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Conference Report

Pandemic History and Usable Pasts

By Nuala Caomhánach and Jonathon Catlin

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From May 8–9, 2020, thirty leading historians of medicine presented in the virtual webinar “Pandemic, Creating a Usable Past: Epidemic History, COVID-19, and the Future of Health,” sponsored by the American Association for the History of Medicine and Princeton University’s Department of History. Keith Wailoo, a historian of medicine and Chair of Princeton’s Department of History, opened the event by noting that while there has been much talk of the unprecedented nature of Covid-19 in popular media, for many historians this epidemic seems remarkably familiar. Participants presented on diverse aspects of pandemics past and present, including differential health outcomes for particular groups, literary depictions of disease, the history of social distancing, the invention of public health, different concepts of political and medical “success,” and asking how to locate the moments of when and for whom a pandemic is declared over. They were joined by over one thousand guests, who posed questions digitally.

Explaining Epidemics: The Past in the Present

Presentations began with remarks by Charles Rosenberg (Harvard), whose influential article “What Is an Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective” (1989) argued that epidemics are social “events” with “a dramaturgic form”; they elicit “immediate and widespread response,” unlike other slow trends to be retroactively excavated by historians. Drawing upon his reading of Albert Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague, Rosenberg wrote, epidemics “follow a plot line of increasing and revelatory tension, move to a crisis of individual and collective character” that mobilizes “communities to act out proprietory rituals that incorporate and reaffirm fundamental social values and modes of understanding.” In his remarks, Rosenberg said that differing symptoms and lethality of various infectious diseases shape the social impacts that turn them into “phenomena” or historical “events.” AIDS, for example, was “surreptitious and idiosyncratic,” a slow-moving disease that was at first difficult to detect, while cholera was the opposite, a disease with “melodramatic” symptoms that could be fatal within hours of infection. Hence certain outbreaks like cholera become events—“a signal”—while other diseases like tuberculosis that killed many more people often remained “background noise” that he likened to auto fatalities today. Dramatic epidemics like cholera “questioned society in every dimension” and led to discussions about the appropriate role of the medical professionals, individuals, and governments.

Speakers identified the 1832 cholera epidemic as a social and political turning point in the rise of modern public health. Keith Wailoo said that there was a pervasive sense that this so-called “Asiatic” cholera wouldn’t affect Europe or North America; but when it did, it underlined existing bemoaned social conditions including poverty, filth, and “intemperance.” Wailoo saw echoes of this in the present, in what he called the “magical thinking” of “it’s not going to affect us,” the illusion that disease will not affect one region or group for one reason or another, for example the governors of rural states in America saying “we’re not New York,” and then waking up to an outbreak. Rosenberg noted that such popular cultural views played an important role in the early stages of the AIDS epidemic, when it was considered a “gay disease” and elicited attitudes toward urbanism, gender, and sexual behaviors. It also activated religious views about transgressing god like cholera had in the nineteenth century. He criticized the pattern he called, “it’s them, not me,” be it “because they’re dirty or lazy or Roman Catholic in 1832 or gay or Haitian in 1984.” “Change is hard,” he reflected. Wailoo similarly criticized a tendency to blame sick groups for their own illnesses; often this included the poor, but also particular ethnic groups, like Irish Catholics in New York’s 1832 epidemic, “identifying people who were already stigmatized and available for different kinds of scapegoating.”

Nancy Tomes (Stony Brook) said that historians frame diseases based on their exposure to past ones, and she lamented the fact that many in the media today don’t even have lessons and patterns from the HIV/AIDS epidemic in mind. She apologized for her remarks veering toward the “dystopian end of the spectrum.” Outbreaks of disease, she said, often function as “great revealers,” of social problems that have gone unaddressed. “That’s not news!” she said: Historians have identified this pattern “over and over again.” Yet seemingly just as often as lessons are learned, they are unlearned or forgotten. Her book The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life (Harvard, 1998) she said, asks, “How do you live your life when germs are everywhere?” She focused on the “Spanish” flu pandemic of 1918, which was used to develop a plan for pandemic preparedness, though these plans “sat on the shelf” until today. Tomes said historians could contribute to a “balancing” of public perspectives. Public health spending never recovered from the 2008 recession, she said, so things were already going in the wrong direction, and historians could call attention to the consequences of this.

All three speakers emphasized that pandemics bring out existing social problems that have been ignored, swept under the rug, or pose uncomfortable choices. Rosenberg noted that structural racism and inequality had become talking points in recent years but have been acted out during the pandemic in egregious and didactic ways. Pandemics, he said, place a “stress test” on governments to respond. Wailoo noted that analogies to past pandemics also raise the question of what kind of leadership is desired or required in such urgent moments. Andrew Jackson was seen to flop in the 1832 cholera epidemic. Herbert Hoover did the same in the great depression and did not rise to the occasion, but he did lead to someone who could, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who has recently been invoked as an analogous leader to Andrew Cuomo. While “we don’t get to choose our leaders” when pandemics arise, their choices greatly affect health outcomes.

Rosenberg noted that public hospitals originated in alms houses, which, then as now, were usually underfunded, crowded with a diversity of people, and bore a dramatic burden during an epidemic. He referred to this “socio-structural” dynamic of stigmatizing affected and usually under-resourced groups as an “original sin.” Pointing to the devastating health consequences of Hurricane Katrina, he called this the “who knew phenomenon—who knew we had poverty?”

