumed that China had a strong cultural sway on religion elsewhere in East Asia, especially in Japan. They thought that if China converts to Christianity, then all of East Asia will follow.

Ricci and Ruggieri first entered the Ming Empire (1368–1644) in the 1580s. Initially they would dress as Buddhist monks, shave their heads, and try to pass as Indians. Then, in the 1590s, there was a shift, a rejection of Buddhist dress in favor of Confucian scholar-official dress. Ricci realized quickly imperial China was a polity, at least rhetorically, governed by heaven: The emperor was tianzi,the son of heaven, the empire was tianxia, all under heaven, and the emperor ruled legitimately because he hadtianming, the mandate of heaven. So, when he writes back to Rome in 1605, he says, send me an astrologer.

AC: In the article, you talk about Martino Martini acting as a representative of the Qing dynasty towards Europe. Is that something he is coordinating with officials and political actors in China with regard to how they want him to represent them?

GGS: I think in terms of Martini’s representation of the Qing (1644–1912), he’s very conscious that they’ve won the war. He travels up to Beijing once the Qing have established the empire and have taken Beijing, whereas his rival, the Polish Jesuit Michał Boym, isn’t in that same geographical context. Having stayed in southern China, where the remnants of the Ming imperial family fled, Boym knows the Ming and travels back to Europe and unsuccessfully tries to represent them. Martini wants to return to China to continue his missionary work, and he knows that to survive he’s got to back the Qing.

Martini was incredibly good at locating powerful people and making himself their ally. There’s a brilliant article by Mario Cams in Renaissance Quarterly from 2020 that looks at what he calls a double displacement: On the one hand, Martini moves from a Portuguese Padroado Catholic network to a Dutch one on the European side; and then in China he moves from the Ming to the Qing. He gets lucky both times.

On his first return journey from China to Europe, after setting off on a Portuguese ship, he gets captured by the Dutch and taken and imprisoned in Batavia. Rather than saying, no, I’m Catholic, I won’t say anything, he gives the VOC a copy of his atlas of China and even tells them there’s a new dynasty that is much more willing to do trade with them than the Ming were.

To reward him, the VOC grants him free travel back to Europe. When he stops at the Cape Colony, just set up in 1652 by Jan van Riebeeck, he is hosted by van Riebeeck, and he tells him where the Portuguese get their gold and where they enslave people in Mozambique. So he’s always selling himself, practical knowledge, and those close to him, when he realizes it’s necessary for his survival.

AC: Do you have a theory of where that characteristic comes from, that skill that Martini has for finding allies and fairly ruthlessly exploiting what he needs to get close to people? Where does he learn that?

GGS: He’s a born go-between. He’s born in the city of Trento in what today is Italy, but at the time it was the southernmost part of the Holy Roman Empire. He grew up with Italian-speaking parents, but the city was trilingual: people spoke German, Italian, and Ladin. And when other Jesuits ask him in Goa whether, he’s Italian or German, he always says, neither, I’m from Trento. He refuses to be stuck with one identity, and I think that’s strongly reflected in his ability to play both sides.

AC: The second part of your article deals with the reception of Martini’s work in the eighteenth century. As a kind of bridge here, could you fill in what is happening with his work in between the period when he’s producing it and then this later period where it’s being picked up by Voltaire and Fréret and all these French thinkers? What’s the transition phase there?

GGS: So, the background context in both China and Europe is the Chinese Rites Controversy, which I wrote about in Modern Intellectual History a couple of years ago. It’s a vicious fight between different Catholic orders, but also within the Jesuit order to some extent, about whether Chinese converts to Christianity should be able to 1) continue to worship their ancestors and Confucius and carry out rites in honor of Confucius and their ancestors and 2) whether they should be allowed to use Chinese words to refer to the Christian God: the words tian, which means heaven, and Shangdi, which is like Supreme Emperor.

The Jesuits, generally, were in favor of allowing Chinese converts to maintain these practices. Matteo Ricci had said: it’s okay, we’re applying a policy of accommodation that will allow us to have a foothold in China. One of the accommodationist arguments was that these rites were practices that long predated Chinese religion’s degeneration into paganism. This was a kind of natural theology, a natural Christian theology.

Other Catholic orders completely rejected this position, and the Holy See sent a legatus a latere, Charles-Thomas Maillard de Tournon,as an investigator to Beijing in 1705–6, and he ultimately ruled against the Chinese Rites. This controversy made many things Chinese appear rather risky in Catholic Europe. There were still efforts to excavate the deep Chinese past in Europe, but the papacy’s rulings against this made Chinese history a more controversial topic.

So, on the one hand, Catholic Europe is wary of things Chinese because of the rites controversy. On the other hand, Protestant Europe is wary too, because people consider Chinese history to be too closely linked to the Jesuits. There is a view that that if one accepts Chinese astronomy and Chinese history, one ends up accepting Chinese political despotism as well. There are substantial debates about despotism as a form of politics. So that sets the scene for this later reappropriation of Martini and other Jesuit writings by Voltaire and Fréret.

AC: In the background of many of the French texts, is a response to Newton. Could you expand on Newton’s contribution a little. What does Newton actually know about the Chinese astral sciences? To what extent is he responding on a scientific and scholarly level and to what extent is it just politicization and prejudice and intra-European religious quarrelling?

GGS: So, Newton owns a copy of Philippe Couplet’s book on Confucius and its appended Tabula chronologica, which is basically Martini’s chronology with a few tweaks. Newton has read this book; it’s a very dogeared copy that he’s clearly looked at a lot. But he rejects it totally and refuses to engage with the Chinese historical or astronomical literature. He writes that ancient Chinese astronomical records are but “a fable invented to make that Monarchy look ancient.”

Like most Europeans, Newton fully buys into the story of the book burning in 213 BCE. It’s a story that one of the emperors of the Qin dynasty, Qin Shi Huang, had burned all the books, bar those on medicine, divination, forestry, and agriculture. So Newton says, if that’s the case, there’s no way that you can recover anything about older Chinese histories. And Newton is of course also interested in biblical chronology, so he takes the four kingdoms from the book of Daniel to be the four kingdoms that were there in the earliest antiquity, and China is not there.

He tries to explain China away. He thinks that the dynasties weren’t in sequence, but they existed in parallel. And he makes the same argument that you find in John Marsham’s work about Egypt; Marsham also says the pharaohs’ dynasties don’t actually stretch that far back because they actually existed in parallel. There’s a project I’m working on at the moment, on an English Anglican astronomer and orientalist called George Costard.   

Costard was a hardcore Newtonian and he defended Newton even for his most outlandish claims, launching a vicious polemic against Antoine Gaubil, a French Jesuit in Beijing, about how old Chinese chronology actually is. Costard’s argument is intensely political. He says, if Chinese astronomy is the purview of the state, and if astronomy is used to back up an incumbent’s political power, then how can we possibly trust astronomic observations? Surely any incumbent emperor will just mark observations that indicate he’s doing well.

AC: I’d like to talk a little bit about legitimation of different bodies of knowledge, which is an issue you raise in the article. Where do you see the bounds of the legitimacy created for Chinese data? Is it a specific, astronomically oriented, scholarly legitimacy? Or is it something broader among educated European society?

GGS: I think it has a very wide scope, but it uses different types of evidence to convince different people. For example, Martini, when he comes back to Europe, he lectures all over Northern Europe. At Louvain, he has a magic lantern show to try and amaze his viewers into believing the story. And in fact, one of the people in the audience was Philippe Couplet, who ends up taking up the call and going to China. And then in Leiden, Jacob Golius, the Orientalist and mathematician, has an “enlightening encounter” with Martini, who convinces him that “Cathay” was China—a lively debate among European Orientalists at the time.

One thing that’s quite interesting in terms of legitimacy of different kinds of sources from China is Martini’s connection to Athanasius Kircher, who was his personal mathematics tutor in Rome. Kircher wrote a lot about Chinese antiquity, but he predominantly focused on material things as a source of information, reflecting his own enculturation in a museum in Rome and in his earlier life with Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc in Aix-en-Provence. So, for example, Kircher received a rubbing of a stone monument dug up in 1625, which has a Coptic cross at the top. He takes that as unquestionable material proof that Christianity has been in China since the seventh century CE. That’s very, very different from Martini’s arguments.

