Unveiling evil: ‘Hitler’s furies’ and the dark side of women’s history

By guest contributor Benedetta Carnaghi

Two years ago I went to Ravensbrück. I went to Ravensbrück because I was shocked not to have been aware of its existence before reading the memoir of an ex-deportee. I went to Ravensbrück because I was appalled that, for no reason other than that it was the only Nazi concentration camp built especially for women, it is not as well known as other camps.

I was investigating Virginia d’Albert-Lake. Born in 1910, in Dayton, Ohio, Virginia had married Philippe d’Albert-Lake, a Frenchman working for the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. She then moved to France. At the outbreak of World War II, they both decided to become involved in the Comet escape line, which eventually led to Virginia’s arrest in June 1944 and deportation to Ravensbrück.


From left to right: Virginia d’Albert-Lake after her liberation; back in health; when she received the French Légion d’honneur (Private archives of the D’Albert-Lake family, Paris)

Virginia survived deportation and died in 1997. I was fortunate enough to interview survivors, and they explained to me that female deportation remains a taboo. Women were obviously present in concentration camps, but they seem to be nearly invisible in the historiography. Research and recognition has only recently improved. Sarah Helm published a group portrait of prisoners in Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women (2015). On May 27, 2015, Ravensbrück survivors Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion were interred in the French Panthéon alongside resisters Pierre Brossolette and Jean Zay.


Francois Hollande (centre) stands on the Panthéon steps between the flag-draped coffins of Jean Zay, Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, Pierre Brossolette and Germaine Tillion. Source: The Guardian

Margaret Collins Weitz’s conclusions as to why it took so long for these women’s stories to enter scholarship remain valuable, although her book Sisters in the Resistance (1995) was published two decades ago. It took a long time for women to “recount or write up recollections of their wartime experiences” (17). The rediscovery of their stories started with the French feminist movement of the 1970s and found a major touchstone in the first colloquium on “Women in the Resistance” organized by the Union des Femmes Françaises (UFF, Union of French Women) in 1975 (Collins Weitz, ibid.). But women were generally less interested in receiving recognition for their actions—that is, in filling out the official papers to be decorated or commended by the state. For those who survived deportation, the issue with “telling their story” proved more complicated. Deportation deprived them of every aspect of their femininity, forced them to parade naked at a time when nudity was taboo, exposed them to the insinuation that they had prostituted themselves to survive. They came back to a society that did not understand what they had gone through, and trying to explain it would have meant reliving the horror. Collins Weitz focuses, in particular, on “the dilemma of those who were, or subsequently became, mothers” and “found it impossible to tell their children of the horrors they had seen—and sometimes experienced,” in part because they did not want them to be marked by their personal stories (18). It was only to fight revisionist claims that extermination camps had not existed that the women found the courage to speak.


On the left: “Plus rien de personnel, plus rien d’intime” by ex-deportee Eliane Jeannin-Garreau ; on the right: Aufseherinnen greet Himmler during his visit of the Ravensbrück concentration camp in January 1941 (SS propaganda album – Archives of the Ravensbrück Memorial – Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück)

Nazis destroyed the barracks where the Ravensbrück deportees lived, but the houses of the SS guards still stand as a memorial and host various exhibitions. One explores the female SS guards, Aufseherinnen and Blockführerinnen, deployed there. I remember staring at their faces: their stories upset me. They were detrimental to my purpose of highlighting women’s heroism. At Ravensbrück I ignored them and kept my focus on the deportees.

But there they were, hundreds of them: on the walls of that house, in the back of my mind. I knew that the time would come when I would be forced to exhume the concerns I had buried and come to terms with the fact that there were women perpetrators among the Nazis. And that time came, indeed, when I read Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (2013).

Lower examines the women who were born in Germany in the wake of World War I, grew up in the Nazi regime, and worked for the Third Reich in the Nazi-occupied East, sharing responsibility for the massacres that were carried out there. Her research began in the town of Zhytomyr, in Ukraine. Lower originally traveled there to find documentation of the Final Solution, a quite impossible task. The town is about a hundred miles west of Kiev, and under the Nazi occupation, it was Heinrich Himmler’s Ukrainian headquarters.

The Nazis arrived in Ukraine in 1941 and ravaged the territory. Lower stumbled upon certain documents that listed ordinary German women living and working in towns like Zhytomyr during the Nazi occupation. She was surprised that such women would be in these areas. When she went back to the Western archives, she looked at the postwar investigative records and found testimony from many German women detailing the killings. Prosecutors appeared more interested in the crimes of their male colleagues and husbands. So Lower started wondering why prosecutors did not question or follow up on these women’s testimonies.

