Ernst Kantorowicz

From the Chronicle of Higher Education (hat tip: Paul Halsall), a remembrance of a mildly famous mid-century episode:

The Right-Wing Medievalist Who Refused the Loyalty Oath: On Ernst Kantorowicz, academic freedom, and “the secret university.”

In 1950, Ernst Kantorowicz, a distinguished professor of medieval history, was fired from the University of California at Berkeley for refusing to sign an oath of loyalty, which had been mandated, in a fit of Cold War panic, by the University of California’s Board of Regents. Kantorowicz principally objected to the Board of Regents’ requirement that all professors with U.S. citizenship declare in writing that they upheld the Constitution and were not members of any organization advocating the government’s overthrow.

Kantorowicz was by no means alone in his refusal to sign. Across the UC system, another 36 tenured professors lost their jobs alongside him. As it turned out, California’s Supreme Court overturned the sackings. By then it didn’t matter much for Kantorowicz. He had already found a job at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Looking back, this incident may seem trivial enough: just another display of Cold War paranoia, just another demonstration of supine conciliation on the part of university authorities.

But we shouldn’t let Kantorowicz’s firing fall out of institutional memory. If anything, his act has become more rather than less significant, because, paradoxically, the reasons he gave for his refusal were so peculiar, so out of touch. They were remote from ordinary ways of thinking about the professoriate’s role and status then. They are even more remote now. This very remoteness can suggest new ways for professors to relate to the university system today, as it becomes unmoored from centuries-old traditions and legitimations and as the empire of obsolescence expands.

In refusing to sign the loyalty oath, Kantorowicz did not appeal primarily to the notion of “academic freedom” as articulated by John Dewey and others earlier in the century. Nor did he refuse to sign because he was any kind of leftist. To the contrary, he was (as he put it in the pamphlet he wrote about the affair) a “conservative” who, as a volunteer fighter against the Munich 1919 uprising, had actually killed Communists.

His reasons appealed to a different conceptual or institutional tradition than any acknowledged either in modern politics or by modern academic administration. He believed that a professor is “entrusted with” an office in a particular “body corporate,” or corpus mysticum, i.e., a university. That status was defined in medieval Europe when universities were established as a universitas magistrorum et scholarium — as bodies made up of students and professors and nobody else.

As a corporation, the university had a particular legal status. It could not be identified with the sum of its members; it was rather a disembodied entity, permanent and immortal. What enabled the scholar to participate in the university was professorial office, which endowed its bearer with “dignity.” Dignity, thus conceived, is not a personal comportment but a quality essential to office. Or rather: In a permanent, mystical institution, dignity fuses office to the private personality, as Kantorowicz put it in his most famous book, The King’s Two Bodies (1957).

As a corpus mysticum, the university is a corporation in a different sense than the modern business enterprise. Because students and professors were the embodied corpus mysticum, regents or janitors, for instance, do not themselves belong to the university proper. They are attached outsiders. Janitors, for instance, merely keep the campus clean. Regents ensure that formal university procedures as mandated by the state are observed. But as members of the university’s body corporate, professors were not employees at all.

In other words, for Kantorowicz, a professorship was a public trust. No one had control over professors. No one measured their performance. The dignity of the professorial office called upon its bearers to act according to their “conscience,” which was held to be inseparable from the professor’s “genuine duties as member of the academic body corporate.” Furthermore, dignity required them to enact their conscience with “passion” and “love.” It involved a willingness to sacrifice their embodied self for the sake of the office: a concept of sacrifice whose historical origins included God’s sacrifice of Christ’s humanity.

Yeah, I’d say that sounds out of touch! For more on this episode read the whole thing, and the chapter on “The Nazi Twins” in Norman F. Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages (1989). 

Historians at Work

Two recent and somewhat disquieting articles:

• T. Becket Adams, “The word ‘historian’ has taken a beating

Has any word suffered as greatly in the Trump era as “historian”?…

Beschloss lambasted President Trump in October, for example, after the commander in chief returned to the White House following a weekend at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center battling COVID-19. Upon his return, the president saluted Marine One from the South Portico stairs.

“In America,” said Beschloss, “our presidents have generally avoided strongman balcony scenes — that’s for other countries with authoritarian systems.”

First, to call this an overreaction to the Marine One salute would be an understatement. Second, the bit about U.S. presidents avoiding “balcony scenes” is not even close to being true. A 10-second investigation of the Associated Press’s photo archives disproves his assertion entirely….

This is to say nothing of historian and Politico magazine editor Joshua Zeitz, who said in June after federal officers cleared protesters from in front of the White House in preparation for an in-person appearance by the president: “Historian here. A head of state using a standing army to occupy an American city, compel citizens off the street, stifle free expression and assembly—using paramilitary forces to smoke clergy out of their churches at the head of state’s whim—is pretty much the founders’ nightmare.” A historian who is apparently unfamiliar with even the basics of the Whiskey Rebellion is not much of a historian at all. 