For Martini, it’s all about the astronomical records. Those can be corroborated. There are astronomical tables that can allow you to wind back the clock, to see what the sky would have looked like at a given moment in the past. So there’s a shift that’s happening in, I think, the mid-seventeenth century, toward presenting astronomy as the grounds for what counts as evidence and what counts as something credible. Even though, as we’ve seen people disagreed very strongly about astronomy.

AC: Could you perhaps talk a little bit about how you came to be interested in the work of Alex Statman, how it’s been influential on your own work?

GGS: It’s been extremely important and inspiring during my PhD. Statman’s paper, “The First Global Turn,” came out in 2019, just as I was starting my PhD. I was completely struck by his argument that Europeans didn’t only learn about Chinese history, but they thought that they could learn from it to rearticulate their understandings of European history by connecting the two.  

Chronologically, his new book, A Global Enlightenment (which I have reviewed for the Los Angeles Review of Books) focuses on a much later period; it’s examining the 1770s to the 1820s. I love the book, and I agree entirely with its central claims. I think a key difference between our work is that for me the collapse of the Ming dynasty is a key moment that rapidly opens Europe to all things Chinese. He focuses very much on Enlightenment, but I think for me, making sense of 1644—the “Tartar Moment”—and its resonance across the world, is key to understanding early modern European ideas about China, the mandate of heaven, and East Asian sciences.

AC: In closing, I’d like to come to your conclusion. You end the article saying that “the article has shown that the polemical promotion of Chinese astronomical chronology took place because it was in the interest of disparate groups of actors as shaped by local political circumstances, not because it offered a necessarily superior way of understanding the past.”

When you say “not because it necessarily offered a superior understanding,” I feel like “necessarily” is doing a lot of the work there. I’m interested in the extent to which you’re saying that this is a contingent political form of argumentation and the content of the astral sciences is unimportant or superficial there. And to what extent are you arguing that the astral sciences’ content is important but would not be as influential without the political impetus. How do you balance those two perspectives?

GGS: I struggled with this question throughout my entire PhD, it’s one of the most difficult issues I deal with. Tony Grafton’s extensive work on astronomical chronology in Europe has been incredibly important to show me it’s not just this moment in China that brings astronomical chronology to Europe. Europeans since Greco-Roman antiquity were referring to astronomical events in historical annals. So that tradition is absolutely there in Europe already.

What’s interesting about this case, and this is where I think it becomes entirely political, is how can one trust a science that is clearly not a European science? Some Jesuits try to make the argument that ancient Chinese science was ancient European science. They say, it all goes back to the flood when Noah taught his sons astronomy and it’s the same tradition. For them, that’s why it can be trusted. And funnily enough, the Chinese had exactly the same justification for engaging with “western ocean learning,” or xixue. They said, this is just ancient Chinese science in its pure form, and what we have here today has degenerated and decayed over the millennia. So both sides had exactly the same argument.

But I think where the political comes in is that astronomy could very quickly become a political resource in Europe because it was such a well-established political resource in China. So, I think, yes, China is an agent in this story. But one of the reasons why Chinese astronomy and astronomical chronology could go so far in Europe was because many European rulers realized rather quickly how valuable it could be to have your own rule legitimized by the heavens. Translating Chinese cosmopolitics for an elite European audience could be extraordinarily valuable. For example, you can see this recognition among the Physiocrats in the late eighteenth century.

They adopt a Chinese cosmological framework to explain how France can rebuild after the devastation of the Seven Years’ War. They get the French crown prince Louis-Auguste to till the soil in June 1769, which is an imitation of a Chinese New Year ceremony, where the Emperor tills the soil to restore balance between heaven, earth, and human. If the French monarch can become the Son of Heaven, like the Chinese emperor, then he can lay claim to far more power than he even already has.

AC: Thank you. So, one final question: What are you working on now? Where do you go next? What can anyone reading this interview look forward to from you?

GGS: I’m currently writing my book, The Tartar Moment, to really focus on how the collapse of the Ming dynasty completely transformed Europe’s relationship to China, globalized Chinese sciences, and brought about a new naturalization of cosmopolitics in Europe. It looks at cartography, astronomy, history, military technologies, and agriculture. So that’s one project.

Otherwise, I’m starting a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in the History Faculty at Cambridge and a Junior Research Fellowship at Magdalene College in October. The project there is actually to look at what happened to these Asian cultures of knowledge as they stopped in South Africa on the way back to Europe. Focusing on South Africa as a place that transformed and was transformed by this new globalization in the early modern period.

Alexander Collin is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam where he works on northern Europe from the 1490s to the 1700s. His doctoral thesis aims to test the historical applicability of theories of decision making from economics and organizational studies, considering to what extent we should historicize the idea of ‘The Decision’ and to what extent it is a human universal. The project has been funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst. Alexander has written for The Historian magazine, Shells and Pebbles, The History of Knowledge Blog, as well as academic publications. Alongside his historical work, he also contributes reports to the Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Tracker. He studied at King’s College London, Humboldt University Berlin, the University of Cambridge, and Viadrina University Frankfurt.

Featured image: The open air Observatory, Peking, China: A Celectial Globe, Quadrant and Equinoctial Sphere, Sextant, Azimuthal Horizon and Zodiacal Sphere, made by Jesuit priests from the original Chinese models, at the Ancient Observatory, Peking. Engraving. 1797. Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Broadly Speaking: An Interview with Michael Brinley

By Alexander Collin

Michael Brinley is a PhD Candidate at the University of Pennsylvania working on twentieth-century Russian and Soviet History. His dissertation, titled “Model Cities and Mobilized Citizens: Contesting Soviet Urban Growth in the Era of Developed Socialism, 1957–1985” tracks the evolution of Soviet city planning institutions in the postwar decades during a period of industrialized mass housing construction, a period when Soviet city planners and architects were given a central role in the laboratory of social development during the last decades of rapid urbanization.

He spoke with Alexander Collin about his recent JHI article, “Linguistic Diplomacy: Roman Jakobson between East and West, 1954–68” (volume 84, issue 2).

Alexander Collin: First, a little context, how does a historian of Soviet urbanism come to be interested in a migratory professor of linguistics? What led you to look so closely at Jakobson’s work? 

Michael Brinley: I’ve gotten this question before; on the surface these topics may seem a little disconnected, but I came to them both through the same fascination with the legacies of the Soviet avant-garde from the 1910s. So, in that sense, Soviet urbanism and Jakobson are part of the same story. The biographies of individuals like Jakobson or Viktor Shklovsky or Mikhail Bakhtin involve dramatic reversals due to the exigencies of interwar and postwar politics, which give them this fascinating Zelig-like character.

There are more direct connections, too. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, Jakobson is in the same milieu as a number of the important figures in Soviet avant-garde history, Kazimir Malevich, Moisei Ginzburg, El Lissitsky. These are people he knew personally. So, the overlaps are personal and biographical, not just about intellectual connections or affiliation. On his return trips, he interacts with some members of those movements and there are a number of architects who are part of VKhuTeMas (Higher Art and Technical Studios), the Soviet Bauhaus, whom he knows personally. 

This particular article came out of a research seminar on public intellectuals in the twentieth century. I was in comparative literature seminars on Soviet literature at the same time, and I realized that there was an opportunity to think more about Jakobson. As I had encountered him, he was very much understood as a linguist, as an important person in the genealogy of linguistics. But this had not been connected to his role as a Cold War public intellectual. When I dug a little deeper, it became obvious to me that those factors were central to his prominence in the American academy in the aftermath of the war.

Then there was a series of felicitous circumstances that made the project possible. I was writing this while based at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jakobson’s papers are scattered between Butler Library at Columbia and the MIT Archives, so those were accessible research trips for me. I was able to go and get into the archive and see what was going on at an institutional and biographical level in his later career. 

AC: Are there parallels in the career trajectories of people in the architecture and urbanism space and Jakobson? Or do they diverge after that early period when they’re together in Moscow and St. Petersburg?

MB: Well, this kind of trajectory is certainly not unique to him. There’s an intellectual legacy of the avant-garde moving from the early days in pre-revolutionary Russia into Czechoslovakia in the interwar period and then making its way across the Atlantic as the Nazis make Europe more and more inhospitable. 

But the story is so much more complex because the directionality is both ways. There are also people simultaneously moving into the Soviet Union. For example, one architect who’s famous for this is Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky. He returns from the US to the Soviet Union in 1934, but like Jakobson he continues to straddle this transatlantic intellectual context in the interwar and postwar period. 