The female camp guards who triggered my thoughts were the only ones about whom studies existed when Lower set out to write her book. Compared to other German women working under the Nazis, the Aufseherinnen were fairly well-known, but according to Lower they were presented as caricatures or pornographic distortions of the “evil woman.” While there was a lot of literature about the different male perpetrators in the Nazi system, there were no sophisticated studies of the female perpetrators. Hannah Arendt herself “neglected the role of female administrators” when she “fashioned her thesis on the banality of evil” (Lower, 265). Yet the Cold War temporarily buried the question of the Nazi perpetrators, since “the Red Army became the ultimate war criminal entrenched in German experience” (Elazar Barkan, The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices, 2000: 10) and the German focus was on the nation’s suffering and its own victims. As for women specifically, the figure of the Trümmerfrau—the designation given to those who helped reconstruct the German bombed cities—was so powerful that it effaced every other representation of German women. Historian Leonie Treber defined it as a “German legend” and set out to dismantle the myth in her dissertation, but the controversy her work raised denotes how established this heroic image of women in post-Nazi Germany still is in today’s Germany.

The number of women perpetrators is not negligible. An estimated 500,000 German women went to the Nazi East and formed an integral part of Hitler’s machinery of destruction. Lower tried to understand why they did so, by closely studying their biographies. Their lives showed her how human beings change and how these women ended up contributing to the violence of the Holocaust, from the idealists who were allied with the Nazi ideology and saw themselves as agents of a conservative revolution, to those who simply followed their husbands or lovers and sought material benefits.


Erna Petri, before and after her arrest. Wife of SS Second Lieutenant Horst Petri, she shot six half-naked Jewish boys who had managed to escape from a boxcar bound for a gas chamber and were hiding on the Petris’ private estate in Nazi-occupied Poland. She was barely 25 years old at the time. When pressed by the Stasi interrogator as to how she, a mother, could murder these children, she referred to her own desire to prove herself to the men (the SS). Erna Petri “embodied” the ideological indoctrination of the Nazi regime. Source: Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (p.88 and 205)

Paradoxically, it took Lower’s book about gender to teach me that evil is not gendered. Genocide is a human problematic behavior that applies to both men and women. “Minimizing women’s culpability to a few thousand brainwashed and misguided camp guards does not accurately represent the reality of the Holocaust,” writes Lower (182). Women should be given back their agency, whether good or bad.

The idea of “evil” has significantly evolved from the way Hannah Arendt first conceptualized it. Corey Robin analyzed her position in “The Trials of Hannah Arendt” and in a recent lecture delivered at Cornell University titled “Eichmann in Jerusalem. Three Readings: Hobbesian, Kantian, Arendtian.” Arendt tried to distinguish “Eichmann’s murderous deeds from his state of mind.” Eichmann was not a “solitary actor,” but a “partner in a criminal joint enterprise.” Arendt “de-emphasized motive” to stress the “collaborative dimension of mass murder.” Robin cites one of her letters to Scholem, where she famously said that “evil is never ‘radical’” but “only extreme,” and “it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension.” Robin argues that this is specifically “what Arendt’s critics detect and dislike in her thesis of the banality of evil: a denial of evil as the summum malum, of its capacity to serve as the basis of a political morality.” In such a quasi-Hobbesian interpretation of good and evil, there is no objective moral structure to the universe.

If for Arendt ideology played a lesser role in Eichmann’s decisions, it seems to me that Lower’s book resonates more with the way Timothy Snyder conceptualized evil. Nazism—just as Snyder framed it in his Black Earth: The Holocaust As History and Warning (2015)— supplied its perpetrators with a Weltanschauung and a rationale for their crimes, namely a fictitious life-and-death global struggle against an ultimate enemy, the Jew. Overall, a minority of women directly carried out the killings of Jews in the East, but many women participated in the administration, working to keep the wheels of the Nazi system turning, the deportation trains going and the documents moving. Their agency is visible in the goal they wanted to attain: to gain social mobility and be part of the new, selected “racial aristocracy” of the Third Reich.

Addition photos for the above piece can be seen here (courtesy of Benedetta Carnaghi)

Special thanks to John Raimo for his excellent suggestions on a previous draft of this piece!

Benedetta Carnaghi is a Ph.D. student in History at Cornell University. She studies modern European history with a particular focus on Italy, France, and Germany. Her current research focus is a comparison between the Fascist and Nazi secret police. Related interests include the history of Resistance, the Holocaust, gender studies, political violence, and terror.

