Intellectual history What We're Reading

What We’re Reading: Week of Oct. 12

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


Mary Beard, Why ancient Rome matters to the modern world (Guardian)

John Byron Kuhner, The Latin Speakers of West Virginia (Eidolon)

Duncan Kelly, Why Max Weber Matters, on Peter Ghosh’s long-anticipated Max Weber and ‘The Protestant Ethic’ (TLS)

Ferdinand Mount, Parcelled Out: The League of Nations, on Susan Pedersen’s The Guardians (LRB)

Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, Why We (Mostly) Stopped Messing With Shakespeare’s Language (New Yorker)

Jennifer Schuessler, Earliest Known Draft of King James Bible is Found, Scholar Says (NY Times)

Elif Batuman, The Treasures Under Istanbul (New Yorker)


Erik Kwakkel, “The Incredible Expandable Book” (Medieval Books)

Michael Shae, “Don Carlos Rediscovered” (NYRB)

Kathleen E. Kennedy, “Coconuts in Medieval England” (The Mary Sue)

A Conversation between Marilynne Robinson and Barack Obama (NYRB)


Pierre Assouline, « Lucien Rebatet exhumé des décombres » (La République des lettres)

Elena Ferrante on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (Ann Goldstein, trans.; The Guardian)

Martin Filler, “The Rush of Berlin” (NYR Daily)

Josh Jones, “Hear The Epic of Gilgamesh Read in its Original Ancient Language, Akkadian” (Open Culture)

Daphné Le Roux, « Le social au naturel » (La vie des idées)

Jeffrey Alan Miller, “Fruit of Good Labors” (Times Literary Supplement)

Alain Navarro, « Le Retour des absents » de la seconde guerre mondiale, vu par les archives de l’AFP (Le Monde)

William Rees, “Levinas at Large” (Times Literary Supplement)

Amanda Swain, interview with David Frick on his book Kith, Kin and Neighbors: Communities and Confessions in Seventeenth-Century Wilno (New Books in History)

Aviezer Tucker, “Václav, We Never Knew Ye” (The American Interest)

And finally, free downloadable copies of books and journals from the Bauhaus School (Open Culture)

Intellectual history

Reform and Renewal: Notes on the International Medieval Congress, Leeds

by guest contributor Jake Purcell

The ruins of the twelfth-century Kirkstall Abbey, en route from Leeds airport to the city center. (Wikimedia Commons)
The ruins of the twelfth-century Kirkstall Abbey, en route from Leeds airport to the city center. (Wikimedia Commons)

Every medievalist has two Major Events marked in their calendar each summer. The first is the International Congress on Medieval Studies, held in May in Kalamazoo, MI. I’ve just returned from the second: the International Medieval Congress, for which some 2,400 medievalists of all stripes descend upon Leeds University for four days of keynotes, talks, panels, roundtables, exhibitions, demonstrations, receptions, and Daleside’s Congress Ale (brewed specifically for the IMC).

The theme for this year’s IMC was “Reform and Renewal.” This might sound like the typical, overly capacious conference theme, but in his introduction to the IMC’s keynotes, Steven Vanderputten explicated it as a challenge to attendees. Vanderputten referred to a “silent revolution” in medieval studies, with medievalists now finding reform and renewal at all times and in all areas of activity and deliberately investigating “how medieval people pursued and effected changes.” Heady, exciting stuff, but the “silent” part of the revolution meant that the terms had some problems of “semantic and conceptual hygiene” that he urged conference-goers to work out. Vanderputten cast “reform and renewal” as powerful frameworks for analysis by discussing these terms alongside terms like “gender” and “emotion.” Medievalists are always looking for medievally-generated concepts that can contribute to chronologically broader conversations, and it was exciting to see Vanderputten put forth a plausible candidate.