Rosenberg also identified another less predictable didactic moment in the pandemic: the dehumanizing process of how we get modern packaged meat. We realized, he said, that “this inexpensive product has costs that nobody had thought about.” He likened recent revelations to Upton Sinclair’s 1905 novel The Jungle. He also cautioned against over-dependence on vaccines as a cure, noting that we still don’t have one for AIDS, a virus he said revealed overconfidence and scientific exceptionalism about infectious diseases from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Both Rosenberg and Tomes stressed that government response can make a dramatic difference. In Germany, Rosenberg noted, Chancellor Angele Merkel has a Ph.D. in chemistry, which has no doubt affected her tendency to rely on experts in shaping public health policy. Tomes argued that the term “pandemic” is defined not by the sheer number of cases, but by the extent of geographical spread. We’re more likely to use the term “pandemic” now, she said, because we realize and conceptualize the global interdependency of our world, which was already there at the time of the bubonic plague and cholera but is now palpable thanks to the media.

Wailoo praised Tomes’s work on how urban pandemics illuminate “the present state of society,” and how disease can be said to offer an immediate“judgment” on a way of life. Tomes responded that pandemics raise the question, “Who is the ‘we’ in a nation? Who is worth protecting?” These “stress tests,” she said, often reveal which inequalities can be tolerated, resisted, or overcome. Nations’ responses reflect those kinds of beliefs, values, and accommodations. In closing, Wailoo admitted that understanding underlying issues historically is not itself a solution to them, but hoped that recognizing patterns might help us ask more meaningful questions about what could happen next and what kind of society will come out the other side of the crisis.

Epidemics and Urban Centers: Different Cities, Disparate Experiences

Howard Markel (Michigan) offered a brief history of the term “social distancing,” which began to take root around 2005 amidst worries about Avian Flu. While this disease turned out to have limited impact on human beings, a closer analogy to Covid-19 is the flu epidemic of 1918–19. He called it “the worst case scenario” and hence one of the best cases for data collection since the birth of modern germ theory: 10–14 million cases and about 675,000 deaths in the U.S. and at least 50 million deaths worldwide. Around 2005, Markel was called upon by the Pentagon for his experience with “protective sequestration,” or social distancing, which they wanted to apply to defense workers, though the plans were not adopted. A key insight of 1918, he said, is that 23 out of 27 cities he studied had double-humped infection curves, indicating that they likely “released the brakes too early.” Since no city had a second spike while social restrictions were still in place, he concluded that this showed that there was probably a causal relation between such protections resulting in lower cases. Societies in 1918 were also generally more accustomed to outbreaks; roughly 1 out of 5 babies died before their first birthday from infectious diseases.

Evelynn Hammonds (Harvard) unpacked ways that native and black populations in America have been disproportionately affected by the virus. She was surprised and disappointed to hear leaders like Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzger admit that racial disparities were a serious concern but also claim that governments couldn’t do much to address decades of health disparities in the relatively short timeframe of the crisis. For Hammonds, such comments recalled a 2000 hearing before the U.S. Senate on health disparities called “Bridging the Gap,” which had identified long-term policies that might have lessened the blow of Covid-19 on minority populations.

Kavita Sivaramakrishnan (Columbia) focused on another at-risk group, “fugitive” populations of migrants produced by post-industrial shantytowns and slums, especially in South Asia. She said that the crisis only exacerbated existing precarities and that poor working conditions themselves need to be changed. She called for “reinventing poverty.” While the condition of slums often gets normalized, she said, in times of crisis it needs to be justified. Referring to “fugitive” laborers who often perform “essential” work that sustains the urban middle classes but themselves live in slums, she asked, “Why are these people still invisible?”

Gregg Mitman (Wisconsin–Madison) spoke on the 2014–15 Ebola outbreak in West Africa and noted that it took about six months for the international community to respond and the World Health Organization to sound the international alarm. The disease itself was very deadly but not nearly as contagious as Covid-19. The total numbers of cases reached about 11,000, but the outbreak was still portrayed as a global health crisis. He noted the irony that some of the same criticisms of African countries made at the time, such as disbelief, fear, conspiracy theories, and rumors, are now playing out in the U.S. regarding Covid-19, though they are driven by different economic and social motives. In many ways, he said, the response of the U.S resembles that of a failed state, the same charge applied to West African nations fighting ebola. He said we might learn from their experience: many African nations are used to “living with viruses” rather than merely “containing them.” Since coronavirus has mostly impacted Europe and North America, he saw a “reverse directionality at play,” with African nations banning travel from the U.S., challenging the stereotype of Africa as a diseased continent.

In the discussion, Hammonds noted ways that poverty had been rendered “invisible” until the coronavirus crisis. Notably, most people do not see the close working conditions of “essential” workers who are now at risk. Stay-at-home orders pose new challenges because it is often impossible for impoverished and vulnerable groups to engage in social distancing, for example by providing space for children to do their schoolwork at home. Markel similarly noted that in the 1918 pandemic some Chicago officials were reluctant to close schools because they knew that children who were homeless or living in tenements would be safer in school, protected from abuse and street violence. During this pandemic, it has become clear how many children rely on free breakfasts and lunch for nutrition, and some cities now provide them at pickup sites.

Panelists also addressed backlash, riots, and violence that have resulted from past containment measures, for example in outbreaks of cholera in New York City in the 1890s and in Italy in 1911. Protests emerged in response to both inadequacy of government and curtailing civil liberties. Yet Markel argued that the term “lockdown” is not accurate today, as long as there are no guards keeping people inside. He said one of the best ways to convince people to follow public health guidelines is to suffuse them with patriotism. During World War I, for example, “do your part” posters created by the Red Cross celebrated helping contain the flu and contributing to the war effort, while the term “slacker” was applied to condemn those who did neither.