Intellectual History from Below

by Emily Rutherford

When he came to give a lecture at Columbia University last month, Chris Hilliard was introduced as “an intellectual historian from below.” “From below” is a term to conjure with in modern British history: a field whose forebears include E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Raphael Samuel, Christopher Hill, and others; a field in which class as a category of analysis is never far from the foreground. But “intellectual history from below”? Isn’t that an oxymoron? To judge from classrooms, conferences, even the pages of (ahem) a certain journal, it would seem that there is a rather specific and narrowly-defined vision of who gets to be a subject of intellectual history. But if, as Joyce Chaplin suggested in her Lovejoy Lecture earlier this month, intellectual historians might attune themselves to the nonhuman, surely they might also profit from inquiries into less elite, less educated subjects—even illiterate or barely literate ones. I am going to tell you a bit about how Hilliard has done this in his work. And then I am going to get a bit polemical. “Intellectual history from below” means two things: it refers to the subjects the intellectual historian investigates; but also to the culture of the field itself, which could be made more equitable and welcoming by a rethinking of what sort of subjects constitute intellectual history. As an editor of this blog, I have had probably a hundred conversations with potential writers who say, “What I do isn’t intellectual history/history of ideas. It’s not clever enough. It’s too far from political thought or the history of philosophy.” This perception is widespread and it is holding intellectual history back. Hilliard’s work shows us how it can be changed.

Hilliard’s first book, To Exercise Our Talents: The Democratization of Writing in Britain (2006), is about how writing emerged as a pursuit for ordinary, working-class people in Britain in the interwar period. In his introduction, he clearly frames his project as “literary history from below,” taking seriously the literary aspirations of ordinary people and the magazines, clubs, and interest from democratizing publishers and agents that sustained them. His second book maintained his interest in the world of twentieth-century literature and literary criticism, but turned to F.R. Leavis and the literary-critical movement of which he was a leader, in English as a Vocation: The Scrutiny Movement (2012). Previous accounts of Scrutiny had tended to emphasize the centrality of Leavis, with other figures understood as disciples who sought simply to apply his methods to their reading, writing, and teaching. But Hilliard gives us a more contested and diffuse landscape, in which non-elite individuals such as schoolteachers and adult-education lecturers reinterpreted Leavis’s and other critics’ ideas to suit their own political and pedagogical ends, often with consequences for thought and action that the critics could not have predicted or intended. Hilliard’s creative use of sources makes both books stand out: he turns to documents, such as the records of provincial writers’ clubs or of adult education colleges, that others had not thought to use and in many cases did not even know existed. He reads those sources in original ways, revealing the idiosyncrasies in how individuals develop ideas about writing, politics, or the world around them.

So too last month at Columbia, when Hilliard opened his lecture by challenging himself to tell a literary history of the most unlikely subject: a poison-pen letter-writer who, in 1920s West Sussex, attempted to frame a neighbor for the obscene and threatening letters she sent to residents on their street, including herself. Ranging over the uses of literacy in a criminal libel investigation of the period, Hilliard concentrated in particular on the contents of the letters: the handwriting, a key aspect of the criminal investigation; and also the kinds of obscenities the letter-writer used. Swearing was a distinctly masculine practice in interwar England, and so by being a woman who swore in letters sent to both men and women, the letter-writer was violating an important cultural taboo. Hilliard showed how this could be why her syntax seemed so irregular. She mashed obscenities together in compound forms, used verbs as nouns and vice versa, in a manner not attested in any other records of slang or swearing of the time, because she did not have access to the masculine environments in which she might have heard swearing regularly used. She was not, as Hilliard put it, a “native speaker” of obscenity.

What does this have to do with the kind of history JHI represents? In a seminar Hilliard held with graduate students later that week, we came back to Scrutiny, and to the present-day consequences of how topics like mid-twentieth-century Cambridge literary critics are understood. Political thought has recently been experiencing a revival of interest in modern British intellectual history, with investigations into other academic disciplines (such as literary criticism, history, economics, or anthropology) often understood as closely connected to the political questions facing, predominantly, the New Left—and thus to political questions that we face today, as we re-evaluate the welfare-state settlement of a period that our discussion demarcated as 1942-63. Historians of the United States in the same period might notice a similar trend. This is a topic that can be pursued skillfully (and is, by several of my contemporaries), enhancing our critical historical understanding of politics and political thought in the twentieth century. But it is also a topic that can lend itself to a peculiar kind of nostalgia, expressed by young people who were born long after the mid-twentieth-century settlement unravelled through challenges on a variety of fronts: not only from neoliberalism, but also from other left-wing political perspectives, foremost among them feminism, that challenged the profound limitations of the mid-century New Left perspective. Understanding this genealogy has allowed me to observe a certain collapsing of past and present: when some young intellectual historians admire the pre-1968 Left for its commitment to a socialist ideal from which our present world has fallen, they also naturalize the culture in which the subjects of their research operated. I’m just going to come out and say it: the history of leftist political thought and allied disciplines, operating within the pre-feminist paradigms of the subjects it studies, is not a comfortable atmosphere in which to be a woman—particularly when it is the main arena for young scholars interested in history of ideas. The intellectual history of other times, places, and political orientations is often no better, similar enough to academic philosophy to mirror many of the social and cultural barriers to women’s participation in that field.