Thinking more specifically about this paper, in the Cold War decades, intellectual exchanges are policy. I got very interested in the set of policymakers in the US government who established the terms for intellectual and professional exchanges and the way in which former residents of Eastern European countries think about how to use those programs. What is it that scholars think they’re doing when they go to the International Congress of Slavists versus how does someone like McGeorge Bundy or the State Department’s East-West Division think about that?

I discovered that there was quite a bit of interaction and conflict amongst Slavists in the United States about how to think about collaboration with the United States government over these exchange programs, attendance at conferences, et cetera.

AC: You say in the article that part of Jakobson’s diplomatic skillset is that he is different in different languages. Where do you see the most pronounced differences across languages: Does he express different ideas? Structure arguments differently? Work in a different tone or register?

MB: It’s said of Jakobson that he’s fluent in nine languages, and he speaks all of them with a Russian accent. In the article, I try to present a somewhat systematic assessment of how he presented himself in different languages. I wasn’t able to look at transcripts of his talks, but I was able to have a full list of all of the talks that he gave over the course of his trips back to state socialist countries. 

It’s clear that he had three major categories of talks and that he would recycle them. He would reuse a talk on, say, the national poet of the place he was traveling to. So, if he was in Ukraine, he might focus on Shevchenko, for example, then if he gave that talk in Moscow, he would do something similar, but on Pushkin.

In some ways, that’s a foundational skill of comparative literary studies, but he’s also always pairing that with his commitment to the science of linguistics. And so, he almost always gives two talks at any conference that he attends, one that has something to do with literary studies and one that has something to do with the science of linguistics, and they’re always related to each other.

So, that’s a kind of subject matter difference. The language aspect is more difficult, I can tell you more about the English-Russian divide, but I don’t know the fine detail of what is different about the way he speaks in Czech or Polish. 

AC: Jakobson’s interest in the natural sciences comes up a few times in the article, and the idea of linguistics as a science is a major theme with him. How important is his scientific project for his diplomatic project? What is the relationship between those two? 

MB: I think that interest is grounded in his work with Nikolai Trubetzkoy on phonology. One could give a narrative about his scholarly life that builds from there and culminates in his publication of Child Language, Aphasia, and Phonological Universals

That book is the result of a study done in Denmark, which he compiles into a monograph published in German in 1941, when he’s already fled Czechoslovakia and he’s posted at the University of Copenhagen for one year. He ends up fleeing further to Sweden and Norway, and then he gets on the last boat out of Norway in 1941. It’s clear that he’s quite aware of and proud of this kind of connection to the clinical sciences and he wants to keep a foot in that door.

For example, something I discuss in the paper is a 1965 UNESCO project entitled “International Study on the Main Trends of Research in the Sciences of Man.” Jakobson wrote the essay on linguistics. He leans heavily on the empirical natural sciences model when speaking to these multinational organizations. I make the argument that it is simultaneously a kind of good faith intellectual commitment, but also, very importantly, a way for him to keep many doors into many different scholarly fields open.

So, there is a personal and political component to his commitment to linguistics as an empirical science. And here Stefanos Geroulanos and Todd Meyer’s work on clinical research in the interwar period was very helpful for me in understanding what the political stakes are, because I focus much more on the postwar period.

AC: Interesting, thank you! On page 356, you describe Jakobson as being, in some ways, paradigmatic of twentieth-century cosmopolitanism. What’s the paradigm? What does Jacobson tell us about it? What does it tell us about the period?

MB: There are two things I would accent here. One is the way that this is an identity that’s foisted upon him by the events of the twentieth century, and the other is a certain habitus that goes along with that experience.

There’s a particular type of internationalism that is a result of intense conflict, trauma, and warfare. This is why I start the paper with the episode of fleeing Prague twice. To be able to navigate those types of cross border interactions involves careful parsing of political circumstances; these are not borders that everyone gets to cross. It’s trauma, but at the same time, he is part of the “jet set” of the mid-twentieth century. 

Jakobson is also paradigmatic of a kind of habitus, a way of life, that is quite distinctive. I was struck that when Jakobson arrives in New York in the early 1940s, he seems to be integrated very quickly into familiar Jewish-American locales. So, for example, he spends many of his summers in Hunter in the Catskills, in what’s known as the “Borscht Belt.” It was amusing to think of Jakobson laughing at a Mel Brooks or Lenny Bruce routine while planning the next International Congress of Slavists in Moscow.

AC: Do we know if Jakobson goes to those stand-up comedy shows while he’s holidaying in the Borscht Belt? Are there documents on what he thought of them?

MB: I would have to assume he did. I looked for something in his correspondence that would confirm it, but there was no specific instance of him talking about it. But he was there in the summers all the time, starting in the late 1940s through the middle of the 60s. It is another one of these Zelig-like things where his life connects with cultural or political developments in ways you wouldn’t expect. Another example would be when he’s in Prague in August of 1968. There are so many people there that are surprising: the day before the invasion, The Moody Blues are playing a televised show on the Charles Bridge; Shirley Temple Black is in Prague that day; Robert Vaughn, “the Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is shooting a Hollywood movie and makes up an absurd story about rescuing a Czech woman named Pepsi Watson; of course, Jakobson is there too.

AC: On page 335, you say that “the pretense of being apolitical was an important precondition for Jakobson’s diplomatic work.” Do you mean just Jakobson’s pretense, or is that a broader claim about the possibilities of apolitical action in these circumstances?

MB: In the context of this article, I think it’s a question of Jakobson learning to appear apolitical. When Jakobson comes to the United States, he has a fairly tumultuous first decade institutionally. He has this chair at Columbia that receives a grant from the Czechoslovakian government. But then, there’s a coup d’état in February 1948 and the Communist Party begins purging the opposition.

That leads to a McCarthyist moment in the US, and Jakobson is very much caught up in that and threatened by it. So, he learns in the process. In 1948–49, Jakobson comes under fire, but he’s protected. There are a couple of very important people who help him. One is Dwight Eisenhower, who was serving as university president for a spell, seemingly to pad his resume for a presidential run in 1952. The other is a vice president at J.P. Morgan, a guy named R. Gordon Wasson. Henryk Baran has written some articles about Wasson and Jakobson, contextualizing their relationship. 

The long and short of it is that Wasson is married to a Russian émigré Valentina Pavlovna, and they become fascinated with the cultural history of mushrooms. They write a history of mycophilic and mycophobic societies. He’s actually an important popularizer of psilocybin magic mushrooms in the United States in the 1950s and has connections to the CIA’s MK-Ultra program. He goes down to Mexico, participates in some of these rituals, and then writes a photo-essay for Life magazine introducing “magic mushrooms” to a popular audience.

Valentina Pavlovna seems to have known Jakobson from childhood and the book on mushrooms is dedicated to him. He consulted on the philological work for the book. Wasson provides funding for Jakobson’s trips in conjunction with the Ford Foundation, so Wasson is an important figure there. There’s a political dimension too: it’s important for Jakobson to have a kind of cover and he is not afraid to use that cover. That creates a lot of animosity between him and other representatives of the émigré community in the American Academy, which is something I try to tease out a little bit in the paper.

AC: To close, I’d like to talk about citizenship, which I know is also a topic you’re interested in. What does Jacobson’s life, and in particular the diplomatic life, tell us about citizenship in this period? 

MB: Yeah, it’s a good question, it’s suggestive. I think the malleability of identity is really important. These citizen identities are flexible, even in terms of their legal definitions. A lot of what Jakobson does might be categorized as furtive diplomacy, secret state funding for diplomatically consequential travel and exchange. A less generous take might call it espionage work. 

He acquires US citizenship in the late 40s, but in the course of his life he has Russian Imperial and Czech citizenship and even a Soviet passport for a brief spell. So, he has all these different citizenships over the course of his life. And I think that might tell us something about the construction of a sort of postwar American civic identity and the various uses that it can be put to—the communicative events that it can precipitate.

Like many Russia experts in the American Academy, he has a heritage in those places, but thinks of himself as sort of from nowhere, or better, from everywhere. Many of the people that he’s most intent on resisting are the integral nationalists. Those are the scholars that he’s least interested in cooperating with or having anything to do with. He reserves his most vitriolic speech for them and their “noxious parochialisms.”

In that way, he occupies a particular position on the spectrum that exists in the emigrant community. Among these people who fled revolution and who fled war, but who might have fled for very different reasons. In the context of the Slavic émigré community in the United States, Jakobson represents one of the more tolerant figures towards the Soviet Union. Jakobson’s late career is a unique cipher, a way to see what that spectrum looked like and then how it has had significant repercussions for American politics in the Cold War period as well. 