The panel concluded with a number of concrete takeaways. Hammonds said that historians could help actively dispel rumors. Mitman advised against exoticizing wet markets and eating wildlife when many Westerners do the same. He also advised that scholars can help archive the present crisis, as his collaborators have done using social media to record social experiences of ebola. Sivaramakrishnan urged that historians should not only be public intellectuals but also activists. Markel noted that during World War I, pandemic teams of medical students and practitioners from leading medical schools were called into duty at home and overseas. Finally, Markel said, connectivity can help educate the public through commentary and pandemic curricula.

Epidemic Responses: Civil Liberties and Public Health Politics

David S. Barnes (Penn) spoke on “Lessons from the Lazaretto,” the first quarantine hospital built in the U.S. in Philadelphia in 1799. He praised its leaders for walking a tightrope between managing disease and managing social backlash and attributed this to the following qualities: being honest and not soft-pedaling bad news to leaders, being flexible in quarantine regulations, and making affected parties feel their concerns were heard. He also noted that in Philadelphia’s past, pandemic-related restrictions have been criticized as a means of voter suppression.

Richard Mizelle (Houston) spoke on “Black Lives in the Wake of Calamity,” noting that nursing homes were also sites of crisis during Hurricane Katrina. He asked how we think about and visualize this disaster: Is it a ball-like virus with spikes coming out of it or graphic images, like those associated with Katrina, of dead bodies floating down the street? In some cities during the 1655–66 bubonic plague, for example, church bells chimed every time someone died. He argued that our view of a disaster should be broadened to include the total number of deaths in a crisis period. Regarding Katrina, Mizelle’s research discusses indirect deaths resulting from problems including routine illnesses and lacking basic supplies like food and insulin. The historian Scott Knowles, host of “COVID-Calls,” makes a similar case in his 2018 essay, “What Trump Doesn’t Get About Disasters,” which argues that including indirect deaths after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico that were not counted in official records raises the death count of that event from 6–18 to about 3,000. “Poverty,” reads Knowles’s tagline, “is the slowest disaster.”

Panelists also discussed the issue of visibility. In the past, having a poc-marked face was a sign of health because it indicated your immunity to smallpox, while in 19th-century New Orleans surviving yellow fever similarly conveyed increased status. The problem of these approaches is that people have in the past become deliberately infected, a worry again today as individuals may seek to get infected to acquire so-called “immunity passports.” Moderator Raúl Necochea (UNC Chapel Hill) recalled living through the 1991 cholera epidemic in Peru, and noted that while it now seems a successful public health response in retrospect, at the time it felt like chaos.

Uncertain Knowledge in Epidemics: How Crises Spur New Therapies, Surveillance Practices, and Dubious Theories

Mariola Espinosa (Iowa) asked, who are the invisible bodies that are not being counted? She noted a recent remark from the chief justice of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court that distinguished the predominantly immigrant workers in meat-packing plants from “regular folks,” a comment that seemed to lay bare the differing values placed on the health of various social groups.

Emily Waples (Hiram College) described differential reactions to the cholera epidemic of 1832: Whereas Europeans tended to centralize control and response, Americans doubled down on individualism, linking the disease to intemperance and failures of self-control, and accusing groups of bringing cholera upon themselves. Again today, she noted, success of treatment depends on the diagnostic awareness of individuals upon their own health and symptoms.

Graham Mooney (Johns Hopkins) discussed John Stuart Mill’s harm reduction principle, which holds that the only purpose for which power can be exercised over a community is preventing harm to others. This framework sets individual rights against the safety of everyone else. He also noted that privacy concerns about tracking coronavirus are not new: At the birth of public health, people usually died at home, so the state wanted access to what happened inside peoples’ homes. He also discussed the problem of conspiracy theories, but said that while they should not be believed it is important to ask, “Why are they believable? Why do people need them?” Conspiracy theories like those during times of cholera suggesting the disease was introduced to kill off the poor spoke to underlying class tensions and poverty that outbreaks inflamed.

After Epidemics: The Challenge of Reinventing Public Health

The final panel offered much intellectual food for thought. Wailoo opened the panel by explaining how diseases such as polio, AIDS, and cholera challenge the notion of humanity controlling nature, and force us to reconsider public health on the local, national, and global scale. Anne-Emanuelle Birn (Toronto) situated the global medical issues facing humanity within the framework of existing national borders and public health policy. In what ways, she asked, has the coronavirus revealed the pores and weak links in the chains across trade, international quarantine and disease surveillance, and the role and responsibilities of international health organizations, such as the WHO?

Dora Vargha (Exeter) addressed the concept of success: What constitutes success in a pandemic, who gets to decide when the pandemic is over, and what does the aftermath look like? Does success center on finding a vaccine or healing the final disease-positive patient? Do medical scientists and politicians view the concept through different lenses, and what is the impact and outcome of such definitions? Is halting the progress of the pandemic the final narrative defining success? As Akwasi Kwarteng Amoako-Gyampah, Nancy Tomes, and Birn engaged this simple, albeit provocative question, the panel addressed the complex and diverging reinventions of public health policy and programs within different countries, which can lead to misinformation and different definitions of diseases and cures. This left the panelists grappling with how we define global public health as historians and the role of history in aiding in public policy.


Nuala Caomhánach is a Ph.D. Student in New York University’s History Department. She works on 19th and 20th century History of Science and Environmental History.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of “catastrophe” in modern European thought.