As in philosophy, I believe that many of the gatekeepers in intellectual history would not like to imagine themselves as people who contribute to their discipline being a hostile environment for women, and are eager to remove barriers to women’s participation. Unfortunately, such discussions tend to cohere around topics such as parental leave, work-life balance, and unconscious bias in hiring or grant decisions—which, if important issues, seem to me to have little to do with the reasons that I and other young, early-career women feel socially and culturally unwelcome among groups of intellectual historians. We are intelligent, opinionated people who are experienced at historical research and have opinions about ideas and their history, but the conversation that is going on around seminar tables and in the pages of journals is too narrow and uncritical to be an interesting one, while joining or starting alternative conversations usually entails reaching the decision, “I’m not an intellectual historian. Intellectual history is not for me.” Put simply, intellectual history is as much of a boys’ club as the Universities and Left Review, and when there are so many other subfields in our discipline which are not, why would we stick around?

How to change this? We can turn not to HR practices, but to our research itself and how we talk about it. We can take a leaf out of Hilliard’s book—as, indeed, we editors have sought to do since we began this blog—and define intellectual history as widely as possible. It is a subject which can be studied above and below, and one which can include the widest possible variety of individuals, who do not necessarily conform to our preconceptions of someone who is capable of having “ideas.” We must be unfailing in our commitment to situate ideas and their authors in their social and cultural context, and thus avoid temptations to naturalize our actors’ analytic categories and political programs or to collapse the distance between their time or their subjecthood and our own. We must take seriously those whose primary subject of study is the social and cultural context: we must not marginalize them as helpmeets to “real” intellectual historians, but must make sure that our conversations about intellectual history, at least when they occur in public, demonstrate awareness that ideas do not exist in a vacuum, in the past or in the present. As Hilliard’s sources and methodology demonstrate, the circumstances in which ideas appear can involve unintended consequences, or unexpected meetings of “high” and “low.” They can challenge us as humans to treat new interlocutors with dignity and seriousness. Making room in one’s scholarship for unexpected interpretations of Scrutiny outside the academy, or for a West Sussex housewife’s profanities, is not after all so different from making room for an intelligent and inventive colleague who has not read every word of Gramsci or Foucault, and may still have something important to say.

Alice Ambrose and Life Unfettered by Philosophy in Wittgenstein’s Cambridge

by guest contributor David Loner

As the first and only official post-graduate advisee of the celebrated Austrian thinker and Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alice Ambrose (1906-2001) typified in her 1932-38 Ph.D. course the complex social experience interwar upper-middle-class women underwent as unofficial members of the University of Cambridge. Compelling yet reserved, Ambrose toed a line between subordination and originality which Cambridge dons often expected their female pupils to exhibit in the years following the Cambridge University Senate’s 1921 university ordinance on “title of degree,” or unofficial courses for women students (women were not made full university members until 1948). Yet, despite this carefully-negotiated and normative gender performance, Wittgenstein ultimately denounced his protégée and her work as morally “indecent”—precipitating a contest between the Austrian thinker and his fellow dons over the place of women and high academic distinction in mid-twentieth-century Cambridge philosophy.

As an American graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison after the First World War, Alice Ambrose’s initial research focused on the work of the Dutch logician L.E.J. Brouwer and his conjecture that intuition, not metaphysics, best served as the epistemic foundation to all mathematical thought. Forming the basis of her first Ph.D. dissertation, this work would enable Ambrose to successfully apply in 1932 for Wellesley College’s one-year post-doctoral fellowship with the University of Cambridge (what would a year later become a second fully-fledged PhD course). Cambridge may have been male-dominated, but Ambrose’s choice was intentional. For, as she claimed in correspondence with her Madison advisor E.B. McGilvary, only through discourse with the renowned Cambridge junior fellow and author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, would her future employment as a lecturer in philosophy be assured (October 16, 1932, MS Add.9938 Box 2, Folio 2, Cambridge University Library).

