Immeasurable Curiosity of Edward Peters, continued
Peters describes history as an intellectual martial art. Today, he adds somberly, there are all kinds of people using history on us.
His words recall the furor in the 1990s about proposed national history standards for teaching United States history, when academics of all political leanings and politicians exchanged charges (not for the first time) of shoddy scholarship, bias, ideological rigidity, and political correctness. As examples, he cites the biased way the Crusades are taught in Islamic schools as well as the dumb instrumentalizing of Crusade history to explain everything wrong with the Middle East.
Asked to cite more cases, Peters dashed off an e-mail response: The recent arguments in the Balkans about ethnic Serbs and Kosovars the frequent misunderstanding of the history of Latin Christianity, or the nonsensical belief that people before Columbus thought the world was flat, or that there once was a Pope Joan, or that millions of women were burned as witches, or that the Founding Fathers of the U.S. were 20th-century fundamentalist Christians and on and on.
In his comment about witches, Peters is not minimizing the horrible fate of those who were killedthey are indeed victims but he is questioning how many. In his introduction to Witchcraft in Europe, he notes that while it is impossible to calculate exactly the total number of convicted witches, women and men, who were burned at the stake or hanged between the 15th and 18th centuries, historians have been astonishingly casual with their estimates. Some of the least competent estimates have gone as high as nine million, he notes, whereas the most recent scholarship rarely allows more than a total of 50,000 victims over the entire period. Nonetheless, he says, witnesses all convey the impression that the witches existed in incalculable numbers and that convictions and executions consumed them in great numbers.
When television tackles history, the result may be less a matter of instrumentalizing than of incompetence. As a consulting expert, Peters has had unspeakably awful experiences with A&E (for a show on the Knights Templar) and the History Channel (on the Inquisition).
One way that Peters introduces his students to the martial art of history is by handing out informative, frank, and often entertaining protocols. They begin with a series of quotations about the nature of the study of the past, from historians and non-historians alike. From the novelist L. P. Hartley: The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. From the historian Friedrich Paulsen: History can teach only those who listen to it, not those who want to tell it something. From the humorist P. G. Wodehouse: You need dynamite to dislodge an idea that has got itself firmly rooted in the public mind. And finally, what Peters calls the Tierney-Kaminsky Corollary to Wodehouse: You need five times more dynamite to dislodge an idea that has got itself firmly rooted in the academic mind, in textbooks, and in pop journalism. (Peters confesses that he created the corollary himself but cleared the use of their names with the two prominent historians.)
The study of history is as rigorous and demanding as the study of any other subject, Peters asserts. What makes history slightly more difficult than other subjects is the fact that people often arrive at its study with some confusion as to its nature, a rather larger amount of misinformation than in other academic disciplines, with firmly held opinions based on that misinformation, and the peculiar idea that the past shouldor canbe judged exclusively by the standards of the present.
In the introduction to Witchcraft in Europe, Peters and Kors note that Western minds can grapple dispassionately with the matter of sorcery and witchcraft in primitive or non-Western cultures, but when it involves our own culture, we feel ourselves faced with a much more complex problem. The techniques of investigation and description that serve us so well in the study of other cultures often go out the window.
If we are ever to understand or explain the phenomenon of European witchcraft, they write, we must begin by appreciating Europeans sense of the ontology of a world with demons and witches in it and the character of the participants (both accusers and accused) involved.
They sketch the crucial developments: a sense, by 1100, that the victory of Christianity had not been complete; an increasingly widespread Christian cosmology; a growing body of investigators and judges empowered to root out theological errors. And although earlier Christianity had put little stock in ideas of demons and witches, that had certainly changed by the 15th century.
Perhaps most important to the European frame of mind, write Peters and Kors, once the diabolical sorcerer and witch had been irrefutably identified as the visible agents of Satan upon the earth, then the social, political, and economic turmoils of the late medieval and early modern European world, the agonizing disintegration of Christendom into warring religious camps, and the brutalizing and disheartening recurrence of plague and famine all served to heighten that sensibility to the power of evil, to demonic powers, upon which the persecutions largely depended. In this light, the witch hunts should be seen not as an insane aberration, but a desperate attempt to apply a system of putative knowledge toward restoring order in the world.
In his protocols, Peters offers examples of corrective history that rebut the crude instrumentalizing of materials from the past. One is his own 1989 book, Inquisition. Like his broad-ranging books on heresy and torture, Inquisition earned enthusiastic reviews from both specialists and general readers. In a review for The New York Times, English novelist Anthony Burgess wrote: Mr. Peterss book is as good a compendium as you will findscholarly, well-annotated, exact but unpedantic.
In examining how the practice of inquisition was distorted or put to polemical or artistic uses, Peters traces how inquisition developed from Roman law and became an instrument by the church to enforce religious orthodoxy. He also shows how the Inquisition was depicted in polemical writings, literature, and art: in The Monk (1796), one character in its clutches is said to suffer the most excruciating pangs, that ever were invented by human cruelty, while 19th-century Inquisition novels added an erotic component. The Inquisition was evoked as well in political writingto condemn the ancien rÈgime, say, or to inspire reform.
Peters also traces its transformation into something unconstrained by historical evidence. Myth stubbornly haunts the assertions of history, he writes, and history continually challenges the veracity of myth. But he states flatly that there never was a single, all-powerful, horrific tribunal, whose agents worked everywhere to thwart religious truth, intellectual freedom, and political liberty. The Inquisition of each nation or region had regional differences. In a conversation about the notorious Malleus MaleficarumThe Hammer of Witches, written by two 15th-century German Inquisitors as a handbook for uncovering and dealing with witchesPeters notes that despite what we might have expected from the Spanish Inquisition, the theologians of Spain did not approve of the Malleusthey were very skeptical.
Peters insists that we need Western historiography as a control on the misuse of history. Historiography, he says, is a way of thinking, a way of handling evidence, a way of testing the logic of any kind of statement. And he is constantly testing the logic, coherence, and factuality of his own statements as well as those of others. In the preface to the second edition of Witchcraft in Europe, he notes that two historians in the mid-1970s independently proved that one of our texts was in fact a nineteenth-century forgery. As Kors tells it, the knowledge of that error was just rankling [Peters] and the revision finally gave him the chance to correct it.