Featured Image: “From the October 18, 1918 edition of the Illustrated Current News in New Haven, CT”, Paul Thomson photographer. Included in the conference poster.

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Conference Report

Ecumenism of Confessional Mentalities

Jan Levin Propach and Peter Schüz

In July 2019 an interdisciplinary conference on confessional mentalities and their significance for the ecumenical dialogue took place at the Center for Ecumenical Theology of the LMU Munich (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München). The conference was organized by Michael Huber (Research Assistant at the Faculty of Catholic Theology) and Peter Schüz (Lecturer at the Faculty of Protestant Theology). A collection of all presented papers will be published soon.

Etymologically, mentalities form a category of ‘mind’. They thus form a ‘soft category’ for describing processes of self-assurance that lead to the formation of identities and their social and cultural formative forces. The concept of mentality was introduced into academic discourse through historical research: in the second half of the 20th century, people became increasingly aware that the complex course of history and the dynamics of its events and processes can by no means be described at the level of documents, doctrines, and systems alone (see for example Patrick H. Hutton, “The History of Mentalities: The New Map of Cultural History.” History and Theory 20(3) (1981), 237-259).

In addition to the prevailing constellations of power, beliefs, concepts, and institutions, it is also and in particular the “spirit” of an epoch, a cultural phenomenon, a social group, which has determined the thinking and actions of people and in consequence also the course of history. This is based on the idea that there are such things as dominant attitudes to life and collective feelings, which are revealing as a tool for describing and interpreting historical phenomena. Especially with regard to religion, these tools were particularly effective — a considerable number of studies on the history of mentalities also focused on religious contexts, as pointed out by Julian Müller and Mario Grizelj in their paper. Religious mentalities are highly significant in the social and political dynamics in Europe and the United States — as Andriy Mykhaleyko pointed out in his paper — even in a time of dissolving religious forms and signs (cf. Jäger, Margarete/Link, Jürgen. Macht – Religion – Politik. Zur Renaissance religiöser Praktiken und Mentalitäten. Unrast: Münster, 2006).

That is no coincidence, because undoubtedly religion, despite all hard church-historical basic conditions, also deals with soft and emotional contents, which individually and collectively became strong identity markers and life-determining forces. In this respect, mentalities are prominent and expectable characteristics of behavior, beliefs and patterns of action, world views, and values. They are attributed from the outside, or one becomes aware of them in the mirror of their environment. In both cases, mentalities are an integral part of one’s own identity and especially of religious groups (Cf. Scheer, Monique/Fadil, Nadia/Schepelern Johansen, Birgitte (eds.). Secular Bodies. Affects and Emotions. Bloomsbury: London 2019 and Michael Seewald, “Bekenntnistradition und konfessionelle Identität.” Theologie und Philosophie 91 (2016), 571-591). Mentalities are not limited to individuals but become visible and describable when they appear in a collective: as mental social groups and all the way up to nations and cultures. Thus, the concept of mentality is inherently ambivalent, which makes the concept and its function as useful as it is delicate: it simplifies, exaggerates, caricatures, underlines — and can thus have a positive and clarifying effect as well as a negative one — often both in one go. On the one hand, the attribution of mentalities can strengthen and shape the identity-forming self-assurance of individuals and groups, promote solidarity and cohesion, create familiarity, but on the other hand it can also serve to exclude, manipulate and discriminate.

In the context of the history of mentalities, numerous studies on denominational mentalities have been carried out in recent decades. What hardly came into view was the idea of using the mentality issue for ecumenism and confessional comparison (cf. Silke Dangel, Konfessionelle Identität und ökumenische Prozesse. Analysen zum interkonfessionellen Diskurs des Christentums. De Gruyter: Berlin, 2014). A key note by Olaf Blaschke explored the history of ecumenical mentalities specifically within the 19th century and highlighted some central problems: first of all, the systematically fuzzy definition of the concept of mentality is certainly a problem for theology, which is otherwise accustomed to classical formulas of dogmatics and philosophy. But the crucial problem is probably the shift of perspective to an area that is unusual for ecumenical discourses and belongs primarily to the field of sociology of religion and history of religion. Making not one’s own theological position but characteristics of one’s own mental configuration the basis of the ecumenical dialogue is ultimately also a risk.

A dedicated topic of this conference was the elucidation of the relation between an ecumenism of confessional mentalities and its practical attitude on the one hand and the doctrines and the law of the churches on the other. Claiming that the conception of confessional mentalities focuses only on the practical attitude is of course a narrow approach, but it is true to a certain degree. There is an interest in the origin of confessional characteristics: what is the reason for the appropriation of certain theological doctrines? Why are others repelled or only integrated with difficulty? In this respect, it is also a matter of “preliminary stages” of doctrine and law. So, it is not the case that an ecumenism of mentalities ignores doctrine and law — rather it sees them in a new light, mainly from the point of view of psychology of religion, sociology of religion, and history of religion. Therefore, ecumenism of mentalities asks about the potential for appropriation of confessional doctrinal content.

To what extent does an ecumenism of confessional mentalities overlap with classical forms of ecumenism and what are the benefits of an ecumenism of mentalities? Ultimately, the inclusion of confessional mentalities into the ecumenical discourse cannot imply a fundamental turn and paradigm shift. Rather, it is about a broadening of perspectives, which in the end is also already laid out in classical ecumenical debates. “Soft” aspects always play a role in the evaluation and meaning of classically dogmatic positions and doctrinal contents, which cannot be depicted in theological terms, but are nevertheless crucial for the foundations of confessional identity. Still it is important to take these pre-conceptual dimensions of confessional influence seriously as a separate level of ecumenical research. Therefore, the ecumenism of mentalities is no alternative to “committee ecumenism,” but would best be described as a stimulus for the latter to engage with aspects of mentality in the context of ecumenical discourses.