Having previously stunned interwar readers in its provocative albeit bewildering analysis of the metaphysics of logic, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus—written during his four-year service as an infantry soldier for Austria-Hungary in the First World War—was a blatant departure from the technical program of his one-time prewar Cambridge supervisor Bertrand Russell and their forerunner Gottlob Frege. The Tractatus argued that, while capable of depicting the world within a coherent symbolism, “logical pictures” nevertheless indicate a greater ethical realm, inaccessible to humans (not just scholars) by symbolic speech acts. It uncompromisingly declared that “what we cannot think, that we cannot think: what we cannot therefore say what we cannot think” (TLP 5.61). For, as Wittgenstein posited, “in fact what solipsism means is quite correct, only it cannot be said, but it show itself.” (5.62). “The sense of the world,” then, Wittgenstein argued, must lie outside the world (6.41), in a moral reality composed not of propositions but instead of silence (7).

Immediately conceding their debt to Wittgenstein in both private letters and published reviews, scholars like Russell and the Cambridge mathematician Frank P. Ramsey praised the Austrian thinker’s remarks on solipsism and the tautological nature of logical propositions as indispensable. Even so, for these highly-trained professional men, as well as for their more neophyte pupils, the ethical import of Wittgenstein’s emphasis on the sense of the world as somehow outside the world (and within silence) would remain largely ineffectual in combating the greater problems of philosophy. Ambrose was no exception to this. Writing to McGilvary on October 16, 1932, a week after the start of her course at Cambridge, Ambrose would confirm that while “there’s no doubt his thoughts are original,” Wittgenstein’s mode of conveying ideas in his course lectures left one wanting. “He is extremely hard to follow,” she wrote; “he forgets what he set out to say, rears ahead of himself—says Whoa!…settles down rigidly then and thinks with his head in his hands, stammers, says ‘Poor Miss Ambrose’, swears, and ends up with ‘It is very diff-i-cult’” (MS Add.9938 Box 2, Folio 2, CUL).

Letter from Ambrose to McGilvary, MS Add.9938 Box 2, Folio 2, Cambridge University Library. By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

Letter from Ambrose to McGilvary, MS Add.9938 Box 2, Folio 2, Cambridge University Library. By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

Exemplifying what Stefan Collini has referred to as the “absent-mindedness” of the twentieth-century British intellectual, Wittgenstein at once appeared to Ambrose in her initial course lectures and supervisions as “as good as a babe in arms at advising one about any practical matters.” “It is true he is not English,” she wrote in the same letter to McGilvary, “not enough dignity, not proper enough”; “he lectures without a gown and doesn’t insist on students wearing theirs; and he goes with his shirt open at his throat.” Yet in his absent-mindedness as a Cambridge junior lecturer, Wittgenstein would go far beyond the pale of Collini’s characterization. For, as Ambrose indicates elsewhere in her notes on Wittgenstein’s lectures, Wittgenstein now not only denied that there were any intellectuals in Cambridge, but refuted the entire project of philosophy as sheer nonsense. “Nonsense is produced by trying to express in a proposition something which belongs to the grammar of our language”—a practice all too common among scholars. “The verification of my having toothache is having it,” Wittgenstein remarked; “[i]t makes no sense for me to answer the question, ‘How do you know you have a toothache?’, by ‘I know it because I feel it’. In fact there is something wrong with the question; and the answer is absurd.”

For the anti-intellectual Wittgenstein, then, scholarly inquiry in philosophy, be it at Cambridge or elsewhere was, much like a toothache, a disease—in need of constant therapeutic relief. This alleviation of nonsense, he argued, was possible only through the disappearance of obsession (98) or a life unfettered by disciplinary philosophy, engaged in full duty to oneself. For Ambrose, however, her status as a woman student in need of employment as a university lecturer prohibited her from such thinking. Indeed, despite Wittgenstein’s insistence that his students apply his adversarial ethos to their study of philosophy, interwar female pupils like Ambrose would by and large continue in their courses to affirm the same Cantabridgian virtues of industry, conviviality and hierarchy which the Austrian thinker disparaged as absurd. The result, then, as Paul R. Deslandes has elsewhere detailed, was a “highly gendered little world” of “intense institutional loyalty” which rewarded only the most subordinate, if original, of women students—a paradoxical imbalance which Ambrose attempted to maintain in her own work on finite logical propositions.