IMC this year used a double keynote in an effort to generate conversation and embrace diversity of perspectives, methodologies, time periods, and subjects. Maureen C. Miller gave the first keynote, on the Gregorian reform. For medievalists, the Gregorian reform was once upon a time the medieval reform, but is now probably best rendered with as many scare quotes around as many parts of the phrase as possible. It persists mostly as a convenient shorthand for a set of social, economic, and intellectual shifts associated with the papacy in the eleventh century. Miller asked why our narratives for the eleventh century are so uninteresting to students, when the sources and the transformations that they reflect are so shocking. Her diagnosis pointed to lingering nationalism and a fixation on how modern states function as culprits. She offered two pieces of a new narrative for Gregorian reform. The first was to focus on the cultural impact of the reform, which, according to Miller, included the first instance of an international clerical culture that crossed political and geographic boundaries – something could be said to be done “clerically,” and it would have a meaning that was not only local. The second was to return to the political aspects of the reform, in part by pointing out just how odd a state the Papal States were: in international-relations theory terms, this unit comprised a “radically disarticulated composite state,” including fiefs in other kingdoms, terrae sanctae in the Holy Land, and tributaries. Miller’s talk left me, for the first time ever, excited to teach eleventh-century reform, and she conveniently pointed out that “reform and renewal” was as much about us as it was about medieval people.

The second speaker, geographer Keith Lilly of Queen’s University Belfast, took us to fifteenth-century Bristol, which served as a case study for how urban reform in the Middle Ages reorganized and combined towns, shifting peoples’ material and spatial experiences of their cities. Lilly reminded the audience that reform and renewal were processes that had particular, local manifestations that left their mark on landscapes and differently shaped the lives of people who lived in different areas. Both talks explored possible meanings of “reform and renewal” as categories in fascinating ways, but I found myself wondering what relationship “reform and renewal” might have as categories to twentieth-century efforts to find medieval “renaissances.”

At a series of panels on dispute resolution that I attended (and at one of which I presented), “reform and renewal” frequently manifested as a willingness to tackle old questions and to provide new answers. One of the papers in this vein that got my heart beating a little faster was Matthew McHaffie‘s take on the long-standing issue of what to make of all of the violence in medieval legal documents from France in the central Middle Ages. Looking at Anjou in the eleventh century, McHaffie noted that violence served an important legal function for lords. Acts of violence transfigured a dispute over who owned what into a dispute about whether or not an act of violence happened – a question with much lower stakes. This paper, like many in the session, urged scholars to think seriously about the particular judicial needs and judicial culture of the high Middle Ages. In the same panel, Robert Portass explored some of the differences between seeking justice (iusticia) and seeking truth (veritas) in tenth-century Galicia, while Albert Fenton explored the flexibility of function and construction of royal authority in the early Anglo-Saxon writs. That panel was the second of two remarkably cohesive sessions organized by Alice Hicklin on the resolution of disputes. She presented at the first, discussing the many political functions that releasing hostages (rather than taking them) could have in early medieval Europe. My own paper focused on how legal doctrine could be worked out in the process of disputing in Merovingian Gaul. The third paper, by Jenny Benham, explored how treaties between kingdoms were often determined by internal policies towards convicted criminals and outlaws.

One of the joys of Leeds is how it allows for extremely extended discussions on various subjects. There were, for example, seven panels each on canon law, on Grundmann’s legacy, and in honor of Ian Wood, among many other series. I attended one of the Grundmann sessions, which re-evaluated the concept of the vita apostolica as a model or justification for religious reform in the Middle Ages. Papers by Amanda Power and Neslihan Şenocak left the audience’s “brains buzzing,” in the words of moderator Ian Forrest. Power suggested that the concept of vita apostolica had obscured similarities, for example, between “secular” and ecclesiastical morality. She suggested that the idea of apostolica performed in the Middle Ages much the same work that the concept of “heresy” did in policing behavior and defining social boundaries. Şenocak followed with an equally invigorating critique of the idea that there was a singular vita apostolica. She discussed medieval confraternities—by far the most popular flavor of the medieval lay religious society—and noted that they pursued a variety of vita apostolica that was less about renunciation and more about equality (in the medieval sense, which has to do with a lack of social markers rather than the modern equality of rights).

