Why Should Historians of Early Modernity, and Early Modern Religion Specifically, Blog? – Jacob M. Baum

I’d like to begin by responding to Joshua Smith’s fine introductory post, and tweak his question somewhat: why should historians of early modernity, and early modern religion specifically, blog? This is important to me because I’m an historian of late medieval and early modern Germany. I consider myself a cultural historian by training, and one who takes religion as a category of analysis seriously. The things I study are old – so old in fact that they are now becoming the concern of archaeology, a discipline that immediately conjures up associations with antiquity (at least in my mind). My field, too, is old: academic histories of the Protestant Reformation, the major event that dominates the narrative arc of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, have been around since Leopold von Ranke began writing in the nineteenth century.

Given the intellectual world I inhabit, one could be forgiven for suspecting that the word “blog” stirs up for me some of the Luddite anxieties mentioned by Joshua in his post. It does not. Blogs, like podcasts, and other forms of digital media, are simply a part of my daily life, essential to my consumption of information. My relationship to them is generally positive, although I must disclose one very strong negative reaction, just so everyone knows where I’m coming from. On purely aesthetic grounds, the word itself – blog – is just plain disgusting when spoken aloud. No other word in the English language so effectively, viscerally, and amphibiously evokes squelching pond mud and a burp that unexpectedly ends in vomit. It’s a serious problem, but I admit that I don’t have a good solution. Other than that, blogs are good.

On a more serious note, though, I do approach the project of working on this blog with some trepidation because it’s forced me to think more critically about the significance of being an historian of religion in early modern Europe at this particular moment in time. I fully agree with Joshua that blogs offer a useful venue for extending academic discussions begun at conferences. What got me thinking more, however, was his discussion of the medium as a useful tool for reaching a broader public. Setting academic history in a public context raises the stakes of answering questions like “why should we care?” or “how is this relevant today?” In academia, answering the question of significance can be done in relatively narrow ways, circumscribed by discipline and field of study. New evidence, new ways of looking at an issue, or methodological innovation are all fine reasons for entering into an academic discussion. For the public, however, this task usually entails something different. As John Gaddis observed some years ago in his Landscape of History (2002), it often means some type of causal explanation, or origin story. How did the period under study give rise to present conditions? For an historian of early modern Europe (and for that matter the pre-modern world more broadly), and even more specifically one interested in religion, this presents some serious challenges.

Things seem a little trickier for historians mired in the more distant past because we face a kind of double alienation from the contemporary world. The first part of this alienation stems from the fact that we tend to be biased towards more chronologically proximate things when imagining what is relevant to the present (Gaddis observes this is true of the public and of the academy). When talking about the ‘causes’ of World War II, for example, it seems more reasonable to talk about the Treaty of Versailles (1919) than the Treaty of Verdun (843) because the former happened within a couple decades of the war, whereas the latter happened several centuries earlier. Beyond this, when speaking to the public in the contemporary United States, specialists in early modern Europe also face the double challenge of pious devotion to the magical thinking that is American exceptionalism. The belief that the United States somehow uniquely stands outside history and is separate from Europe and the rest of the world is an implicit assumption for many people, and a point of patriotic doctrine worth defending for some. It also undermines the relevance of what happens in the rest of the world. To borrow Augustine’s old distinction, we must be living in the city of God; what could that earthly city beyond our borders possibly have to do with us? Mutatis mutandis, how could some monk beginning a theological debate in a provincial German town (almost exactly) five hundred years ago have any relation to the major political, economic, and social problems we confront as Americans today?

These challenges confront any historian of early modern Europe who wants to think about her or his role in public discourse. They’re issues worth talking about, and I think this blog could be a useful forum for doing so. There is, however, also the matter of speaking to the public as an historian of religion, which comes with its own unique challenges. Since this is the blog of the American Society of Church Historians, and hopefully at some point will enjoy a readership that engages specialists in a variety of chronologically and geographically determined fields, these challenges might be of broader interest, and so it’s important to flag at least the big one here. To my mind, no one has diagnosed the problem more concisely than Paul Ricoeur, who observed that, beginning in the nineteenth century, a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ had profoundly transformed the significance of religion in European (and North American) culture, and correspondingly its relevance in public discourse. Karl Marx was arguably the founder of this discourse (although, as a Germanist who teaches this stuff, the pedantic in me feels duty bound to note that Ludwig Feuerbach anticipated a lot of what Marx said in this regard). In any event, the predominant mode of thinking and talking about religion was to critique it externally: mature and more compelling takes on religion (to the modern mind) required an approach that first suspected it to express false or misguided consciousness, and then moved to ferret out its true, underlying, and hidden meanings. For Marx, religion was one implement in the ideological toolbox used by the ruling class to dominate the masses. Beyond this, religion merited little serious discussion because the real issue was economic struggle. Nietzsche and Freud, the other principal ‘masters of suspicion’ in Ricoeur’s book, developed their own approaches to this problem, but the bottom line remained essentially the same: religion was an epiphenomenon of underlying political, economic, social, or psychological impulses, which were the real objects of concern.