When not helping Wittgenstein to record his latest research (what eventually would be published in 1961 as The Blue and Brown Books), Ambrose thus pursued quite separately in her postdoctoral research an investigation into the epistemic purchase of Wittgenstein’s concept of grammar in philosophy. In particular, her April 1935 article “Finitism in Mathematics [I],” the first published exposition of Wittgenstein’s post-Tractarian philosophy, situated his denunciation of philosophical “nonsense” within a much broader scholarly conversation on the intuitively finite nature of logical operations in mathematics or “verbal forms.” Referencing Wittgenstein’s own turn of phrase throughout her article, Ambrose argued that “what the finitist can justifiably claim” can be “in many cases…a statement of what he should claim as opposite of what he does claim” (188). That is, logical dilemmas stifling scholars’ findings were more often than not expositional confusions regarding the grammar of intuition, brought about by the inexactness of the philosopher’s language. Guided, then, by the same remarks her supervisor offered in his 1932-35 Cambridge lectures, Ambrose’s article presented Wittgenstein’s absent-minded posture not an affront to academic philosophers, but rather as a bulwark in their continued acquiescence to male-dominated high academic distinction. Yet despite her initiative in re-imagining Wittgenstein’s new philosophy as a boon for postwar scholars’ ongoing investigations in the philosophy of mathematics, Ambrose’s citation would prompt the full wrath of the Cambridge junior fellow.

On May 16, 1935, in a letter to Ambrose, Wittgenstein decried his protégée’s publication as “indecent,” refusing any further cooperation on his part with her. Only two days later, he reiterated this point, denigrating Ambrose’s behavior to his Cambridge colleague, professor of philosophy G.E. Moore. “I think you have no idea in what a serious situation she is,” he wrote. “I don’t mean serious, because of the difficulty to find a job; but serious because she is now actually standing at a crossroad. One road leading to perpetual misjudging of her intellectual powers and thereby to hurt pride and vanity etc. etc. The other would lead her to a knowledge of her own capacities and that always has good consequences.” To Moore, who would subsequently chair Ambrose’s 1938 Cambridge Ph.D. viva, this assessment was clearly misguided. As her supervisor, he knew Ambrose to be a competent scholar, despite the double standard imposed on her as a women student. Yet unlike Moore, Wittgenstein continued to feel no obligation to assist Ambrose in her quest to maintain the careful balance between humility and assertion necessary to advance one’s career in academic philosophy. For, as he would later argue during his disastrous postwar tenure as chairman of the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club, logical perspicacity required but one thing from the serious philosopher, whether man or woman: the full denial of disciplinary philosophy as a worthwhile life.

David Loner is a second-year PhD student in history at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on the milieu of students and scholars associated with the twentieth-century Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Book Review: Meredith Ray, Daughters of Alchemy

by guest contributor Elisabeth Brander

Alchemy, and its association with the quest for the always-elusive philosopher’s stone, is one of the most fascinating aspects of early modern science. It was not only a tool to effect the transmutation of metals and create medical remedies, but also a philosophical and theological pursuit. Its most famous practitioners include John Dee, Isaac Newton, and Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, more commonly known as Paracelsus. The alchemical work of Paracelsus in particular has attracted considerable academic interest: from Walter Pagel’s analysis of his medical philosophy, published in the mid-twentieth century, to Charles Webster’s more recent studies of Paracelsus’ social and theological mission.

doaThese men might be well-known, but they were not the only alchemical practitioners. Tara Nummedal has shed light on the career of Anna Maria Zieglerin, a sixteenth-century German alchemist in the court of Duke Julius of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, whose work focused on childbearing and fertility. This is complemented by the work of Alisha Rankin, who has brought attention to what she terms “noble empirics”: German noblewomen who created medical remedies using their empirically gained knowledge. Meredith Ray’s new study Daughters of Alchemy continues this discussion of female practitioners. Her analysis of Caterina Sforza, the noblewoman from whom the Medici grand dukes were descended, provides an Italian counterpart to Rankin’s empirics. Sforza was actively engaged in the scientific empiricism of the age, and was a collector of “experiments”: personal recipes based on alchemical principles that could fulfill a variety of useful functions. Some were used to make cosmetics or medicinal remedies, and others were used for the traditional alchemical pursuits of creating—or mimicking—gold. These recipes reveal the ways in which alchemy was a practical pursuit for noblewomen, whether as a means to preserve health and beauty, or maintain control of their finances.

