The History Woman's Blog

Meeting Jacob Boehme in Dresden

Posted in exhibitions, History, Seventeenth Century, Sixteenth Century by thehistorywoman on October 21, 2017
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Pieter van Gunst, Bildnis Jacob Böhme, 1686/1715, engraving, Kupferstich-Kabinett 
© SKD

I had a few days off work and went on a spontaneous trip to Dresden for some quiet writing time. Naturally, once I got there I spent more time wandering around the city and enjoying the sights in the last rays of the autumn sun than actually writing, and so I stumbled upon this little gem: an exhibition on the German mystical philosopher Jacob Boehme (1575-1624).

I was initially surprised to find a tribute to Boehme in Dresden. But, of course, he spent most of his life some 100 kilometres east of the city, first at Alt Seidenberg where he was born and at Seidenberg where he was apprenticed to a shoemaker, and later in the town of Goerlitz where he set up shop in the 1590s.

The ‘fanatical cobbler’ from Goerlitz

Boehme was a remarkable man. He rose from humble beginnings to becoming one of the most important German thinkers. His first and principal work, Aurora, the 1612 manuscript of which is currently on display at the Palace Chapel in Dresden set out his view of the world. According to Boehme, the unfinished tract was the product of a divine inspiration going back to around 1600 when the young shoemaker contemplated on a ray of sunlight reflected in a pewter dish which revealed to him the relationship between God and man and the mysteries of the universe. Copies of the manuscript circulated among his friends and acquaintances and finally fell into the hands of the chief pastor of Goerlitz, Gregor Richter, who confiscated the work, considered it heretical and got the local council to issue a writing ban on Boehme.

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‘ALL IN ALL. The Conceptual World of the Mystical Philosopher Jacob Böhme’ , exhibition at the Palace Chapel in Dresden, Royal Palace. © SKD, Foto: Oliver Killig

Its author subsequently came to be known as the ‘fanatical cobbler’ from Goerlitz. The humble shoemaker had clearly risen above his station, and the authorities tried to keep him under control. However, Boehme resumed his writing in 1618 on the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, which he considered as a sign of the dark powers of evil at work in the world, and outlined his ideas in On the Three Principles of Divine Being. He was to write another thirty-odd works before his death in 1624 dealing with a large number of subjects from readings of the Old Testament to disputes within the Protestant community.

Boheme’s work was well received at the court in Dresden

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The manuscript of Jacob Böhme’s first work, ‘Aurora’ of 1612 at the Palace Chapel in Dresden.
© SKD, Foto: Oliver Killig

Only one of his works, The Way to Christ (1624), was published during his lifetime. Yet, his other writings circulated in manuscript among his followers and Boehme managed to establish a considerable reputation during his lifetime and beyond. In the year of his death, he travelled to Dresden and reported in a letter that his Way to Christ was well received at the Elector of Saxony’s court. Nevertheless, the publication of his book caused controversy and he had to defend himself before the local authorities. He only walked free because he was able to prove that while he might have been the author of this work, he had not been responsible for its publication.

The current exhibition at Dresden engages both with Boehme’s life and work and with the broader context of his time. It is structured around key concepts of his writings, such as nature, darkness, creation, cosmos, rebirth, light and freedom, and it displays both manuscripts and editions of his works as well as later engagements with his thought by artists and thinkers. Alas, it is a very small exhibition. But it comes with excellent accompanying materials, including an exhibition catalogue (on which this blog post is based) and a collection of scholarly essays in English and German well worthwhile reading.

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All in All – The Conceptual World of the Mystical Philosopher Jacob Böhme, 26 August to 19 November 2017. Palace Chapel of the Dresden Royal Palace.

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The eloquent ideologists of Germany’s New Right

Posted in History, Political Thought, Politics, Reviews, Twentieth Century by thehistorywoman on April 2, 2017

Weiß_imageThugs in combat boots they’re certainly not. The people Volker Weiss writes about are more of the nerdy variety, he told me over the phone a while back. They know their Greek and Latin, but that doesn’t necessarily make them harmless. It’s their words and their ideas we should be wary of.

Weiss is a historian of Germany’s New Right – a subject he has been working on for some fifteen years or more. However, what once used to be the niche interest of a select few scholars has suddenly become a hot topic as right-wing populists are making their voices heard across Europe and the US.

In his new book “Die Autoritäre Revolte“ (“The Authoritarian Revolt“), Weiss outlines a set of New Right ideas that can be found among the representatives of a variety of contemporary political groups and movements, including the right-wing populist AfD (Alternative for Germany) party.