I’ve managed to capture here only a tiny fraction of the excitement and energy generated by Leeds. I—and I suspect many others—left recharged and ready to get back not only to the library, but also to the classroom, to share with students so much that makes medieval history electric.

Jake Purcell is a Ph.D. student in Columbia University’s history department studying the institutional and legal history of early medieval Europe. He is interested in documents, legal or otherwise, and the institutions that produced them in Merovingian and Carolingian Francia.

Intellectual history

Out of chaos, some sort of order: The International Congress on Medieval Studies at 50, May 14-17, 2015

by guest contributor Elizabeth Biggs

The International Congress on Medieval Studies held in Kalamazoo last week was immensely diverse, given its 3,000 attendees, but a good reflection of medievalists generally. It didn’t take itself particularly seriously, the alcohol flowed generously, and a good book or argument was warmly welcomed. It was the fiftieth birthday of the conference, as well as other major anniversaries such as 600 years since the Battle of Agincourt and 750 years since the first acknowledged Parliament.Agincourt Everyone was there to have a good time, hear excellent papers and meet old and new friends. Every evening ended with multiple wine receptions, often with an open bar, sponsored by publishers, universities or learned societies. The book exhibit was equally generous, with huge numbers of publishers, secondhand book dealers, and manuscript dealers swarmed by eager delegates. Perhaps the most popular session of all was that of the Pseudo Society on Saturday evening, when a lecture hall was filled to bursting with medievalists there to hear about how IKEA is a secret society where Viking survivors are hiding, among other papers that toyed with academic norms for laughs as well as making a serious point about the absurdities of being an academic.

Some speculations about the true nature of IKEA.
Some speculations about the true nature of IKEA.

Medieval history has certainly changed and grown in the last fifty years. The dizzying array of topics in medieval studies that were included in the thick program ranged from experimental archaeology using ballistics gel to gauge the effects of different arrows on different types of armor, to digital humanities efforts to edit texts online and the England’s Immigrants project database. None of these topics would have been conceivable at the first major conference at Kalamazoo in 1964, when the cost was just $5, and there were five parallel sessions in a two-day event rather than the current just under fifty parallel sessions across three and a half days. Even then, the conference was already self-consciously interdisciplinary. It featured theology, liturgy, philosophy, history, and English literature, although in separate disciplinary sessions. All of those themes were still present this year, even if they are now often couched in different language. Liturgy is as likely to be discussed in terms of space and ritual as in terms of the books used by nuns. The study of how other periods conceptualized the idea of the “medieval” has hearteningly become popular, and illuminates both our understanding of the term “medieval” and the later periods under consideration. Kalamazoo now also is doing useful work in thinking about the changing state of the profession in the age of adjunct teaching. There were sessions on being a medievalist in a small college where no one else does what you do, on the possibilities of alt-ac careers of all types, and on how best to teach medieval topics in diverse settings. All of this was an important reminder that being a scholar is wider than research, and that teaching and working outside the ivory tower are vital parts of medievalists’ experiences.

The sessions I ultimately chose to go to were all fascinating and made me think in new ways about the work I’m doing. The sheer size of the conference meant that I created, in effect, a mini-conference of late-medieval English history, with a side jaunt to medicine and canon law, to pick up some of the ways in which scholars are thinking about these issues. I went to a session on Magic and Medicine in which Kristen Geaman looked at a court case that I’ve been trying to write about for my own thesis, the 1441 treason and witchcraft trial of Eleanor Cobham, through the lens of medieval infertility treatments.

Humphrey and Eleanor Cobham.
Humphrey and Eleanor Cobham.

She argued that we should take Eleanor at her word that she wanted a child, and so she might well have commissioned magical activity. I’d never thought before that Eleanor might actually have done more than play around with horoscopes, and have always read the court records as politically motivated, given that Eleanor’s husband was the heir presumptive to the young Henry VI and his enemies were circling. I’m glad to be able to rethink those assumptions! Even very old forms of scholarship, such as prosopography, gained new life. Caroline Barron on the glovers of London or John McEwan’s work on the distribution of wealth in the city used older methods to assess new questions in social and economic history that often reflect the experiences of modern society: experiences of inequality, how to survive in a rapidly changing world, and how best to create supportive institutions that protected members’ careers and incomes.