Sforza wrote her recipes in a private manuscript—a true “book of secrets”—but in the sixteenth century these compilations of recipes were also published, forming a popular literary genre. While these books contained knowledge that appealed to both sexes, many of their recipes offered advice tailored specifically to females, such as how to make breasts small and firm. This indicates that women were an intended audience for these texts. Yet only one book of secrets, the Secrets of Signora Isabella Cortese, is attributed to a female author, and even the Secrets’ female authorship is dubious. Ray ties this male authorship of books of secrets to the wider early modern desire to uncover the so-called “secrets of women.” This special knowledge of the female body, which was believed to be possessed only by women, was a topic of great interest for early modern medical practitioners; and Ray argues this is echoed in the male authorship of books of secrets. But even though these works were most often written by men, their distinctly feminine content is an indication of women’s continuing interest in practical alchemy.

Although her monograph is titled Daughters of Alchemy, Ray’s focus extends beyond alchemical practice. The second half of the work shifts away from alchemy and towards natural philosophy, particularly how women deployed it in literature. The Venetian authors Moderata Fonte and Lucrezia Marinella used their understanding of scientific discourse and natural philosophy as weapons in the querelle des femmes, the ongoing literary debate about the proper role and status of women. Both Fonte and Marinella incorporated scientific learning into their narrative works to make keen observations regarding the inherent intelligence of women and their equality with men. While these two authors did not engage with the empirical practice of Sforza and Cortese, their literary output shows that women could engage with scientific knowledge outside the confines of a university. In that sense they are similar to the seventeenth-century English noblewoman Margaret Cavendish, another early feminist author and natural philosopher whose scientific contributions have attracted academic attention in recent years.

Ray’s final two case studies are the most directly engaged with the so-called Scientific Revolution. Camilla Erculiani, an apothecary from Padua, published her Letters, a scientific treatise in epistolary format, in 1584. This work combined her knowledge of Galenic and Aristotelian thought with her understanding of alchemical processes to describe the causes of the great flood. Margherita Sarrochi, who was famous for her learning and hosted a salon that attracted many leading scientific figures, did not publish any scientific works of her own. This did not, however, prevent her from participating in scientific culture. She corresponded with no less a figure than Galileo: not only about her own epic poem Scanderbeide, but also about his astronomic discoveries. The letters of others corroborate that a high value was placed on her opinions, and emphasize the prominent role she played within her scientific network.

None of the women Ray describes held formal positions at the great European universities, and the vast majority of published scientific treatises were written by men. But as the work of Ray and others are making increasingly apparent, early modern scientific culture was not limited to male academic circles. Women practiced alchemy within their households, incorporated scientific learning into their literary pursuits, and offered their opinions on scientific treatises. As Ray states in her introduction, “It is not women who are missing from the picture: it is our lens that must be adjusted to perceive them” (4). Daughters of Alchemy certainly does this.

Elisabeth Brander is the rare book librarian at the Bernard Becker Medical Library of Washington University in St. Louis. Her academic interests include anatomical illustration in the early modern period, the history of obstetrics, and the connections between magic and medicine.

A Case of Androgynous Gender-Bending in Early Modern Radical Religion

By guest contributor Timothy Wright

From the perspective of contemporary feminism, Christianity has a decidedly mixed record on gender. On the one hand, many modern scholars, such as Mary Wiesner-Hank, cite Christian culture as leading to an “erosion of gender variation” as the patriarchal hierarchy implicit in Christian scripture demanded a binary model of gender identity (Wiesner-Hank, Mapping Gendered Routes and Spaces, 72). On the other hand, scholars of early modernity have increasingly pointed to the egalitarian and subversive potential of the doctrine and practices of radical Christian sects such as the Quakers, whose doctrine of the ‘universal light’ legitimized such practices as female prophesy and female traveling ministers, leading the historian Mack Phyllis to label Quakerism the “cradle of modern feminism” (Phyllis, Visionary Women, 349).

A particularly outlandish example of experimenting with gender roles in early modern radical religion is found in the practice of Christian rebirth in the ascetic radical Protestant network led by Johann Gichtel (1638-1710), named the “Brethren of the Angelic Life”. Far from being understood as a purely symbolic allusion to a change in one’s inward ‘spiritual’ attitude or disposition, Christ’s reference to rebirth in John 3:5 evoked widespread early modern mystical, alchemical, and Rosicrucian speculation on how the soul and body could be transformed by faith (Dohm, Alchemische Poesie, 15). Gichtel and his circle followed in this tradition, but with a twist: his concept of rebirth aimed to erase all traces of gender from the human body, thus precipitating an androgynous transformation rendering us as the angels, or as Adam before the Fall, a doctrine Gichtel took from the highly heterodox and speculative musings of the German mystic Jakob Boehme (1575-1624). Gichtel, following Boehme, taught the great ‘mystery’ that mankind must reclaim in its own body the image of God as found in the first creation before the Fall. Gichtel argued that “the first man Adam was neither man nor woman” (Gichtel, Theosophische Send-Schreiben, 276) and this androgynous Adam, incredibly, had the ability to

