The Immeasurable Curiosity of Edward Peters, continued

../1198/space%20holder But the fox has some hedgehog in him as well. For about three-quarters of his time at Penn, Peters has been studying the various aspects of curiositas. In his 1978 book, The Magician, The Witch, & The Law, he noted that curiositas was often associated with magicians: it was seen as “the passion for knowing unnecessary things”—and for gaining illegitimate knowledge. In an essay published in 1985, he wrote that St. Augustine “had designated curiositas, along with pride and lust, as three broad categories of sin, among which curiositas signified particularly the indulgence of the senses for the corruption of the mind.” For Augustine, the meanings of curiositas ranged from “forbidden intellectual inquiry” to the more prosaic “excessive interest in the affairs of neighbours.”

Sixteen years later, Peters reported on early European views of travel and exploration, which some authorities condemned if they were inspired by idle or misguided curiosity. The romances about Alexander the Great, which became popular hundreds of years after his death, often showed the conqueror, in his immense pride, probing into forbidden matters.

In time, however, the “increasing frequency of discussions of journeys to the Holy Land and the farthest East coincided not only with the Christian identity as homo viator [man the pilgrim] but also with the doctrine that the world is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Man was thus a witness to the world and its secrets, which were seen as “good in ways that they could not have been for a pre-Christian critic or enthusiast of travel.” But the sinful associations of curiositas were never far away. Peters points out later in the essay that, “on the title page of the first Historia of Faust, printed in Frankfurt in 1587, Faust is held up as an example of two of the three types of Augustinian sin, pride and curiosity.”

Peters is now finishing up a large book on curiositas with Dr. Richard Newhauser Gr’86, a professor of English and medieval studies at Trinity University in San Antonio and chair of its Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program. They met in a history seminar on curiositas that Peters taught in 1977. Newhauser, then a graduate student in the English department, took that first seminar at the urging of his dissertation advisor, since he was focusing on the moral tradition of the Middle Ages, primarily the vices and virtues.

“Shortly after the class started,” New-hauser recalls, “Ed helped us organize a session at a conference at Villanova” on curiositas. That kind of support for students and colleagues, he adds, is typical of Peters, who has been a “major influence on lots and lots of people.” From that point, the collaboration developed more ambitiously if slowly, as other projects came to the fore. Though they don’t have a publisher yet and won’t have a finished manuscript until later this year, the working title is “Curiosity and the Limits of Inquiry in the Western Tradition.” Newhauser says it will be a “major book,” more historical than literary.

Peters knows a thing or two about manuscripts and publishing. He played a pivotal role in reviving the University of Pennsylvania Press’s series on the Middle Ages, serving as its general editor for 25 years. Under Peters, the series had “a tremendous influence on the profession,” says Jerome Singerman, the Press’s acquisitions editor for the humanities.

And Peters’ impact goes beyond the medieval series. “Ed has gone down in legend for reviving the Press” as a whole, says Singerman, who notes that by the 1960s, the Press had reached its “nadir”; much of its backlist had been sold. Under the new direction of Fred Wieck, Peters began to dig into what was left of the backlist of translations and reprints, write new introductions, and update the bibliographical materials. Sometimes, Peters notes, the books dealt with subjects about which he had very little knowledge, forcing him “to acquire a respectable knowledge under severe time constraints.” He would take the new editions in a suitcase to the annual medieval conference at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo and display them on a card table—and, in the early days, give copies away. It did not hurt that Peters would also bring five or six six-packs of beer and charge a quarter a can. Back then, Peters says, “We were all pretty young and pretty durable.” In fact, Peters suggests that the rise in the fortunes of the Press coincided with the rise in popularity of the Kalamazoo conference.

“Ed would have a crate of beer in the back of his car, greeting everybody and willing to talk to everyone about the Middle Ages,” says Newhauser. The Kalamazoo conference, he asserts, “would not be so widely known without him.”

The next step for the Middle Ages Series was to add original books—and Peters often had a hands-on role in producing the monographs and sourcebooks, even doing some of the translating. For example, in Witchcraft in Europe: A Documentary History, 400-1700, first published in 1972, Peters and Alan Kors collected important texts on witchcraft in their most reliable forms and provided introductions and annotations. Now in its second edition, it still sells briskly.

“The success of the Middle Ages Series put the Press back on the map,” says Singerman, who notes that an outside committee that recently reviewed the Press called the Middle Ages Series “without peer in North America.”

Peters recalls reading an average of 30 manuscripts per year for the series, not to mention about half a dozen for other presses. “It’s a wonderful way to learn stuff,” he says.

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 04/28/03