AC: So, last question, what are you working on now? What are you working on next? Are there any other publications or appearances coming up?

MB: Right now I’m working furiously to finish a dissertation and defend it this summer. So that’s the top-bill item. I have a piece that may be coming out later this year in an edited volume on design institutes in the socialist world. 

And I have an article that I’m working on about the city plan in the 1970s. It is about how the city plan became an object around which urban residents and citizens could mobilize to articulate claims on the state. In particular, it is about how master plans could represent the lobbying of various interest groups within city government in late-Soviet politics; acting as something like a political machine that was not necessarily dominated by the factory or party bosses.

Alexander Collin is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam where he works on northern Europe from the 1490s to the 1700s. His doctoral thesis aims to test the historical applicability of theories of decision making from economics and organizational studies, considering to what extent we should historicize the idea of ‘The Decision’ and to what extent it is a human universal. The project has been funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst. Alexander has written for The Historian magazine, Shells and Pebbles, The History of Knowledge Blog, as well as academic publications. Alongside his historical work, he also contributes reports to the Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Tracker. He studied at King’s College London, Humboldt University Berlin, the University of Cambridge, and Viadrina University Frankfurt.

Featured image: Roman Jakobson, Wikimedia Commons user Raulelgreco, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Broadly Speaking: An Interview with Zvi Ben-Dor Benite

By Alec Israeli

Zvi Ben-Dor Benite is Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies at New York University. He is the author of The Dao of Muhammad: A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial China (Harvard, 2005); The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History (Oxford, 2009). He co-edited with Moshe Behar Middle Eastern Jewish Thought (Brandeis, 2013) and with Stefanos Geroulanos and Nicole Jerr The Scaffolding of Sovereignty: Global and Aesthetic Perspectives on the History of a Concept (Columbia, 2017).

Ben-Dor Benite discussed his recent JHI article, The Accountants of Nineveh: Exile Jews and Capitalism in British Imperial Thinking, published in April 2023, with contributing editor Alec Israeli. 

Alec Israeli: Your article concerns questions of temporality and spatiality, in different registers—biblical, secular, imperial, etc.—and I want to address this in the coming questions. But before getting to these wider points of theoretical framing: Who is James Rennell? How did you first come across his work — not just the book on Herodotus’s geography you focus on, but more specifically the small section thereof that discusses the exile of the Israelites?

Zvi Ben-Dor Benite: James Rennell was a product of the early British empire. His professional journey began when he was a youth in India. During his later life in England, he developed into the leading geographer in nineteenth-century Britain. He was undeniably a major contributor to the development of modern geography and its related fields, including oceanography. He was also passionate about classical studies, but was never formally educated in the classics. His background shows that without the formative years in Bengal, he would not reach the same level of achievement that he eventually did during his time in England. Remember, he did not know Greek or Latin. That suggests to me that he was not of the English upper classes. But Bengal made him a geographer, and a leading one. For him, empire was opportunity. And his involvement with Herodotus likely serves as a connection to the education he was lacking, while also providing insight into his own ideas about modern geography—the discipline he helped to develop.

Rennell was also a footnote in my book, The Ten Lost Tribes: a World History (Oxford, 2009). While compiling research for this book, I studied various early modern European geographical treatises on the world and Asia, such as Sebastian Münster’s cosmographies, Abraham Ortelius’s atlases, and later eighteenth-century works. I searched for records of the Ten Tribes to illustrate how the perception of the biblical myth and its related “geographical theology” had contributed to the evolution of modern geography. This is the path that led me to Rennell’s The Geography of Asia. I was certainly thrilled to come across a full chapter on the Ten Tribes in the book. But as I read it at the time, I was perplexed by the thought “What is the purpose of this?” I was puzzled why he interjected the chapter on the Ten Tribes and into book on the Asian Geography of Herodotus. I also did not understand what he wanted to do with the Tribes. It was not until I reached the conclusion of the chapter that I understood that Rennell’s exercise was about economics and Jews, rather than geography. This was the reason he was only mentioned in passing in the book back then. That raises the question of why I suddenly returned to Rennell, which I answer below.

AI: Rennell’s work, with its wide-ranging source base and eclectic quotations, functions as a kind of palimpsest, with each textual layer containing another. Following his references (and his references’ references), you take your reader on a literary journey through the King James Bible, John Milton, Herodotus, Enlightenment mythologists, the geographical works of an exiled Swedish officer, second-century Jewish apocrypha, and more. Some of this impressive archival source-tracking you do is forensic, pinning down what Rennell could have known and how. But also, I am wondering if there is anything of theoretical or methodological interest for you: in Rennell’s conversations across millennia, how does Rennell’s single section of text function as a repository of condensed temporal knowledge? Do you think that noting this stratigraphic density is remarkable in a text like Rennell’s, or could this kind of awareness be extrapolated to analyzing any given archival object?

ZBDB: Tough question! To begin with, let me say that when I prepared this essay, I attempted to imitate Rennell’s maneuvers. I hoped the reader would have a feeling of inquiry, questioning, “Why am I reading about this?” layer after layer before being hit with the surprise correlation between Jews and the economy that was Rennell’s intention all along. (Like I felt when I read it first.) I posit that his set of strategies was purposeful. I mention that the discourse about Jews and trade in Europe in his time was quite intense. But it was largely rooted in unfounded prejudice and baseless foolishness. In my opinion, Rennell sought to provoke his readers to reflect on Jews and commerce with no preconceived opinions. He constructed his case from the ground up, composed of what he deemed to be factual history, layer after layer. That is why he did not start with a statement like, “Jews are good with money. Now let me tell you why.”

As for what you aptly call “stratigraphic density” that characterizes his writings (I wish I had thought about this phrase myself!): I would attribute it to his background as a geographer and oceanographer. This is the man that mapped the currents deep in the ocean, explored the relationship between river and land in Bengal, and put together the first real map of India. As a writer, he was in dialogue with Herodotus’s geography and put it in dialogue with the bible. That experience must have impacted his writing. The result is the stratigraphy of this chapter.

AI: In reading Rennell through and with his sources, you engage in kinds of temporal source-jumps that seem to mirror or complement those of Rennell. For instance: you note that Rennell pursued a close reading of the Book of Kings so as to establish the political reasons the Assyrian empire exiled the Israelites in the eighth century BCE, with the aim of making secular sense of the event, stripped of its theological implications. Rennell concludes that the Assyrians, in a calculated way, exiled only some of the Israelites, an elite subsection with desirable skills for the empire. You supplement this with an overview of current archaeological evidence for this precise Assyrian practice—corroborating Rennell’s conclusion with knowledge he did not have, as you admit. But you insist that a “summary of this real history is crucial because it helps us to understand how [Rennell] imagined the workings of empire” (242). Here is a remarkable moment of layering, of historical self-awareness. Can you elaborate more on why or how current historical knowledge can, as a heuristic, illuminate the thought of figures who lacked that knowledge? Or, to entertain a counterfactual: how would this article of yours have gone differently if current archaeological evidence did not confirm Rennell’s conclusions about the Assyrians?

ZBDB: You allude to something that was highlighted more prominently in a prior version of this article that I had to cut. I am quite convinced that Rennell was trying hard to think like an empire builder. When he sat to read the Book of Kings, he was attempting to read the events not as the divine’s doings, but as the product of an intended imperial program. I believe he was, in a manner of speaking, empathizing with the Assyrian official, Rabshakeh, the Cupbearer, who delivered his address in Jerusalem in 701 BCE. It was as if Rennell was peeking behind this man’s shoulders, as it were. Generally, in my opinion, this approach allowed Rennell to gain insight into the calculations of the Assyrians, although much of the information we have about them today was not known during his lifetime. It is important to note that Tobit, the main character of the third section of the article, is employed as a top-level official by the Assyrian king. This, for Rennell, would have been a sign of good imperial policy and wonderful use of exiled elites in the service of the empire.