impregnate himself through paradisaical means through the power of imagination like Mary and multiply without tearing [Zerreissung]. But because he did not desire this, so did God create him for this earthly life and split him in two [my italics], in which he now must spend his life with fear and pain in great sorrow. He should have had no need for his beastly genitalia [thierische Glieder] which were first given to him when he slept, of which afterwards he was ashamed and of which we still today are ashamed. The circumcision of children also shows that the phallus does not belong in the kingdom of God… (Gichtel, Theosophische Send-Schreiben, 271-2) (all translations are mine)

That the Brethren of the Angelic Life sought to realize this androgynous rebirth in mortality is illustrated by the case of one Sister Beatrix, with whom Gichtel and his companion Johann Überfeld (1659-1732) practiced celibacy, poverty, and intensive meditative prayer in a house community in Amsterdam from 1695 to 1705. In a letter from 21 March, 1710, Überfeld claimed that Beatrix had achieved such a “high and deep degree of purification” that she had “overcome her gender” (Überfeld Briefe, Theil IV, 120). In another letter, Überfeld explained that Beatrix “had died to the world to such a degree that she had almost completely lost her nature, and one could not tell in the last five years she lived, that there was a woman in the house” (Briefe, Theil IV, 128).

Unfortunately, Überfeld does not go into precise detail about the changes to Beatrix’s body, but elsewhere, including in descriptions of Gichtel’s own rebirth, we learn that the Angel-Brothers believed that sexual abstinence and other ascetic practices could induce a purifying mutation of the very substance of the human body. In a biography of Gichtel published in 1722, Überfeld claimed that Gichtel as early as the 1680s “already carried the body of the first Adam in his soul” (Lebens-Lauf, 150) which manifested itself in an outward manner: “his spirit was thereby transformed in a wholly new form, such that he appeared to be a completely new man. His soul beamed through his eyes.” (Lebens-Lauf, 84). Gichtel himself had earlier described how reborn bodies change into a ‘transparent, crystalline’ substance like Adam’s body and shed the “earthy, hard, and dark” fallen flesh (Theosophische Send-Schreiben, 217).

genderMuch of the activity of Gichtel and his network of Protestant ascetics was geared toward propagating through correspondence and publications the precise means by which such a transformation could occur. Gichtel even published a guide in 1697 to this system, or ‘theosophia practica’, of ascetic rebirth replete with anatomical diagrams illustrating the spiritually significant parts of the body (see image) such as the ‘dark world’ of the genitalia and the seat of sexual desire in the kidneys.

A spiritual transformation understood as the loss of the male-female sexual binary is nothing new to those familiar with the Christian ascetic tradition. Peter Brown indicates that Origen’s castration was not so much about ensuring chastity but rather an attempt to eliminate his maleness (Brown, The Body and Society, 169). Early Christian ascetic practice aimed not to escape the body, but rather to reclaim the original pre-lapsarian Adamic body (Body and Society, 222) that, according to Valentinian Gnostics, was characterized by a platonic unity which knew no diversity or separation into gender, as could be seen in the homogeneity of the angels. The polarity between male and female would disappear as the confusion of spiritual forces occasioned by the fall were overcome through the individual’s battle with his/her fallen flesh. Thus, the overcoming of gender was “the surest sign that the redemption offered by Christ had come to the believer.” (Body and Society, 115).

We should not assume, of course, that Gichtel’s early modern reiteration of early Christian androgynous spiritual rebirth is equivalent to an emancipatory post-modern play with the contingency of gender. Enough misogyny lay hidden in Gichtel’s hatred of sex to fill volumes. Nevertheless, Gichtel does treat sexual identity as a secondary, temporary aspect of human nature. Earthly androgyny becomes, therefore, a way to escape the straightjacket of earthly sexuality, and takes us one step closer to a form of divine ontology not expressed in gender binaries. If nothing else, Beatrix’s androgynous transformation is a colorful example of the manner in which theological heterodoxy and divergent ideas of the body and sexuality were often two sides of the same coin.

Timothy Wright is a fourth-year PhD student studying Early Modern History at UC Berkeley. His interests include religious heterodoxy and separatism in the Protestant Reformation as well as the relationship between theology, scholarship, and religious praxis in the early Enlightenment.