The advantage of an ecumenism of mentalities is that it has drawn the attention towards those dimensions of confessional identity which could be called “interior” or “intuitive” and it enables a greater sensitivity to spiritual needs and their expressions. It concerns about the origin of theological-dogmatic statements and about the status of their “liveliness” and their support for a confessional way of life. Whether theological statements or dogmas become “important” or fall into oblivion, whether they arise or are rejected, whether they have a spiritual “backing” or not — these are all questions on which classical ecumenism and ecumenism of mentalities touch upon.

The disintegration indicates that the substance of traditional confessional forms and teachings does not simply evaporate, but rather merges into other forms, and thus also reconstitutes its own essence. Describing these transitions and transformational processes is certainly one of the most promising fields of an ecumenism of contemporary mentalities and was one of the conference’s most challenging intentions. Dealing with money and possessions, with social issues, with death and illness, with sexuality and social taboos, with language, rituals, personality, etc. — all this proves to be deeply influenced by confessional traditions. It is precisely when the obvious confessional frames disappear that the question of their mental status arises.

Europe is a particularly good example in this context: the current debates on the political and cultural unity of the EU, on the economic and humanitarian pillars of Europe, have in recent years repeatedly made it clear that the deep cultural roots of individual countries and their history have a far greater impact than the political will to make decisions in Brussels. And here the confessional mentalities also become particularly noticeable — the striking differences in lifestyle and ethics, in political views, in economic policy, and in family and social image of the predominantly Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant countries are most obvious and certainly informative for ecumenism. As pointed out by Ulrike Sallandt, in North and South America there are similar trends that can be traced. Here, too, the dominant attitude towards ethical, political, and social issues is certainly marked by a heritage of mentality that has religious roots. The different immigrant groups have deeply engraved their confessional mentalities in America’s history and have left traces on the map to this day. In election campaigns and political debates, these traces of mentality still play a role that should not be underestimated.

Finally, the conference focused on the limits of the conception of confessional mentalities. The most striking boundary is the concept of mentality itself, whose effectiveness has yet to be proven. At the same time, care should be taken that the debate on confessional mentalities is not immediately turned into an ecumenical landslide, for it is very easy to dilute and relativize everything that was previously carried out in highly demanding theological debates under the banner of mentalities. Keeping an eye on the conceptual, methodological, and substantive weaknesses of the concept of mentality is certainly an essential prerequisite for a profitable debate. What is intended is, first of all, an expansion of the point of view, not a trivialization or exclusion of the classical contents of dogmatics — a point, which was clarified by a key note by Michael Seewald.

Jan Levin Propach and Peter Schüz are lecturers at LMU Munich.

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Conference Report

Paratexts and Print in Renaissance Humanism: The 2019 Panizzi Lectures

By Anna Speyart

We are so accustomed to title pages, tables of contents, and indexes as our first points of access to printed books that it is easy to forget that these paratexts have a history of their own. Ann Blair, who is Carl H. Pforzheimer Professor of History at Harvard University, placed paratexts at the heart of the 2019 Panizzi Lectures, which she delivered at the British Library on the 9th, 10th and 12th of December. Over the course of three evenings, Blair explained how the advent of the printing press in Europe affected the quantity, kind and style of early modern paratexts. Her analysis focused on scholarly publications in Latin by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) and Conrad Gessner of Zurich (1516-1565). Both humanists were prolific authors who maintained close relations with their printers throughout their careers, granting them heavy involvement in the paratexts around their works.

Blair started the first lecture by signalling difficulties in defining the boundaries of paratext, whether according to their material form or their role in a book. She then introduced the audience to early modern paratexts with a seventeenth-century example. The Spanish polymath Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz (1606-1682) published a sixteen-page treatise on printing and paratexts in a volume otherwise dedicated to theology (Theologia moralis fundamentalis IV, 1664). This unexpected addition is explained in a paratextual note to the reader: the manuscript for the last part of Caramuel’s theology had been lost in transit, so he had decided to compensate for the loss with his treatise on moral issues in printing and paratexts. (Fig. 1) Caramuel’s discussion of paratexts itself, then, served as a paratext in the volume. Indeed, Blair revealed that a range of paratexts by various authors – including anagrams, letters, and even a poem with its own paratext in the form of footnotes – constitute a third of the entire volume, an unusually high percentage.

Fig. 1 The note in which Caramuel explains the loss of his manuscript and lists the supplements that he has added instead. Courtesy of Hathi Trust.

According to Blair, Caramuel’s book exemplifies the complexity of early modern paratexts, displaying a characteristic jumble of authorial voices and creativity in adding heft and flair to a scholarly volume with paratextual “fillers.” Printing reduced the cost of adding pages to a book, allowing authors and printers greater freedom in devising tomes with more elaborate paratexts than had been common in manuscript culture. On the other hand, early printing was a speculative business that required heavy investments in fonts, presses and labour before any copy of a book could be sold, raising the overall stakes of book production. Printers therefore overproduced to increase their chances of making a profit. Trying to generate demand for their product, publishers and authors used paratexts to advertise the authority and qualities of their books to potential buyers.