AI: The central thesis of your piece is that Rennell sought to locate the secular, historical content of the Israelite exile and situate it within a detailed Asian geography. If it was only a subsection of the Israelite population that was exiled (and not an entire nation), then it was logistically feasible that the exile covered such large distances; certain elite, skilled Israelites could be sent around the empire as needed. The biblical element is further eroded in the historical parallel Rennell draws between Jews in Assyria and the more recent Swedes in eighteenth-century Russia, similarly exiled to the empire’s administrative benefit. In the end, Rennell’s secularizing exercise was a didactic one, meant to use ancient and recent history to educate contemporary British conquerors, who might do well to station Jews—with their supposed financial and commercial acumen—around the Union Jack’s domain, Asia included.

I wonder what this lesson might have to say about the temporal framework of modern empire. Without its theological underpinning of sin, banishment, redemption, and return, the story of the Israelites’ exile becomes a footnote in imperial history rather than a major narrative frame of Western, Christian historical progression. The universal container of time, as it were, is not God’s covenant, but the boundaries of empire in which capital-H history is to occur. This is all to ask: what does Rennell’s reframing of this story say about how new concepts of time develop in tandem with imperial expansion? Is time, for eighteenth-century British imperialists, becoming necessarily secular, in order to establish their own claim to universal rule?

ZBDB: I concur with your assertion that the universal vessel of time, so to speak, is not the covenant of God, but the borders of empire wherein capital-H history is to take place. My interpretation of Rennell’s work shows that he was trying to take the theological apart while writing from within the tension between it and the secular. But I would caution against the notion that this phenomenon—a connection between empire and theology—belongs only in the past. Indeed, the tension between the theological and the secular around the question of empire is always there. These empires—Assyria, Babylon, and Persia—are tied to a theological point of view as stated in the Bible. Theology, as presented by biblical authors and prophets, is used to explain successes and failures of empires in the global arena of the time.

Fundamentally, the empires are the instrument of God—the primary figure in any biblical account. Cyrus the Great, for instance, is hailed in the Bible as the “Messiah of God.” For their part, the imperial founders and rulers of these empires never missed an opportunity to say that (their) gods were behind them. Now, it is true that we tend to view modern Western empires as “secular,” or better yet, detached from any political theology. If one delves deeper, one will find there have been many efforts from various groups to “uncover” the presence of God in the history of modern empires as well. With regards to the British Empire these include, for instance, the theology known as British Israelism—the idea that the Brits are the true heirs of “Israel” and that that is why the empire is so successful. 

AI: You write that Rennell’s geography was “reorganizing Asian space in the context of empire” (239–240). It is in this context, too, that he envisions the historical (not theological) exile of the Israelites: this concrete sense of frequent movement across distance is what you say leads Rennell to attribute great money-handling ability to Jews, in contrast to contemporaries, who saw this feature as somehow innate to Jewish religion. Rennell believed, as many did, that Jews somehow originated forms of credit and bills of exchange, but specifically because they had to handle money across large distances due to their diasporic, exiled state. Here in your article, are you trying to identify any particular identification between the rise of capitalism and new forms of imperial thinking about space, insofar as Rennell ties a key financial instrument to the exigencies of long-distance, intra-imperial exchange? Moreover, I wonder if the centrality of this spatial element has something to do with understandings of nascent capitalism being based in trade and commerce (movement), rather than, as later, being based in production (fixed investment), which is far more theoretically concerned with the management of time than of space.

ZBDB: When it comes to distance and Rennell, I’d say that when Britain went out and created its empire, it also had to grapple with the distance question. As the empire’s number-one geographer, he was giving it a lot of thought. Concerning distance and capitalism, your question touches on two dimensions of capitalism. One of course is trade and commerce, a dimension that was more dominant than “production” during the earlier phases of what comes to be capitalism. In this regard, the answer is yes. I’m linking empire, distance, and credit tools to commercial society or capitalism. More importantly, I wish to point out that others in the early modern period were noticing the same thing. If this article was centered on the history of capitalist thought, I would make this statement even stronger: capitalism is intimately connected to distance. This is definitely true about certain financial instruments, such as credit bills, that become key to capitalism.

But let’s tie “distance” to Jews. The article points out that many at the time thought the “dispersion,” or exile, of the Jews has something to do with their relationship to credit bills. If we want to translate this language to the question of distance, I would put it this way: exile/dispersion here means scattered communities of Jews, distant from one another, that are forced to overcome the territorial discontinuity between them and do it through credit bills. It’s fascinating to see how, when trade takes a backseat and production is the primary focus in later debates about capitalism, Jews are still linked to it, but their condition of exile or dispersion is not really brought up.

AI: Building off this: in another temporal jump, you contrast Rennell’s favorable historical assessment of Jews and capitalism with that of twentieth-century writer Werner Sombart, who, in an older vein, identified Jews with the origin of capitalism in a deeply essentialist manner. Sombart does so, you say, with “hostility” (261), not necessarily toward Jews, but toward the capitalism they had become yoked to in the Western mind. The key shift, you suggest, is not necessarily one in attitudes toward Jews, but in attitudes toward “the history of capitalism as an economic system” (261). Could you speak more to this shift? Is this something like a change from the starry-eyed visions of doux commerce in the eighteenth century, to the darker pronouncements of nineteenth-century critics (both radical and reactionary), or is it something more subtle? If changes in the system of and attitudes toward capitalism are fundamental, in a way, why the lens of the Jews now?

ZBDB: Beginning with the last question, I shall explain why I returned to Rennell sixteen years after I read him initially. Recently, the discourse concerning Jews and capitalism has resurfaced. The ugly side is all that we hear in certain corners about Jews and money in the wake of scandals surrounding crooks who happen to be Jews such as Bernie Madoff and Jeffrey Epstein. The pleasant side is several new studies that engage the question seriously and trace the connection as history or as a European idea. I am referring in particular to the excellent studies by Francesca Trivellato, The Promise and Peril of Credit: What a Forgotten Legend About Jews and Finance Tells Us About the Making of European Commercial Society (Princeton, 2019), and Adam Sutcliffe, What Are Jews For?: History, Peoplehood, and Purpose (Princeton, 2020). Both engage the question of Jews and credit bills, and both discuss Werner Sombart as part of the narratives they advance. Sutcliffe also offered a daringly nuanced rethinking of Sombart in a chapter in another book edited by Adam Teller and Rebecca Kobrin, Purchasing Power: The Economics of Modern Jewish History (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

When I read these studies, I finally realized what he was doing. Sixteen years after reading Rennell and thinking: “Why am I reading this? Why was he writing his essay and ending it with Tobit?” I understood that this was making an intervention in the debates that Sutcliffe and Trivellato were engaging as historians. When I read Sombart, I was stunned, and happy, to see that he was also using Tobit. But as I say in my article, his use of Tobit, as opposed to Rennell’s, marks the shift from trade to production and, I would say, from distance and credit bills to limitless profit. The Jews seem to remain the same. You can hate or love them, but they remain the same. It is capitalism that changes.

As a conclusion, I would like to shed light on a point that did not make it into the article. In 1832, thirty-two years after Rennell published his book, David Sassoon (1792–1864), a Jewish accountant who happened to be hailing from Iraq, the site of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, was welcomed by the Brits in Bombay. His children created the first of several Baghdadi-Jewish gigantic merchant and finance empires in the East, all under the auspices of the British Empire. Was this because they or their hosts read Rennell’s book? I do not think so. It is a different history. But as an Iraqi Jew (from Nineveh, by the way), I am amused by this little detail.

Alec Israeli is an assistant editor at Jacobin magazine and a recent alumnus of Trinity College, University of Cambridge, where he earned an MPhil with distinction in Political Thought and Intellectual History as a recipient of a Dunlevie King’s Hall Studentship. His research considers overlaps of intellectual history and labor history in the 19th-century Atlantic world, focusing on theorizations of free versus unfree labor in both political-economic and metaphysical terms. He is additionally interested in the philosophy of history (and the history of the philosophy of history). Alec received a BA in History from Princeton University. His work has also appeared in the Vanderbilt Historical Review, the Columbia Journal of History, the Princeton Progressive Magazine, and the Mudd Library Blog.

Featured image: Title page, James Rennell, The geographical system of Herodotus, examined; and explained, by a comparison with those of other ancient authors, and with modern geography […], 1800, public domain, Wellcome Collection.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Natural Law and Christian Ethics: An Interview with Sarah Mortimer

by Alexander Collin

Sarah Mortimer is Associate Professor of Early Modern History at Christ Church, Oxford. She is especially interested in the relationship between political thought and religious ideas. Her work focuses on a period when new ideas about salvation, about political life and about what it means to be human began to be expressed; after Martin Luther, Niccolò Machiavelli and Christopher Columbus the intellectual, political and religious landscape looked very different. Her research looks at how people sought to understand, explain, and shape their world in this fascinating and complex period.