The reason I could be there at all was thanks to a travel bursary from the Society of the White Hart, as I was speaking in their session on political power. I think they found my interdisciplinary paper—with its architectural study alongside chronicle evidence of politics in Richard II’s reign—different, but the comments and questions were unfailingly generous and helpful.

The restored St. Stephen's Cloisters, looking west to Westminster Hall, also part of Richard's repair work at the Palace.
The restored St. Stephen’s Cloisters, looking west to Westminster Hall, also part of Richard’s repair work at the Palace.

They left me heartened about the work that I do, looking outwards from an institution to the cultural and political world around it, rather than the general inward-looking run of institutional history. It is amazing how much it helps to know that I’m doing work that people from a range of fields think is interesting. Kalamazoo reminded me of the range of work medievalists do and the range of settings they do it in, from research universities to public engagement, to teaching colleges. It reminded me that my day job may well turn out to be outside academia entirely, but that I can still be a small part of a huge, sprawling conversation. I’ll hopefully be back next year, to drink more wine, meet more people, and continue to reflect on what it means to identify oneself as a medieval historian, whether teaching inside or outside a university.

Elizabeth Biggs is a Ph.D. student in History at the University of York. She is researching Stephen’s College, Westminster, from 1348 to 1548, as part of a larger AHRC-funded project on St Stephen’s Chapel from 1292 to the Blitz in 1941. Her work focuses on the people who worked at the college, donated money and lands to the college, or who knew it through its presence at the heart of the medieval Palace of Westminster. She can be reached on Twitter and via email.

Intellectual history

Looking back, looking ahead

It’s been three months since the three of us, with the help and sponsorship of our benevolent overlords at the Journal of the History of Ideas, launched this blog. We wanted to take a moment to pause, reflect on what we’ve done so far, and note some upcoming developments as we continue to experiment with this new venture.

In what we’ve taken to calling the “think pieces” that we’ve published so far, we’ve tried to stay true to what we promised at the outset: embracing an ecumenical definition of “history of ideas,” and featuring a wide range of graduate-student guest contributors who have offered us their views on subjects ranging from medieval metaphysics to Foucault, and everything in between. We’ve offered our own eclectic thoughts as well: on listening to the sounds of history, early modern marginalia, intellectuals on toboggans, and much more besides. And we’ve sought out contributions (and written a few ourselves) that comment on hot historiographical topics, and that report and reflect on current events or exhibitions. We also try to stay abreast of developments in the republic of letters that is the academic internet, collating upcoming events and online reading for readers’ information.

That any of this has been a success is down to you! We’re so grateful to those of you who have engaged in the comments, responded on Twitter, linked to our posts on Reddit, sent us notices of events, CFPs, and interesting reading, and particularly to those of you who have written for us. We hope you’ll continue to do all these things—to feel that this is your blog too. And we want to mention some ways in which we’re working on making JHIBlog more of a community, how we’re focusing our energies to that end, and how you can help.

First, we’re changing our editorial schedule slightly: while we’ll feature content and news from the republic of letters whenever time permits, starting next week we’ll be offering a regular fare of two more substantial blog essays on Monday and Wednesday and then our usual link roundup on Friday. This is a slowing down of the frenetic pace we established at the outset, but it will allow us to use our time instead to seek out new contributors and develop new formats. Look out in the coming weeks for interviews, collaborative pieces, more efforts to engage with the authors and ideas of our parent Journal, perhaps even a bit of multimedia, and—in the summer—a book club. We’ll also be aiming to achieve greater geographic scope, whether seeking contributors who can write on non-western topics or those who can be local correspondents, sending us the news about history of ideas from their particular universities or cities across the United States and the world. If you think you might fit into either of those categories, get in touch! We’d love to talk about how you can get involved.

