The Immeasurable Curiosity of Edward Peters, continued

Finding out things has been Peters’ passion throughout his 35-year career at Penn. A medievalist like the historian after whom his professorship is named, Peters has wide-ranging interests that have taken him well beyond the conventional “specialty” niche of academe. One of his recent articles, in the appropriately broad-sounding Journal of the History of Ideas, takes the words of Christopher Columbus for its title: “The Desire to Learn the Secrets of the World.”

For much of his time at the University, Peters has been the sole medievalist in the Department of History. “Which means,” he explains, “I cover 1,500 years and three continents.” Not missing a beat: “I’m like cheap paint—I cover a lot, but not very well.”

That self-assessment is right on one count: he does indeed cover a lot. Besides witchcraft and heresy, he has taught and written about inquisition, torture, the Crusades and other acrimonious conflicts between Christians and Muslims—any of which could fuel late-night radio call-in shows and inspire quirky Web sites. The third edition of his textbook, Europe and the Middle Ages (1997), contains material on all of these topics and many less sensational but no less important ones, such as the growth of universities.

Consider what was on his plate during a “typical week in the life” earlier this term:

Preparation for two seminars, “The World of Charlemagne” and “The World of Dante” (periods 500 years apart).

Page proofs for the fourth edition of his textbook, Europe and the Middle Ages.

Work on a lecture/article on Muslim usage of the term “Crusade.”

A book review of a work on the 11th-century eucharistic controversy.

Refereeing a scholarly article for a journal on the parallel development of punitive/penitential imprisonment and the doctrine of Purgatory.

Preparation for a British visiting lecturer, R. I. Moore, scheduled to give the first annual Henry Charles Lea Lecture in April.

Consideration of an invitation to write an article on Jewish-Christian relations, 1000-1200.

Dealing with editorial revisions on 21 articles he has written for the Encyclopedia of Witchcraft.

An invitation to lecture at St. Anselm University.

An “e-discussion” with a collaborator on an article about demonologists at the Council of Basel (1431-1449).

All this is nothing new for Peters. His curriculum vitae lists dozens of invited lectures, often at the most prestigious universities in the country, and about a hundred articles and books, as well as countless book reviews and notices. He has had fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Philosophical Society, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. The honor most meaningful to him is being made a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America—“it’s your professional peers in all disciplines judging you.” So when Peters downplays his achievements, his colleagues and students beg to differ.

“Simply put, he is one of the great medievalists of his generation,” says Dr. E. Ann Matter, professor and chair of Penn’s Department of Religious Studies. “He is such a learned and urbane person that it is actually rather odd to think of him as an expert on torture (the subject of one of his books) and Inquisitorial politics!” She has taught courses with Peters three times, including a graduate seminar on Joan of Arc.

Peters characterizes Penn’s history department as a small one, half the size of history departments at comparable universities, and weighted heavily toward American history. Although he may sometimes wonder about what he terms “teaching fairness,” he also understands why the department is composed the way it is. “This is Penn, and this is Philadelphia,” he says, so the emphasis on American history makes sense. But, perhaps inevitably, that means less breadth and depth elsewhere.

Dr. Alan C. Kors, himself a professor of history at the University, calls Peters an “underappreciated treasure at the University of Pennsylvania.” He adds that Peters, “both in his research and his teaching, covers a wider swath of human experience than anyone in the history department,” stretching from the fall of Rome to the Industrial Revolution, with a geographic expanse “from the west coast of Ireland to the Ural Mountains and from Scandinavia to North Africa.” Moreover, Kors insists, “he does so with a learning and expertise and ease—he wears his learning very comfortably, without pretension, without affectation.

“The department has relied—and in some ways relied indecently—on the immeasurable collegiality of Ed Peters,” Kors adds. “If I were he, I would have gone on strike a long time ago.”

Michael Ryan, director of the rare book and manuscript collections of the University’s library system, calls Peters “a grand colleague to work with,” and suggests with regret that he is probably “recognized more outside the institution” than within. Ryan admires Peters’ many enthusiasms (“he’s a polymath”) and linguistic tools, such as his ability to handle Greek, Latin, Italian, and German.

Some people, he adds, might argue that Peters should have been more focused, that “Ed spread himself too thin.” But Ryan invokes Isaiah Berlin’s comparison of the hedgehog, who knows “one big thing,” and the fox, who knows “many things.” Peters is the “classic fox,” says Ryan. “For my money, I’ll take the fox.”

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 04/28/03