For the most part, the harvest of this hermeneutics of suspicion has all been to the good, at least in the academy. It has challenged people to develop a more nuanced, less chauvinistic, understanding of religion, and arguably given rise to several distinct disciplines: it’s difficult to imagine anthropology, sociology, psychology, or even history without this context (this last seems self evident in light of the prominence of religion as subject matter among the first generation of academic historians, Leopold von Ranke among them). On the other hand, it’s proven difficult to make sophisticated use of this paradigm in public discourse. Indeed, the most aggressive criticisms of religion today, exemplified perhaps most visibly in the United States by people like Bill Maher and the so-called ‘New Atheists,’ ultimately return to this position, but re-package it in a crude way: it’s a waste of time even countenancing the delusions of poor, uneducated hicks, yokels, and fanatics who cling to religion because the real world is the scientific worldview.

Faced with these challenges, what can an historian of early modern religion do? I want to suggest that the blog as a medium is an important tool for us to create a useful and usable past in public discourse, one that can speak to the present in powerful ways. If the task is to tell an origin story, early modernists are uniquely positioned to offer a critical alternative to widespread bias towards proximate causes. A broader and deeper scale of analysis has the potential to underscore radically the contingency of history, highlighting connections between events, people, places, and things that would otherwise be invisible. If done well, this should encourage us to put our own seemingly small, mundane activities in perspective, not just in terms of their relationships to the past, but also in terms of their longer and deeper resonance into the future. In an era when short-term thinking has so obviously produced economic, environmental, and humanitarian crises on a global scale, a modest step in a different direction seems well advised.

Beyond this, and I think perhaps more important that telling origin stories, the early modern period is nothing if not a string of object lessons that are worth thinking with when confronting our present circumstances. Many of the dominant institutions that continue to shape people’s lives in the contemporary United States, from liberal democracy, Protestant Christianity, and capitalism, to mass communications technologies and science, took shape first in the early modern period. Today, we often wring our hands about the unraveling of these institutions; in such times, it might be worth reflecting on the agency people exercised when they were first formed, both to promote and resist them, and recognize that none of it was inevitable.

The early modern period is therefore especially good to think with because it permits us to put at risk some of our most basic assumptions about the naturalness of life in the world we presently inhabit.  Today, for example, one of the unquestioned measures of societal health is the growth rate of real GDP. Can such growth continue indefinitely, or should it? If it can’t, what then would the world look like, and how should we measure societal health? These are questions beyond the pale of what’s normally considered reasonable and respectable debate in the twenty-first century, but reflecting on the early modern period (or pre-modern period generally, for that matter) provides some critical perspective. By modern norms, many early modern states would have been judged failures, exhibiting virtually zero growth for decades and even centuries at a time, and yet there was no shortage of ink spilt dedicated to explicating the health of this system (even as some critiqued it), using fundamentally different metrics to do so. Beyond this, we might think with the early modern period to reflect on other crucial issues, from human relationships to nature and technology, to the treatment of women, religious, ethnic, and racial minorities, the poor, disenfranchised, or disabled.

To be clear, how people in the early modern period dealt with these problems does not provide any kind of prescriptive model to which we can or should return today. That would obviously be terrible, terrifying, and deadly, for many or most people. Rather, working on early modernity forces us into what Hans-Georg Gadamer called the ‘hermeneutic circle,’ an intellectually transformative exchange between the worldviews of the past and present that, far from providing positive, prescriptive answers, generates more critical questioning. Why did early modern people choose to live in a manner that often appears so foreign from our own? We can’t simply dismiss them as passive victims of circumstance, or as backward looking rubes too stupid to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. There was an ethical and moral system (or rather, overlapping systems) that grounded their activities, and framed them as natural, necessary, and good. Religion was arguably the essential glue that bound together this entire edifice, and so attending to it is key to understanding their world. This is only part of the story, though. Perhaps because of its temporal distance from us, we’re comfortable asking such fundamental questions of early modernity, but what about us? We ought to see ourselves dimly through the glass this vanished world holds up to our gaze, and wonder: what is the moral value of the world we create for ourselves today, and how will it reverberate in the world tomorrow?

My hope is that by blogging about early modern religion in future posts, I can make some small contribution to thinking about this question, and create a more usable past in public discourse. I invite others to join the conversation.

Jacob M. Baum is an Assistant Professor of History at Texas Tech University. He specializes in the history of religion, culture, and daily life in late medieval and early modern Germany.  His first book, Reformation of the Senses: Religious Continuity and Change in Germany, ca. 1400-1600 (under contract with the University of Illinois Press) explores the history of the five senses in the context of the religious and cultural transformations of the early Protestant Reformation.

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