While we want this blog to provide a space for the ideas and writing of talented young scholars, we want also to ensure that it is a community, interactive and open to contributions other than substantive essays. We’re always eager to hear your suggestions about how we might foster this ethos, as well as any other feedback you might have. And we hope you’ll keep commenting, tweeting, and sending us the news from your corners of the republic of letters, as well as getting involved in our new initiatives.

Many thanks, and here’s to the next three months—and many, many more!

Emily, John and Madeline

Intellectual history

Imagining the World of Early Print

By guest contributor Devani Singh

"Private Lives of Print: The Use and Abuse of Books 1450 - 1550" at Cambridge University Library. Photo by M. McMahon.
“Private Lives of Print: The Use and Abuse of Books 1450 – 1550” at Cambridge University Library.

Amongst the incunabula or “cradle books” – those produced before 1500, in the infancy of printing – currently on display at the Cambridge University Library is a more recent manuscript. It is an autograph copy of Carol Ann Duffy’s “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili”: a response, in verse, to what the Poet Laureate dubs the “the world’s most unreadable text” of the same name, a dizzying amatory dream narrative printed in Venice in 1499. Like the sonnet response to the book penned by sixteen-year-old Sisto Medici (1501/02 – 1561) on this copy’s title page, Duffy’s poem is an homage to the human relationship with early printed books and texts. “How we know what we love—”, Duffy’s poem wonders, “what we make, or hold, or pass on with our hands”. In this exhibition, “The Private Lives of Print”, focused as it is on celebrating not only the technical achievements of the first European printers, but also books’ subsequent reinventions in the hands of later owners, such lines might serve as an anchor for thinking about encounters with the products of the hand-press period, historical and recent.

England’s first printer, William Caxton, was a mercer by training; he learned the technique for printing books in Cologne, planning to incorporate these new goods into his mercantile business (ODNB). The items that he printed in Flanders supplied the English market abroad with the first books produced in the language. And the texts on display at the University Library confirm that many of the books he and his contemporaries made were intended to travel. Incunabula moved along the familiar Continental trade routes, tracing paths that Caxton had travelled to sell his wares —perhaps even manuscripts — long before he acquired a printing press (ODNB). From printing house to illuminators and binders, from authors to patrons, and from readers old to new, the striking mobility of the early printed volume at the hands of historical agents is underlined here.

A defaced woodcut of Thomas Becket. Cambridge University Library. Photo by M. McMahon.
A defaced page of the life of St. Thomas Becket. Cambridge University Library. Photo by M. McMahon.

One of the exhibition’s centerpieces is a Gutenberg Bible (Mainz, 1455), once used to set copy for a Latin Bible printed in Strasbourg around 1469/1470, and here displayed alongside its exemplar. Paul Needham, who discovered the relationship between these two books, contributes an essay to the CUL’s virtual exhibition, recounting a remarkable narrative of this Gutenberg Bible’s early history that unfolded even as it sat unsold for over a decade (see also his essay here). When early printed books did reach the hands of purchasers, of course, they were often modified further, sometimes irreversibly so. One of the exhibition’s English books is a translation of the Legenda aurea, printed in London by Wynkyn De Worde around 1498/1499. Preserving an act of later censorship, this copy bears a lattice of dark ink across the remaining pages of the life of St. Thomas of Canterbury — the “hooly blissful martyr” of Chaucer’s Tales — whose cult was proscribed in 1538 by Henry VIII.

Some readerly interventions, on the other hand, have been reversed by the classifying tendencies of modern libraries, as in some of Caxton’s works on display: The Boke of Curtesye and Anelida and Arcite, once bound together with six other pamphlets into a reader-assembled composite unit. This volume saw its constituent parts separated into distinct codicological units at the University Library in the mid-nineteenth century (Gillespie, “Poets, Printers, and Early English Sammelbände”, 195). Here, an attempt is made to restore the pamphlets’ earlier configuration, as the curators return the eight booklets to proximity, inviting us to imaginatively reconstruct their existence in prior centuries as a single book.