By the start of the sixteenth-century, title pages had become the most distinctive feature and standard beginning of printed books, which were initially sold as unbound stacks of paper. A good title page, according to Blair, not only helped users identify works among an increasing number of available books, but also served to catch the attention of the browsing customer at a glance. She compared the many editions of Erasmus’s Adages that were published between 1500 and 1528 to illustrate the development of title page strategies in this period. Early editions tended to embed the name of the author and title in a longer blurb, which praised the erudition and scholarship contained in the book. Johann Froben, Erasmus’s printer in Basel, was especially concerned with advertising the improvements of new editions without upsetting anyone who already owned a previous edition. His son Hieronymus, instead, opted for a more streamlined layout that emphasised the author’s name and the title. Overall, Blair concluded, the success of the Erasmus-Froben imprints suggests that there was value to the marketing of a book through the consistent appearance of its title page.

Apart from the need to attract buyers, Blair alerted the audience to another important reason why printing stimulated the production of paratexts. Printing allowed texts to travel widely across time and space. While those who produced printed works embraced the potential for greater fame and impact, they also feared the consequences of a negative reception. Readers of printed books were also less likely to have a personal connection to the author’s environment that would predispose them towards a favourable reception. Accordingly, humility tropes and pre-emptive apologies abound in early modern paratexts. Authors also alluded to the patronage of important figures and friendships with other intellectuals to embed their book in the context of an authoritative community. Printers, thus, needed books to sell, but authors especially hoped for favourable and appropriate readers and used paratexts to allay their anxieties over publication.

The influence of authorial anxiety, social relations and contingency on printed paratexts were discussed further during the second lecture. Blair started the evening with a brief discussion of quantitative data on the paratexts in Erasmus-Froben imprints. Erasmus wrote elaborate dedications and indexes, which are considered the major types of paratext, together with title pages. But Blair also made an especially strong case for lesser-known paratexts as telling sources for the social and pragmatic considerations involved in early modern book production. Humanists used these “minor” paratexts to capture the benevolence of their readers and to fill leftover space in a book at short notice.

Errata lists, Blair argued, are a good example of a frequently overlooked but meaningful type of paratext. They allowed authors and publishers to correct and apologise for mistakes, or to blame others for their negligence in correcting proofs. In the Ecclesiastes (1535), the errata explain that Erasmus had been too ill to oversee the printing of this book, praising the keen eye of the compositor who had made some corrections in his stead. In the errata of the 1536 Adages, on the other hand, Erasmus recounts his horrifying discovery of an interpellation in the text. He blames his former assistant for the mistake, though an annotated copy of the Adages reveals that the interpellation originated from Erasmus’s own hand. Blair explained that Erasmus had fallen out with his former amanuensis and probably used the errata statement to settle a score with him. Generally, the errata lists from Erasmus’s later career show a concern with posthumous editions of his writings, inspired in part by the humanist’s life-long battle against interpellations in ancient texts.

Blair argued that, like many other paratexts, errata also acted as fillers for empty space towards the end of a quire or page in printed books. Even if printing reduced the cost of production per page, publishers and authors were reluctant to waste opportunities to print text on pages that would otherwise remain blank. In the hands of Conrad Gessner, the addition of paratexts in leftover space developed into a fully articulated ‘lest-blank trope’, as Blair called it. A note at the end of Gessner’s De piscibus (1556) justifies the last-minute addition of a list of Greek fish names and errata by arguing that those pages would otherwise have remained blank. In a treatise on cookery, however, an eight-page letter on Alpine milk products, with which Gessner claimed to fill blank pages, exceeded the number of pages required to complete the quire, leaving another quire to fill. In the end, two more quires were added to accommodate Gessner’s paratexts. While the ‘lest-blank trope’ may seem trivial, Blair argued that it was part of Gessner’s authorial strategy. It accounted for the sometimes jumbled presentation of his works and portrayed him as a hard-working and versatile author.

Throughout the first two lectures, it became clear that paratexts are not necessarily written for the reader. Blair noted, for example, that she has hardly seen instances in which readers actually applied corrections as suggested in the errata. Instead, authors and publishers used paratextual spaces to settle scores, to allay their anxieties, to instruct the publishers of future editions, and to advertise their skills and connections. During the third lecture, Blair reminded us that paratexts are most certainly not written for the information of the modern book historian. The last evening was therefore devoted to the limits of what can be gleaned from early modern paratexts without contextual information.

Blair explained that paratexts are mostly optimistic in tone, articulating hopes and ambitions that were not necessarily fulfilled. She used Gessner’s Historia animalium I (1551) to illustrate how contextual sources can shed a different light on the interpersonal relations sketched in paratexts. The volume contains extensive and unusual paratexts, including a separate table of contents for the paratexts. Archival records reveal that the work’s dedication to the city of Zurich was successful: Gessner was granted a lifelong allowance of food and wine in return. In other cases, however, his dedications were less favourably received. He dedicated the second edition of his Icones animalium (1560) to Elizabeth I of England, after the dedicatees of the first edition had been executed for treason under Queen Mary. In his advice on paratexts, Caramuel specifically warns against re-dedicating books with a second edition and recommends that a second dedication, if inevitable, must always aim lower in the social hierarchy than the first. Indeed, Gessner’s correspondence reveals that Elizabeth felt insulted by the recycled dedication, despite his good intentions.