Proponents of this rightist thought draw on the conservatism of 1920s’ Germany, while rejecting the “Third Reich” and some of the old-style nationalist ideas. Yet, Weiss cautions that the critical distance with which some contemporary New Right authors and politicians claim to approach National Socialism is not always entirely convincing. (more…)

An exile’s home: Algernon Sidney in Nérac

Posted in Early Modern, History, Political Thought, Republicanism, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on March 17, 2017

Nerac_castle2So, that’s the castle in France where the English republican Algernon Sidney (1623-1683) spent roughly five years of his exile during the Restoration period: le château de Nérac in the capital of the Pays d’Albret in the south west of the country.

The area was traditionally protestant and associated with rebellion and resistance to monarchical power. At the time Sidney lived there, between about 1672 and 1677, the castle belonged to Godefroi-Maurice da La Tour d’Auvergne, Duc de Bouillon.

The Duke’s father had fought alongside the Prince of Condé in the Fronde, the French Civil Wars of 1648 to 1653, to limit the powers of Louis XIV, and the English republican had found in Godefroi-Maurice a kindred spirit willing to offer him protection and shelter.

The building is much smaller than I expected and, located in the heart of this small town, also much less isolated than I would have thought. No wonder the locals were soon getting on Sidney’s nerves (or he on theirs for that matter). In the only known letter we have of his time there, he complains about the incompetence of the local office-holders as well as about the hunting restrictions imposed by the Duke. After all, there was not much to do for an exile trying to keep his head down than to stay in his local area and pass the time shooting things. Sidney had quite a reputation for being bad tempered and impatient, and the target of his anger, besides the local partridges, apparently were the townspeople. (more…)

Uncertainty and the post-truth society

Posted in Academia, Early Modern, History, Journalism, News, Political Thought by thehistorywoman on December 18, 2016
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Niccolò Machiavelli knew about the importance of appearances.

The word ‘Brexit’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary for the first time this month, only weeks after Donald Trump was elected as the next president of the United States and ‘post-truth’ was chosen as the word of the year. All three events are to a greater or lesser extent manifestations of anger with the establishment, a distrust in experts and the frustration of the losers of globalisation in a world of increasing uncertainty.

In the middle ages, the people in Europe had religion as their certainty and the Catholic Church as their guide. Life might not have been easy for poor peasants struggling to survive, but the rules to live by were: Be good, fear God and your reward will be in heaven. The reformations of the sixteenth century changed much of that, as individuals like Martin Luther came to question the authority of the Church and its hierarchies and the onus was laid on the individual to explore the Scriptures and establish a more personal relationship with God. Calvinists’ belief in predestination could also cause uncertainty in individuals who could not detect any signs of being one of the elect in their daily lives.

The Enlightenment tried to free the people from the shackles of religion, and faith increasingly became something they could opt in or out of. Society came to look for certainty through reason and science as scholars and scientists were trying to push the boundaries of human knowledge. The Industrial Revolution subsequently brought an increasing specialisation and division of labour as working processes were perfected, while the rise of the professions created the world of experts the twenty-first century has come to resent.

The people are craving security and they are increasingly finding it in self-delusion: in believing things they want to be true, be they the promises of salvation by sectarian movements, miracle weight-loss cures or fake news. (more…)

The British view of a nation that never was

Posted in History, Politics, Reviews by thehistorywoman on October 16, 2016
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Albrecht Dürer, Rhinoceros (1515). © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Kupferstichkabinett.

Dürer’s rhino, Luther’s Bible, Bismarck dressed as a blacksmith, a VW Beetle and a replica of the gate to Buchenwald concentration camp – the exhibits of the ‘Germany – Memories of a Nation’ show seem both somewhat random and predictable.

What I was missing most of all was a grand narrative guiding me through the exhibition, directing my view from one item to the next with that inevitable logic with which A leads to B leads to C, although, as a historian, I should really know better.

I was probably expecting the museum counterpart of the undergraduate introduction to modern German history, ‘From Bismarck to Hitler’, or, if we want to start in the early modern period, ‘From Luther to Hitler’. And this being a British exhibition originally created for a British audience about its World War II enemy, some of that was certainly there. But it seems that the collaboration between curator Barrie Cook of the British Museum, and his former boss, Neil MacGregor, also tried to avoid too much coherence and inevitability, and that was probably a good thing.

Yes, there was the Reformation with the invention of the printing press and Luther’s Bible translation, there was the Thirty Years’ War, there were references to the nationalist movements of the early nineteenth century with their romanticised depictions of the German countryside, and space dedicated to Bismarck’s German unification of 1871. Yet, none of those movements settled the national question in any sort of definite or satisfactory way. The Reformation left Germany divided into Catholic and Protestant states and any subsequent attempts at German unity were overshadowed by the question who should or should not belong to the club.