Both edifying and divertive acts of reading are documented, sometimes in the same volume, as in a popular Latin volume on the Trojan war printed at Messina in 1498 composed of Dictys Cretensis’ De bello troiano and Dares Phrygius’ De excidio Troiae historia. One reader rendered full-page ink drawings of Roland and Hector on the book’s endpapers, transcribing additional Latin verse alongside them. But most visually arresting, perhaps, are not the drawings and dense annotations added to some books, nor even the sumptuous professional gilding and hand-coloured woodcuts that adorn the more lavish volumes in the collection, asserting the reliance of the new trade in printed books on familiar ways of beautifying them.

Rather, the eye is drawn to a group of books near the far end of the Milstein Exhibition Centre, showcasing a range of bindings in which contemporary owners covered their books. Their descriptions alone evoke the bindings’ sensuous quality — for instance, that of the delicate humanist knot-tooling on a black goatskin binding of Cornelius Nepos’ Vitae Excellentium Imperatorum (Venice, 1471), or of the pink-stained alum-tawed sheepskin that encloses a monastic copy of Cicero (Cologne, 1472). These tangible relics of previous owners and past readings permit an imaginative encounter with the people who made, cared for, and used these volumes, and with the myriad motivations these historical agents brought to their encounters with the leather, metal, wood, paper, ink, or vellum that comprise the books seen here.

The frisson that we experience from our own encounters with material texts is no doubt heightened by an awareness of their movement across time and through unknowable pairs of hands — what Duffy’s poem calls “the human chain”. That early printed texts often preserve both the intentionality and idle whims of their makers and readers is a substantial facet of their attractiveness.

Yet the CUL incunabula also speak productively of absences. One composite volume of three texts printed at Louvain in the 1480s tells of another type of chain — this one physically lacking, but evident from holes in its distinctive binding. This missing chain tethered the bound book to a lectern, probably in a Cambridge library, in the late fifteenth century.

In the case of this Cambridge book, in the compilation described above, or in the sole extant leaf of a broadside almanac offering guidance of the appropriate purging regimens for a given place (Budapest) and a given year (1475), we encounter early printed books and texts differently than their first readers did. The text of broadsides like this one would lose utility and thus, value outside of their localised geographical and temporal contexts, and were likely recycled for their physical material. This ephemerality is instructive, and grants the space to interpret archival absences. In doing so, we might better apprehend the loss, mutability, and destruction — both intentional and inevitable — that necessarily characterise the history of early printed texts.

Private Lives of Print: The Use and Abuse of Books 1450-1550 is curated by Ed Potten and is on display at the Milstein Exhibition Centre, Cambridge University Library, until April 11, 2015.

Devani Singh is a Gates Cambridge Scholar completing a Ph.D. in English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where she is studying early modern readers of Chaucer’s printed editions. She is also interested in Renaissance historiography and in early modern uses of medieval books and texts.

Intellectual history

The Republic of Intellectual History

If the Republic of Letters occasionally meets for coffee or conferences, so too do intellectual historians often come together for talks, regular workshops, and summer schools. The editors at JHIBlog hope to increasingly encourage and promote these events with your help. We will soon have a calendar of events on the website, with readers encouraged to submit news of interesting happenings both in intellectual history as well as related fields. Here we certainly want to look further afield. If the discipline itself has ambitions to a global scope, intellectual history is being practiced globally as well. Here such organizations as the International Network for the Theory of History have begun paving the way for collaborations and contacts, particularly in their handy listing of conferences which will interest intellectual historians of all stripes. Yet not all traditions of doing intellectual history are converging—nor should they, necessarily. This makes for a variegated and exciting map which we hope readers from all over the world can help fill in over time. And hopefully we can do our part in fostering this community.

So without further ado, here are a few events, workshops, exhibitions, and programs which the editors look forward to participating in (or very much wish we could attend–would any readers like to contribute their impressions?):

Events, lectures, and conferences


Programs and exhibitions:

What have we missed? Please let us know in the comments!