Gessner also made creative use of paratexts to promote his research and to reinforce his network of correspondents. Volumes on natural history advertised his bibliographical works and vice versa, creating a buzz ahead of publication even if some of the volumes announced were never published in the end. He also invited his readers to contribute to his on-going research by sending specimens or information on the natural world, with detailed instructions on how such snippets might reach him from faraway regions. In return, contributors could expect goodies, information or an acknowledgement alongside the many existing correspondents that Gessner listed in his volumes. (Fig. 2)

Fig. 2 The list of acknowledgements and instructions to aspiring contributors in Gessner’s Historia animalium III (1555). Courtesy of the Getty Research Institute, via the Internet Archive.

Printed poems were another avenue through which authors could enhance their social relations, according to Blair. Authors filled pages with poetry to showcase their humanist skill or to find favour. Erasmus, for instance, tried to appease Giles Cousin, an assistant who threatened to change jobs against Erasmus’s will, by publishing his poem in the Ecclesiastes, only to remove the poem from subsequent editions after Cousin had left. Blair ended the last lecture with a few remarks on early modern indexing, which made it possible for authors of miscellaneous collections to present information in any order they found convenient. Erasmus and Gessner both experimented with innovative indexes, which could be mentioned on title pages as selling points.

Our continued use of indexes and other Renaissance paratexts testifies to their enduring effectiveness. On the first evening, however, Blair reflected on the impact of digitization on contemporary paratexts, which she called ‘endangered textual species’. As electronic publication formats plunge us straight into the main text, we no longer encounter front matter unless we seek it out. Meanwhile, search boxes and Ctrl+F seem to eliminate the need for indexes. Blair remained optimistic nonetheless: digitisation is also making the study of paratexts easier and more fruitful than ever. Early printed books are increasingly available in digitized form to scholars around the world, who are thus granted immediate access to early modern paratexts in their full variety and in their original place within a book. 

The audience’s interest in paratexts was certainly sparked by the lectures, as testified by regular chuckles throughout and by abundant questions. Blair was mostly asked to compare her case studies to paratexts in books from different regions, periods or genres. She explained that it is very difficult to draw comparative conclusions on paratexts, mainly because quantitative data on paratexts are difficult to come by. By the end of the lecture series, it was clear that there is much scope for continued paratextual studies. Blair paved the way by alerting listeners to methodological tricks and caveats in between her detailed examples and analyses, showing not only which opportunities await within the field of paratexts, but also how paratextual studies can make essential contributions to social, intellectual and book history.

The Panizzi Lectures 2019 have been made fully available as podcasts by the British Library: follow the links to listen to the first, second and third lecture.

Hint: follow the links in the text if you are interested in seeing digitised early modern paratexts for yourself!


Anna Speyart has just completed the MA in Cultural and Intellectual History 1300-1650 at the Warburg Institute in London.

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Conference Report

Synthesis, Narrative, and Conversation: On Thomas Bender


By Daniel London

New York Intellectual, Global Historian, a conference honoring New York University’s Thomas Bender last week, attracted humanities practitioners from across departments and disciplines: urbanists, intellectual historians, journalists, law, film studies, and public historians among others. This came about in part from the character of Bender’s scholarship, which has made contributions to a wide range of fields in such books as New York Intellect and A Nation Among Nations. But it also spoke to his methodological, professional, and ethical commitment to bridging and bringing into dialogue all such fields, blurring the lines between national and international, academy and public, wholes and parts. To a large extent, this conference represented a taking-stock of how different scholars have taken up his “conversational imperative” and what the challenges and opportunities for such dialogue are today.

New York Intellectual, Global Historian, September 18-19th, 2015 NYC (photo © Daniel London)

This theme was directly addressed in the opening panel, “The Significance of Synthetic Thinking in American History.” Participants reflected on Bender’s influential 1986 article “Wholes and Parts: The Need for Synthesis in American History” and its call for an integrative framework wherein histories of particular social groups could be brought into conversation with one another around the broader narrative of the nation-state’s development. The tension here between ‘narrative’, with its potentially valorizing and reifying connotations, and ‘conversation’ attracted sustained attention. Amy Richter framed her teaching and research inquires by highlighting intergroup conversations in which the meaning of different terms, like ‘community,’ are debated, discussed, and misunderstood. The extent to which a society (or a classroom) agrees on the meaning and value of a certain term is one that can be empirically explored, with ideas left out being as important as those included. Film historian Saverio Giovacchini, in a particularly inspiring analogy, compared Bender’s approach towards historical synthesis to that of Jean Renoir in La Règle du jeu (Rules of the Game), who began his project by attempting to condemn the French bourgeois but found himself unable to explain or understand that group without seeing their relations to a wider social network of workers, aristocrats, celebrities, and so on. Such activity does not eliminate questions of right, wrong, and power, but foregrounds them with the actual reasons and relations of different actors with one another.

Panelists then examined the influence and further applications of Bender’s call for synthesis. Giovacchini found that the ethos behind television shows like The Wire suggested a kind of “Benderian” vision highlighting interdependencies rather than single groups. Andrew Needham found that monographs today are increasingly evaluated by their degree of connection with broader sets of stories, which was not the case earlier in the 1990s. On the other hand, Nathan Connolly stressed that a lack of diversity within history departments provided a structural limit to the degree of synthetic narratives they could produce: “You can’t hear those voices unless they are in the room.” Bender believes that journalists, who combine archival skill with the capacity to write for a broad audience—have begun taking the place of historians as crafters of synthetic historical stories. In contrast, Alice Fahs wondered whether historians themselves needed to become popularizers of their own work, or if some fruitful division of labor was necessary. There was an “assumption that everyone needs to be able to speak to everyone,” she stated, but perhaps “we do not all need to do this.”