Alexander Collin is a contributing editor of the JHI Blog. He interviewed Mortimer about her recent JHI article Warfare, Christianity, and the Law of Nature and her ongoing research into theology and political thought in early modern Europe.

Alexander Collin: Let’s start with something relatively straightforward. How did you come to write this piece in the JHI? Where does it fit in your body of work as a whole and how does it relate to other things you’re working on at the moment? 

Sarah Mortimer: The immediate impetus for this piece was a conference organized by Ian Campbell as part of his “War and the Supernatural” project; the project is explicitly cross-confessional and that spurred me to thinking about how questions of warfare and natural law were discussed on different sides of the Reformation fault lines. For a long time, though, in fact ever since my undergraduate days, I’ve wondered how and why Christians see natural law as obligatory, how they understand its relationship to divine law and to the teaching of Christ.

This theme has been important in my recent work, including my book on early modern political thought (Reformation, Resistance, and Reason of State), and I want to develop it further in the future. My next project is tentatively entitled “Virtue beyond Law: Transformations in Protestant ethics 1500–1700,” and that will be an opportunity to look in more detail at how early modern Protestants understand the duties of natural law and their relationship to Christian ethics. I’ve been very fortunate to find colleagues to discuss these questions with, including Ian and his team, and so it was great to be involved in the conference and then write up my paper for this cluster.

AC: Turning to the substance of the article: The distinction between what is licit and what is required is a major part of the debate over warfare that you discuss here. Is this a distinction which recurs in the philosophy and theology of this period? Are there other major arguments which turn on this structure? 

SM: I think this distinction is a helpful way for Thomist Catholics to make sense of the natural law, and to find a way to explain those acts which fall short of Christian perfection but which are not in themselves wrong. The basic structure of their argument is shaped in many ways by their theology of salvation, and by the Catholic idea that there are some acts which are supererogatory and meritorious, in other words acts that we do not have to do, that we are not obliged to, but which gain us merit if we do carry them out.

These are sometimes called Counsels of Perfection, and one good example that is often used is visiting the sick in time of plague. It’s not wrong to stay away from ill and contagious people, but going to visit them is an act of charity that goes beyond strict duty and which counts as a good work.

Of course, Luther will contest all of this—but that then raises important questions for Protestants about ethics, politics, and so on. I look at some of the consequences for political power in my recent book, and in an article on “Counsels of Perfection” but the ethical implications for both Protestants and Catholics remains to be fully explored.

AC: I got the sense that, in each of the philosophical positions on natural law, warfare, and Christianity that you discuss in this article, there is a mixture of a kind of academic, abstract discussion on the one hand, with a response to emerging political events on the other. For example, Cajetan is engaging with the church fathers, but he is also thinking about the principalities of the Holy Roman Empire; or Luther is considering this issue within his overall vision of Reform, but he is also responding to relations with the Ottomans.

To what extent should we read these writers as principally concerned with concrete political advice, versus to what extent is this more a moral and theological debate, in which practical applications are of secondary importance? Or would you reject that dichotomy altogether? 

SM: I’m glad to hear that you felt the debates were both academic and practical; for me, the most exciting aspect of the history of ideas is the way that it can help us understand how and why particular arguments were developed and deployed at particular times. And for me the story always includes the intellectual resources that were available, the agendas of the people involved, and the practical circumstances in which the debates were lived out.

One of the aims of my own work is to show how authors and thinkers were also people of flesh and blood, who lived in particular contexts that helped to shape their arguments. Cajetan is a good example of this. He is writing in the context of disputes in the Church, over the role of Council and Pope and over theologies of salvation, but he is also aware of the situation of Italian cities and the Papal States during this unsettled period of warfare in the Italian peninsular.

Meanwhile, if we turn to the Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli, he is keen to win over godly magistrates (like Edward VI of England) and to encourage them to commit to enacting the Kingdom of Christ as far as possible. For him, it is really important to show that war and coercion are legitimate, indeed often necessary, for Christian magistrates and that this is the true message of Scripture. Biblical commentaries become an extremely effective way of making this case—and particularly commentaries on passages that talk about kings and magistrates, and the warfare in which they engage.

AC: You identify part of what makes the Protestant view distinctive as their “agenda of unifying natural law and Christian ethics.” Why don’t Catholics also regard that unity as necessary? Or if they do, why are they less troubled by it than the Protestants? Is Baius moving in this direction with his insistence that grace and natural law are inseparable? 

SM: Thanks for highlighting this—I think that the Catholic view of natural law and Christian ethics is really subtle and complicated, and modern scholarship is just catching up with this. Part of the answer goes back to what I was saying about the Catholic position on merit and supererogation, but it is also connected to developing ecclesiologies and views of the Church. Catholic views on merit allowed theologians to claim that the Church controlled a “treasury of merit” which it could dispense to believers, hence the creation of indulgences which facilitated the transfer of this merit.

Also, the Catholic view of the authority of clergy and the value of monasticism encouraged a sense of hierarchy between lay and spiritual offices—and of the action appropriate to each. Rulers who were entangled in earthly affairs would, on this reading, be inferior to clergy who focused on spiritual activities and acts of charity.

Then, in the early sixteenth century, the Conciliarist claim that Church was like a commonwealth prompted men like Cajetan to insist instead that it was grounded in divine rather than natural law. Protestants—especially Luther—saw all these claims as connected, on the grounds that all of them elevated the Church and the clergy, but I think for the Catholics there is a process of debate through the sixteenth century about just what, if any, the connection might be between them.

Going back to your question: the Catholic position is of course designed to elevate the status of Christianity above nature and above merely civil and natural duties, while still taking the earthly and political world seriously. So I think it’s not so much that the Catholics are untroubled by the question of unity, but rather that they are trying to find a way to distinguish between the two that enables them to achieve their aims and defend their Church.

One important catalyst for debate about this is the question of excommunication, because not only do Catholics believe that the Pope can excommunicate rulers, many of them also believe that excommunication makes the ruler illegitimate in a Christian commonwealth and so the people are absolved of their duty towards an excommunicate (ex)ruler. At the end of the sixteenth century the great Catholic theologians Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez defend the power of the pope to depose rulers on the grounds that spiritual power is higher than civil authority, because the latter is based only in natural law (and human beings are called to higher, spiritual purposes and duties).

This view, though, is very much a Thomist Catholic view, and as our cluster shows the Thomists weren’t the only Catholics to reflect on these questions. As you note, Michael Baius took a different approach, and was quite hostile to the claim that we can think about natural law as somehow abstracted from grace. For him, the problem seems to have been that it encouraged people just to follow natural law—and natural law separate from grace didn’t seem very moral. Indeed, it offered an excuse for people to make compromises, for example with the Protestants in the Netherlands, and thus it devalued true Christianity.

I’ve become quite interested in these debates as a historian, but it might be worth pointing out that they are still live issues among Catholic theologians. Debate kicked off in earnest with the publication of Henri de Lubac’s Surnaturel in 1946—he was a French theologian who felt that the distinction between nature and grace that many Catholics had inherited from the early modern period was problematic because it cut the Church and the state off from each other. In response, he wanted to show how men like Cajetan and Baius had in fact misunderstood the true meanings of Aquinas and Augustine. His concerns were very much those of a Catholic theologian, but historians can still learn from his writing.

AC: For the last question on individual authors, I’d like to turn to Grotius. You trace the development of his thinking on warfare, Christianity, and natural law. What is the best way for us to understand those changes? Do they come out of dialogue with other scholars? Do they come out of his personal experiences of the Netherlands wars in his lifetime? Some other source? 

SM: Grotius’s life was a very eventful one, but it seems to me that one of the key moments in it was his imprisonment in 1618 when Maurice of Nassau and the Calvinists took power in Holland. Prior to that, Grotius was willing to defend the power of the state over the Church, but after that he was much more keen to keep Christianity and civil authority separate. (He still thought that basic religious belief could be enforced, but not distinctively Christian principles.)

But Grotius also seems to have become increasingly interested in the ethical dimension to Christianity. Like many people around him, he thought that Christianity should make a difference to one’s actions and morals, and he also thought that it would be wrong to coerce people into acts of Christian charity. I think that he is probably picking up this way of seeing religion from other Dutch Christians, particularly the Remonstrants or Arminians, and certainly he is in touch with them.