There was surprisingly little about World War I, but a broad selection of bank notes illustrating the hyperinflation of the Great Depression, while World War II was represented more through images of suffering in concentration camps or destroyed cities like Dresden rather than by the standard narrative of Hitler’s rise and fall. Post-war German history was represented by the new division of East and West, a labyrinthine model of Berlin’s Friedrichstraße station as a central border crossing and the rather unexpected wetsuit worn by an East German in his attempt to defect to the West by swimming across the Baltic Sea. You need a lot of imagination to fill the gaps. (more…)

Historians and the Fifth Estate

Posted in Academia, Comment, History, Journalism, Politics by thehistorywoman on August 6, 2016

IMG_0158Historians should get more actively involved in shaping policy, in particular foreign and defence policy. That is the gist of a recent call by Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson in The Atlantic for a Council of Historians to be established in the US.

Taking advice from historians, they suggest, could have helped President George W. Bush in 2003 to appreciate ‘the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims or the significance of the fact that Saddam’s regime was led by a Sunni minority that had suppressed the Shiite majority’. It might even have prevented Bush from choosing to topple Saddam Hussein and leaving us with a great mess in the Middle East.

Allison and Ferguson also suggest, historians could have helped Barack Obama appreciate ‘the deep historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine’ and consequently ‘the risks of closer ties between Ukraine and Europe’, before Russia went to annex Crimea.

Applied History 

The political scientist Allison has long been involved in US policy making as an analyst, consultant and advisor, and his push for a Council of Historians is no doubt influenced or given additional urgency by a real fear that Donald Trump could win the US presidential election and embark on a wrong-headed and dangerous mission to ‘make America great again’.  Together with the British historian Ferguson, Allison co-directs the Harvard Kennedy School’s Applied History Project, so, it should be added, they are promoting their own work.

Now, I’m not normally known for agreeing with Niall Ferguson or the advice he has chosen to give to the UK Education Department for that matter, but I do think the two scholars have a point. It is essential for politicians to be aware of the historical complexities of the issues they are faced with, and they need historical experts to help them respond to those issues in an appropriate way. (more…)

Political Thought in Times of Crisis, 1640-1660 – Symposium, 1-3 Dec

Sponsored by the Folger Institute Center for the History of British Political Thought, Washington, US.

Execution_CharlesI_IIWas the mid-seventeenth-century crisis in Britain and Ireland essentially one aspect of a broader “global” crisis? How might scholars theorize the relationships between political thought and other verbal and non-verbal expressions of change and instability (political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental)? Extending its recent investigations of the discursive and spatial boundaries of political thinking in the early modern period, the Folger Institute Center for the History of British Political Thought will offer a distinctive symposium that demonstrates the continuing value of the study of political thought, not least in showing the relevance of early modern thought to the concerns of our own world. The symposium considers political thought as it crosses language and geo-political domains beyond Britain and Ireland. The geographical range includes the pan-European world in the culmination and aftermath of the Thirty Years War as well as such global contexts as the colonial Americas and Asia. Scholars whose work considers these issues are encouraged to apply.

Royalists_RoundheadsSpeakers and Session Leaders: The symposium will open with a forum that welcomes Geoffrey Parker (The Ohio State University), Michael Braddick (University of Sheffield), and Richard Tuck (Harvard University). On Friday and Saturday, the following speakers have been invited to frame discussions and inspire new lines of inquiry on a number of topics: Sharon Achinstein (The Johns Hopkins University), Jeffrey Collins (Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario), David Cressy (The Ohio State University, emeritus), Cesare Cuttica (Université Paris 8), Martin Dzelzainis (University of Leicester), Rachel Hammersley (Newcastle University), Helmer Helmers (Universiteit van Amsterdam), Ariel Hessayon (Goldsmiths, University of London), Ann Hughes (Keele University), Laura Lunger Knoppers (University of Notre Dame), Karen Ordahl Kupperman (New York University), Gaby Mahlberg (Berlin), Ted McCormick (Concordia University, Montreal), Nicholas McDowell (University of Exeter), David Norbrook (Merton College, Oxford), Carla Pestana (UCLA), and Joad Raymond(Queen Mary University of London)

Schedule: Thursday evening, Friday, and Saturday, December 1 – 3 , 2016.

ApplySeptember 6, for admission and grants-in-aid.

For more information, please see the Folger website.

Improving the Nation

Posted in Early Modern, History, Reviews, Seventeenth Century, Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on March 26, 2016

Slack_imageIn his new book, The Invention of Improvement, Paul Slack sets out to do two things: first, to trace the ‘notion of improvement’ in seventeenth-century ‘public discourse’ (vii) in England; and secondly to show how ‘the quest for improvement distinguished England from other countries.’ (1)

Slack has not set himself an easy task as he analyses the concept of improvement in its ‘intellectual and political as well as social and economic’ (14) context across an entire century. But he does so most elegantly and eloquently, and the wealth of primary sources – both printed and archival – he employs shows that this book has been many years in the making and draws on decades of research. In fact, the work stands out more for its author’s extensive knowledge of the period, the great synthesis of a large amount of scholarship and the lucidity of its analysis than for the novelty of its argument as such.