The second panel of the conference, “Framing American History,” placed the previous day’s theme of synthesis in the context of divisions between national and international history. Daniel Kotzin found that beginning his survey of Buffalo’s history with European developments rather than the more traditional Erie Canal narrative “opened up” the subject to his students. Marc Aronson seconded this, claiming that most of his students have a far deeper connection with global events and cultural currents than with their local community (particularly business majors). Growth of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program in America promises to enhance interest in global history. Andie Tucher explained that highlighting narratives relating to her globally-diverse student body reaped great dividends, but worried that she was indulging in the politics of representation rather than deeper narrative cross-pollination.

Other panelists stressed the still-pervasive barriers within history departments that prevented international dimension in research and teaching. Tracy Neumman recounted that no Americanists in her department wanted to teach the Post-World War II global history survey with the excuse that they weren’t trained to look outside national borders – surely a self-fulfilling prophecy. Heightened standards for transnational scholarship that stresses multi-lingual archival research enhances its already considerable expense and length, exacerbated by the pervasive unwillingness of grant makers to support multi-national research.

David Hollinger characterized Bender as the embodiment of the “cosmopolitan idea as properly understood,” that being the “effort to take in as much of human experience as you can while retaining the capacity to function, live a real life, and make decisions.” Expanding on this theme, Hollinger examined how his professional and scholarly work strove both to foster heterogeneous dialogue and recognize the necessity of deep scholarly reflection and pragmatic action. In New York Intellect for example, Bender stressed the need for urban universities to cultivate a “semi-cloistered heterogeneity” in order to conduct cosmopolitan thinking in ways that even diverse metropoles cannot sustain, even as they take part in matters of public concern and debate on the local level. Community and Social Change critiqued the over-drawn framework of Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft present in much of modernization theory, switching criteria for community to the shared experience of mutual understanding and obligation that transcend mere proximity or locality. This understanding arguably informs much of social history since, such as Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal. Hollinger also recounted the story of how once, in a California conference on intellectual history co-organized with Carl E. Schorske, Bender had no qualms excising the long winded and jargon-ridden contributions of philosophers from the resulting book in the interest of a more balanced and cohesive whole.

The final panel, “A Historians’ Historian and the Future of the Humanities,” took up the question of how humanities practitioners can remain publicly engaged, relevant, and employed – one to which Bender drew attention in The Education of Historians for the Twenty-First Century. Valentijn Byvanck described the wealth of local historical societies and re-enactors encountered during his planning of a proposed national museum on Dutch History, namely organizations suggesting a popular interest in history which historians ignore at their own peril. Robert W. Snyder concurred, adding to the list K-12 teacher-training workshops, local history organizations, and oral history projects conducted by libraries. Jeanne Houch recounted her work in documentary film as a means of drawing a broader public into fundamental questions being debated in academia. Stephen Mihm intriguingly suggested that historians work alongside business, STEM, and mathematics practitioners in order to reach the public, but I am not entirely sure what this would look like. Issues like climate change certainly call for multi-disciplinary engagement, but are there others? These opportunities were leavened by vivid accounts of still-pervasive institutional constraints on public engagement by historians: ‘alt-academic’ projects are rarely taken into consideration by tenure committees, and graduate students are rarely trained on how to apply for public-history fellowships or job openings. All too many historians are—to use Claire Potter’s analogy—content to stay in their boxes.

The conference ended on a somewhat ambivalent, if still optimistic note. Both Bender and Barbara Weinstein stressed that we have been here before: excepting the classes of 1955 to 1963, one-third of all history Ph.Ds in the 20th century did not take academic positions. The jobs crisis of the late 1970s (worse than the one today) was unrelieved by the still-nascent opportunities of public history. Any implication for quiescence was stilled by Bender’s further resolution that in the future “things are going to be unimaginably different” for both the academy and the humanities more generally; in other interviews and an SSRC essay, he suggested what this might look like.

I have long been inspired by Bender’s commitment to bridging institutional barriers within and without the academy, and it was heartening to see the extent to which they will continue to be built upon and practiced by generations of scholars. His championing of public history as a valid activity for historians has garnered a particularly enthusiastic, and hopefully long-lasting, response. At the same time, the academically-anchored political historian in me pined for more examples of unashamedly scholarly work taking up his original call for robust historical synthesis, arrived at through an analysis of “public conversation.” Mary Ryan’s Civic Wars stands out as a particularly notable model, but fewer works come to mind that cover periods beyond the late 19th and early 20th century or that engage with more recent developments in historiography, particularly the history of capitalism and the institutional turn.

This is unfortunate, as I think Bender’s concept of “public conversation” has the potential, via integrating network dynamics, social history, and cultural/intellectual considerations, to dramatically re-orient the way we talk about American political development and – possibly – help us make our work more popular and relevant in the process. But this is just a personal hang-up. All in all, the conference succeeded where it was supposed to by doing full justice to the man – ideas, spirit, and all.


Corrections (10/4/15): an SSRC essay was incorrectly referred to as an interview, and the broad statistic of one-third of history PhD. taking non-academic positions was revised to reflect different career paths chosen.


Daniel London is a Ph.D. candidate in American History at New York University. He studies the growth of social politics in the late 19th/early 20th century North Atlantic, focusing on metropolitan space and the urban public sphere as his corpus. Follow him on twitter at @dlondongc, and check out his blog at publicspaced.com.

Featured Image: New York Intellectual, Global Historian, September 18-19th, 2015 NYC (photo © Daniel London).