These contacts also lead him to study the Bible more intensively, to write Annotations upon it—and he begins while he is in prison by studying and annotating the Gospels, the parts of the scripture where Jesus’s teaching is most clearly expressed. And Grotius starts to suggest that Jesus’s teaching offers a higher ethical standard than any natural law or philosophy. Then he wrestles with what this means for the legitimacy of warfare—as a good Dutch patriot he is positive about the Dutch Revolt, but sometimes unsure how to square this with Jesus’s ethics.

AC: Your early work dealt a lot with Socinian thought, but they don’t make an appearance in this article. Is there are distinctive Socinian perspective on these questions?

SM: Yes! The Socinians were famous in this period for their clear assertion of the difference between natural law and Christian ethics. They were pacifists, at least initially, on the grounds that Christ forbade warfare, but they also engaged quite extensively with some of the natural law arguments for the legitimacy of warfare, and that made them unusual. The Socinians wanted to show that while natural law arguments may be valid in their own terms, they will not get you to heaven; only if you follow Christ’s teaching will you be rewarded with eternal life.

Though their sometimes rather blunt claims didn’t win that many people over to them completely, they did stimulate a discussion about these issues which caught the attention of people across Europe. For example, we know that Grotius was reading at least some of their work, and vice versa. As a graduate student I came across these debates and realized that often what made Socinianism so interesting to its readers was this view of natural law and Christianity, and that I needed to study it in much more detail!

AC: Lastly, with any article, some amount of material gets left on the cutting room floor, is there anything you wanted to include here but couldn’t? A writer or book you didn’t discuss? A point of clarification or qualification that didn’t fit?

SM: In many ways this article is a kind of bridge between some of the work I’ve already done on natural law, politics, and Christianity, and the work I want to do next on virtue and law. It was also a chance to say a little more about authors like Cajetan and Baius who feature only very briefly in my recent book (though there is so much more to say about both. . .).

The article—and indeed the cluster—is also a reminder of how many important early modern writers are out there, on whom there has been so little work. I sometimes think it is a shame that scholars cluster around a small number of canonical thinkers, and I hope that by broadening the scope of our enquiry we will have a better sense of the ideas of this crucial period.

AC: What you are working on now/next, are there any forthcoming publications readers should look out for?

SM: My next project is about “Virtue beyond Law” in Protestant Europe. In it I explore changing ideas about the relationship between virtue and liberty in the early modern period, and what they might mean for political and religious authority. While we might assume that virtue requires the possibility of choice, of acting otherwise, early Protestants denied this, insisting that humans need not only God’s grace but also strong structures of law and punishment.

And yet, by the seventeenth century, a very different case was being made. Influential Protestant voices were now emphasizing individual liberty and virtue, insisting that human beings must choose to follow the superior and demanding ethics of Christ while denying that these ethics could or should be binding upon all.  I want to look at how and why these new ideas about community, Christianity, and ideas of virtue arose, and say something too about their significance for our ideas of liberty and morality. It’s still at an early stage, but I have enjoyed trying out some of the ideas in seminars.

More concretely, readers might look out for a new volume called Time, History, and Political Thought edited by John Robertson and due out from Cambridge UP later in 2023. I have an article in it on “Christian Time and the Commonwealth in Early Modern Political Thought,” which looks at the relationship between natural law arguments and Christianity as a story that takes place in time.

There is more in it about Grotius, and particularly the ways he uses Catholic natural law thinking but places it within a rather different theological and temporal framework, connected to his own distinctive sense of Christian history. As this might suggest, the more I think about natural law in the early modern period, the more I realize how complex and fascinating it is! 

Alexander Collin is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam where he works on northern Europe from the 1490s to the 1700s. His doctoral thesis aims to test the historical applicability of theories of decision making from economics and organizational studies, considering to what extent we should historicize the idea of “The Decision” and to what extent it is a human universal.

Featured image: Luther in front of Cardinal Cajetan during the controversy of his 95 Theses, 1870 (oil on canvas) by Ferdinand Wilhelm Pauwels, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Broadly Speaking: An Interview with William Theiss

By Nicholas Barone

William Theiss is a PhD candidate in early modern European history at Princeton University. He received a BA in comparative literature from Yale University in 2016 and an MPhil in early modern history from the University of Cambridge in 2017. His previous scholarly work has appeared here in the JHI Blog and the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes.

Theiss discussed his recent JHI article, “The Abbé d’Aubignac’s Homer and the Culture of the Street in Seventeenth-Century Paris,” published in January 2023, with contributing editor Nick Barone. 

Nick Barone: Let’s begin with some basic empirical context. Who was François Hédelin, abbé d’Aubignac? What was his intellectual and educational background?

William Theiss: Hédelin was a French priest who lived from 1604 to 1676, and he took the name d’Aubignac after the property where he was a cleric. But although this property was not in Paris, and although he himself grew up in the provinces, he was the consummate Parisian. He was one of those pre-Revolutionary abbés who were religious in name, but in fact dedicated themselves to erudition or literature. Being the tutor to the nephew of the Cardinal Richelieu, even though this nephew died in a naval battle, put d’Aubignac at the center of arguably the first great age in Parisian literature, the so-called classical age, even though d’Aubignac’s own relationship to this milieu was as of a parasite and an increasingly unpopular gadfly. He wrote notorious screeds against the poet Corneille, and since Corneille was and remains a canonical French author, d’Aubignac comes across as a ridiculous and petty figure. I should also say that unlike many of the other abbés of the Academie Française, d’Aubignac was not especially erudite—ironically for an innovative scholar of Homer, he probably didn’t know much Greek.

I came across d’Aubignac because his book Conjectures académiques, ou Dissertation sur l’Iliade wound up on my generals exam reading list on Greek philology when I was in my second year of graduate school, advised by Joshua Billings. This is a speech that d’Aubignac delivered in the 1660s toward the end of his life, first published long after his death in 1715. There was no English translation, but there are plenty of French editions, so I picked it up from the library and was immediately transfixed. For one thing, the book is hilarious. But for another, it seemed true: it seemed to lay out a theory of the oral transmission of Homeric poetry that is somehow not so different from what some scholars believe today, and yet it did so from a polemic against the poem and a condemnation of it. So all I had at first was the pleasure of spending time with d’Aubignac on the page, and the question of where this wild book came from.

NB: You deftly toggle between different methodological registers, preoccupations, and approaches in this article—contextualist intellectual history, Darntonian cultural history, urban studies, Bourdeiuan social theory, the history of classical reception, the politics of reading and translation. How did you arrive at this theoretical syncretism? What questions initially animated your project? Put more vulgarly, who were your primary influences in drafting this article? 

WT: Thank you! I should say that this article has no new archival discoveries, and it does not unearth anything that is not widely available in the library. Instead, the point is to bring together two worlds of scholarship that have each yielded important results but have not spoken much to each other. One the one hand, there is the urban history of Paris, which was the European city par excellence even before Hausmann’s famous modernizing project, as scholars such as Hilary BallonJoan DeJean, and Nicholas Hammond have shown, among others. On the other hand, there’s the history of classical scholarship, which has been investigating for a long time the cultural history of the reception of ancient texts and especially Homer—I mean scholars such as Anthony GraftonGlenn MostLuigi Ferreri, and Kirsti Simonsuuri. So when d’Aubignac writes, We know there was no Homer because of the way that Parisian street-performers sing on the Pont Neuf, I thought, wait a minute: what? What did d’Aubignac see on the streets of Paris that led him to make this absurd claim? To answer your question, d’Aubignac was the original toggler, the person who connected the ethnography of Parisian street life, almost like a seventeenth-century Catholic Walter Benjamin, with a new social theory of the transmission of culture across class and a new theory of Homer.

NB: Can you walk us through the state of Homeric criticism before Hédelin’s interventions? From what prior intellectual labors did the “Homeric Question” emerge?

WT: I can try. The criticism of Homer was alive and well in antiquity, including in Plato’s Athens, where he complained about the singers who were singing Homeric verse for money. At the library of Alexandria, in the Hellenistic period, ancient critics developed what we call textual criticism in order to set the definitive text of Homer for the first time. Rumors also swirled in antiquity that perhaps Homer had sung rather than written his poetry and that the Greek tyrant Peisistratus had had to gather the different verse fragments centuries after they were performed, and as Tania Demetriou has shown, the best Renaissance scholars, including Isaac Casaubon, had perked up their ears at comments like this, and begun to wonder whether Homer was different from all other poets and all other texts. They invented the special aura around Homer that persists to this day. 