For the book is unashamedly ‘Whiggish’ as a ‘story of progress’ (263), as its author acknowledges, telling the story of England’s rise as a great nation based on the steady and ambitious improvement of agriculture, manufacture and trade, which would lay the foundations for its Empire.

The motor of this ‘gradual, piecemeal, but cumulative betterment’ (1) were a number of creative minds dedicated to the task of making England more efficient through the application of their learning in the form of new social schemes and institutions. The foundations for improvement had already been laid under Queen Elizabeth and the early Stuarts with men like William Cecil and Francis Bacon, but things really began to take off with the English Revolution and the various projects of the Hartlib Circle, which combined utopian speculation and social reform.

In fact, it was Samuel Hartlib, who introduced the very word ‘improvement’ in its current meaning into English public discourse when he translated Jan Comenius’ Pansophiae Prodromus (1639), ‘and in doing so referred for the first time in print to improvement.’ (99) (more…)

Being a refugee

Posted in Early Modern, History, literature, News, Political Thought, Republicanism, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on February 14, 2016
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Woodcut illustration from The Isle of Pines (1668).

It’s weird to be writing a book about English republican exiles in the seventeenth century while thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa make their way to Europe every day. I’ve been wondering a lot what it might feel like to be a refugee and if there are experiences that might link these two very disparate groups of migrants – or indeed migrants at all times, everywhere – such as feelings of displacement, isolation or fear.

One of the things that keeps coming back to me when I read about the present refugee crisis is a letter Algernon Sidney wrote to his father from Italy some 350 years ago, in which he describes his exile experience as that of ‘a broken Limbe of a Ship-wracked Faction’, while also often feeling ‘naked, alone, and without Help in the open Sea.’

The shipwreck metaphor

I think it’s the maritime metaphor that gets me. Even though Sidney was for the most part travelling on horseback over land, he decided to describe his exile situation through the metaphor of shipwreck. The republican faction that he was part of had failed to maintain its power base in England and was replaced by the restoration of the Stuart monarchy. It was shipwrecked and had to start all over again.

Shipwreck was a common metaphor used in England as a maritime country, part of an island surrounded by the sea. It had also been a common metaphor for the exiles of antiquity, who were part of a world of seafarers and adventurers.

Being at sea

It seems that ‘being at sea’ was one of the scariest experiences during times in which humans were much more exposed to the elements and regularly at their mercy, when every sea journey could end in death, and yet had to be undertaken for the purpose of trade, or warfare, or necessary overseas travel.

It is interesting too that Henry Neville in his exile dystopia The Isle of Pines uses the topic of shipwreck to start his narrative about the discovery of an unknown island that holds up a mirror to Restoration England. Here, shipwreck too is an end but also a new beginning and a call for the English republicans to reinvent themselves.

(more…)

Running away to the circus

Posted in Academia, History, Journalism by thehistorywoman on July 27, 2015

Beamish_editedI’ve done it. I quit my job as an academic historian. It was a full-time permanent job at a decent institution. It was a job I loved. After I sent the email, I screamed – to the bemusement of my friend Fiona, who was staying with me in Berlin for a few days. Then I went to the library and stared at my computer screen for ages. I started crying. Then I felt great relief and started thinking about the new life that was about to start. No more board meetings, no more marking, no more admin.

I would be working as a journalist again. It’s not a career choice known for its security or even respectability (not after Leveson anyway), and yet it’s something I’ve never been able to let go – all those years I’ve been spending at universities, in libraries, researching, writing, completing my PhD, teaching. I’m really going back to my roots.

Back to my roots

I was writing reports for my local newspaper before I even knew what subject I would study at university. I kept writing for various newspapers and press agencies while doing my various degrees, and I would spend university holidays in editorial offices looking for stories. Yet, I always felt I had to do something more ‘serious’. Despite the serious subject matter (there’s no shortage of important and horrifying stories to cover) journalism never felt like work. It always seemed like a bit of fun, a guilty pleasure. So somehow it didn’t qualify as actual work.

History has been like that too sometimes, especially when I’ve just been able to travel to archives and libraries and sit there for hours trailing through the material, getting absorbed into other people’s stories and other people’s lives. Writing things down, getting things published, planning new projects, trialling ideas – all that has been fun too, and I’m not planning to give it up. I might just turn into an independent scholar – at least for a while – until I know where my journey is going to take me next. But more on this anon. On hearing of my uncertain future, a former tutor and now old friend of mine told me to ‘remember what Cromwell said at the end of his life, “No man goes so far as he who knows not where he is going.'” (more…)