All of this debate was a little above d’Aubignac’s head, and he was not familiar with all of it. Instead, his criticism of Homer came more in our sense of the word criticism: was Homer a good poet? Was the Iliad a good book? D’Aubignac’s heresy was to say, not even close. The book is disorganized, repetitive, with too many battles and no unified plot, and it’s boring. It violates every principle of classical poetics. But the genius of his Academic Conjectures was to say that the book is so bad that it could not have been written by a single author. Instead, all of its flaws are explained by its having been transmitted orally by different poets over a long period and then “stitched” together. This is how he got from the terribleness to the non-existence of Homer.

NB: In an elegant and provocative condensation of your argument on 87, you write, “The death of Homer began with the construction of a bridge.” What modes of sociability did the Pont Neuf instantiate? How do you understand the relationship between new forms of public social intercourse, aesthetic perception, and what you call the “intense experimentation with literary form” that characterized this period? 

WT: Most medieval and early modern European bridges were piled high with shops and houses. They were claustrophobic and built up, so that a pedestrian on a European bridge before the seventeenth century would probably not be able to see the water, whether the Seine, the Danube, the Rhine, or the Thames. The London Bridge is a prime example of such a bridge, which had shops and houses until it was destroyed and rebuilt in the Fire of London in the late seventeenth century. The Pont Neuf in Paris was perhaps the first bridge in European history to be consciously designed with sidewalks and viewing turrets instead of buildings—for a while, sidewalks themselves or banquettes were actually synonymous with the Pont Neuf—and this had profound consequences for the way that people interacted with space in Paris. First, it was beautiful, and it made the Seine beautiful. Second, everybody wanted to gather there, to walk from bank to bank or to the Île de la Cité. Finally, the sidewalks let the bridge become the arena for musical and dramatic performance, the same way that any public square in any major city does today. These players and singers were cultural entrepreneurs, and their experiments were what gave d’Aubignac the idea of using the Parisian streetscape to argue for the non-existence of Homer. 

NB: How did the economic and cultural stratification of Paris during this time shape d’Aubignac’s “social theory of Homeric poetry”? On what understanding of cultural transmission and interclass relations did such a theory rest? How did “the culture of the street” alter, reconfigure, or render visible the symbolic function of class difference in establishing a literary work’s provenance and quality?

WT: With other aristocrats, d’Aubignac found the bridge scene to be amusing and diverting but ultimately worthless. In fact, for him, the worthlessness of Parisian street culture matched only the worthlessness of Homeric poetry. This was one of the keys to his theoretical innovation. Our vision of Parisian cultural history is of course different, and we have learned, partially thanks to Robert Darnton, to regard the literary underclass of Paris as the hero of Enlightenment intellectual history. So d’Aubignac observed correctly—and part of my article tries to verify this—that singers on the Pont Neuf, especially the blind performer Philippot le Savoyard, sang famous airs de cour composed by Lully or other arias that had been heard first in Versailles. But when d’Aubignac heard the Pont Neuf singers performing well-known songs, he could not regard them as authors, because “authors” were famous poets who wrote for the stage of Richelieu. He regarded them instead as beggars. By contrast, when Milman Parry studied oral poetry in Yugoslavia in the twentieth century, he easily saw that the rural performers he recorded on his recording machines were authors of the deepest and most ingenious creativity. That’s why, to put it a little too simply, d’Aubignac and Parry arrived at almost the same theory of the oral transmission of Homer, but from completely opposite perspectives, one from the contempt for street culture and the other from admiration. And that’s why Homer exists more for Parry than for d’Aubignac. 

NB: The blind street-savant Philippot le Savoyard is one of the more delightfully aberrant characters who populate your story, and his dialogic encounters with Homer, plebeian and court culture, and the semiotic tapestry of the new Parisian cityscape provide a rich analytic aperture through which to view how d’Aubignac posed and grappled with the Homeric question. Can you say a bit more about Philippot––the archival traces he left, the different ways in which he was “read,” and the cultural repertoire from which he drew? Did you encounter him first through d’Aubignac? 

WT: Curiously, and probably on purpose, d’Aubignac never mentions Philippot in his Conjectures académiques. But after I encountered Philippot in the literature on Parisian street life in the seventeenth century, it became clear that d’Aubignac’s book is to a large extent about him. Philippot says that he was also the son of a singer, and presumably, based on the nickname, he came from Savoy. He wasn’t just active on the Pont Neuf in the 1640s and 1650s: to a large extent, he defined it, and he was the bridge’s great impresario. We know that he would sing songs in the company of a boy or several boys, who would help attract a crowd, and that he would play the hurdy-gurdy, which is like a cranked violin. There are a few valuable documents that let us reconstruct the world of Philippot: there is a beautiful painting in Philadelphia of Philippot leading a kind of bacchic procession; there are two books of his songs, which were printed on cheap paper at the base of the Pont Neuf, and which have never been critically edited or translated; and there is a kind of interview he supposedly gave to another seventeenth-century poet, Charles Coypeau. Immersing myself in these, I realized that Philippot was even more fascinating than d’Aubignac. In every way, he operated a kind of burlesque, making fun of himself, of his audience, of the city of Paris, and of the entire poetic tradition. Moreover, he actually claimed himself, in one of his songs, that he was like Homer, because he and Homer both drank themselves blind and were condemned to sing from door to door in exchange for money. So Philippot was actually Homer and Homeric theorist in one. And d’Aubignac clearly lifted his own theory of Homeric song from Philippot, a prospect that creates a dizzying hall of mirrors. Who was the author of the theory that Homer was not the author of the poems ascribed to him? The only possible answer is: Paris.

NB: A dialectic between intellectual, imaginative, and physical labor unfolds in this account, particularly in your discussion of blindness (I am reminded also that John Milton composed Paradise Lost after he lost most of his sight through dictating his verse to his daughter, Deborah). How did d’Aubignac interpret the relationship between different sensorial and perceptual capacities—and the role of the body in aesthetic labor more broadly? 

WT: I’m so glad you mentioned Milton, because Milton and Philippot le Savoyard were contemporaries, each was a blind poet, and each was self-consciously competing for the mantle of Homer. Milton did this by revering Homer and nobly claiming for himself the title of the skilled epic poet. Philippot did this by dragging Homer down into the street with him and by impugning Homer as a drunk beggar. But d’Aubignac had his own experience of profane performance, or bodily performance, which he had been pondering for decades by the time he encountered Philippot on the Pont Neuf and devised his Homeric theory. And here lies the importance of Loudun. In the 1630s, d’Aubignac went to Loudun to investigate the notorious possessions of Ursuline nuns there, possessions that were the subject of a great book by Michel de Certeau. D’Aubignac argued that not only were the possessions a forgery, but that he had seen bodies perform more elaborate contortions in the circuses and theaters of Paris, where, if the nuns performed, they would be applauded. This is what your question gets at by asking about the role of the body. Singing bodies and performing bodies were a spectacle in Paris and d’Aubignac used them to banish demons and gods, including Homer.

NB: What are you working on right now? How might your research on d’Aubignac relate to your dissertation work—however elliptically—on local village manuscript preservation and the development of recognizably modern practices of state administration in central Europe? 

WT: I imagined working on this article as an escape from my dissertation, which everybody needs. Unconsciously there probably were some underlying connections. In the most abstract terms, my other research is about embedded observers and anthropologists in otherwise inaccessible premodern communities, whether the oral culture of the Paris underground or Central European rural society. My dissertation is about the history of writing in the second scenario and the transition from the early modern to the modern period. 

Nick Barone is a  third-year PhD student in the Department of History at Princeton, specializing in modern Britain and Europe. His research focuses on the social, cultural, and intellectual dimensions of political apathy in nineteenth-century Britain and its empire, with an eye towards homologous developments on the continent. He has secondary interests in the comparative history of European statecraft, post-Kantian philosophy, aesthetics, and the history of the family. Nick graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College in 2019 with a B.A. in English and History. He has also completed graduate work at Brown University in literary studies.

Featured image: Hendrick Mommers, Vue de Paris et de la Seine, prise du milieu du Pont- Neuf. A droite, le palais du Louvre, 1665/6. Photo copyright 2010, RMNGrand Palais (Musée du Louvre), Stéphane Maréchalle.