Adams has his political biases, as you can see, but I think he describes a real phenomenon that deserves disapprobation whatever one’s perspective. I too dislike historians commenting on the news in attention-grabbing, superficial, or just plain false ways, all under the cover of their professional status. Judgment and prudence must always govern one’s actions, even one’s appearances in the media (and even on Twitter!). 

• Graeme Wood, “The Next Decade Could Be Even Worse: A historian believes he has discovered iron laws that predict the rise and fall of societies. He has bad news.

The year 2020 has been kind to [Peter] Turchin [of UConn at Storrs], for many of the same reasons it has been hell for the rest of us. Cities on fire, elected leaders endorsing violence, homicides surging—­­to a normal American, these are apocalyptic signs. To Turchin, they indicate that his models, which incorporate thousands of years of data about human history, are working. (“Not all of human history,” he corrected me once. “Just the last 10,000 years.”) He has been warning for a decade that a few key social and political trends portend an “age of discord,” civil unrest and carnage worse than most Americans have experienced. In 2010, he predicted that the unrest would get serious around 2020, and that it wouldn’t let up until those social and political trends reversed. Havoc at the level of the late 1960s and early ’70s is the best-case scenario; all-out civil war is the worst.

The fundamental problems, he says, are a dark triad of social maladies: a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around; declining living standards among the general population; and a government that can’t cover its financial positions. His models, which track these factors in other societies across history, are too complicated to explain in a nontechnical publication. But they’ve succeeded in impressing writers for nontechnical publications, and have won him comparisons to other authors of “megahistories,” such as Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat had once found Turchin’s historical model­ing unpersuasive, but 2020 made him a believer: “At this point,” Douthat recently admitted on a podcast, “I feel like you have to pay a little more attention to him.”

A disturbing proposition, to be sure, although there are no “iron laws” of history. Still, elite overproduction is a very real problem. Read the whole thing. 

Stephen F. Cohen, 1938-2020

From the New York Times:

Stephen F. Cohen, Influential Historian of Russia, Dies at 81

He chronicled Stalin’s tyrannies and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he was an enthusiastic admirer of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Stephen F. Cohen, an eminent historian whose books and commentaries on Russia examined the rise and fall of Communism, Kremlin dictatorships and the emergence of a post-Soviet nation still struggling for identity in the 21st century, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 81.

His wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, the publisher and part owner of The Nation, said the cause was lung cancer.

From the sprawling conflicts of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the tyrannies of Stalin to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Vladimir V. Putin’s intrigues to retain power, Professor Cohen chronicled a Russia of sweeping social upheavals and the passions and poetry of peoples that endured a century of wars, political repression and economic hardships.

A professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, he was fluent in Russian, visited Russia frequently and developed contacts among intellectual dissidents and government and Communist Party officials. He wrote or edited 10 books and many articles for The Nation, The New York Times and other publications, was a CBS-TV commentator and counted President George Bush and many American and Soviet officials among his sources.

Read the whole thing

Mark Ormrod

From the University of York, some sad news (hat tip: Ilana Krug): 

Obituary: Professor Mark Ormrod

A prolific researcher and leading historian of the later Middle Ages.

Professor Mark Ormrod passed away on 2 August 2020, in St Leonard’s Hospice, after a long illness which had caused him to retire early from the University in 2017 but did not impede his research and publication.

Mark was a leading historian of the later Middle Ages in Britain. He completed his doctorate in 1984 at the University of Oxford and then held a number of positions at the Universities of Sheffield, Evansville (British Campus), Queens University Belfast and Cambridge. In 1990 he moved to a lectureship at the University of York and was promoted to Professor in 1995. His experience of what is now widely known as ‘precarity’ in this early phase of his career always informed his nurturing of students and early career colleagues, whose careers were at the forefront of his mind in the creation of the many funded research projects that he so successfully established.

Mark was Director of the Centre for Medieval Studies from 1998 to 2001 and 2002 to 2003, and Head of the Department of History in 2001 and from 2003 to 2007. He also struck up a very close working relationship with the Borthwick Institute for Archives. He was a natural choice as the first Dean of the newly created Faculty of Arts and Humanities at York in 2009, a position that he held until his retirement in 2017.

While taking up these leadership roles, research remained Mark’s chief joy: he is the author or co-author of at least nine books, fourteen edited collections and well over eighty book chapters and articles. These included the definitive 700-page biography of Edward III (Yale, 2011), an exceptionally complex project that had defeated several earlier scholars. His penultimate book, Women and Parliament in Later Medieval England, was published by Palgrave in July 2020 while his last book, Winner and Waster, was delivered to the publisher just 10 days before he died; a further major collection of essays is forthcoming from the British Academy later this month. Hallmarks of his scholarship included the combination of accessible narrative with major new interpretations of important topics based on scrupulously thorough archival research; a combination of insight and detail that is rarely mastered.

In addition to his own writing he also supervised twenty-eight PhD theses. He was the Principal Investigator on nineteen major externally-funded research projects that were worth over £4m and provided early career positions to many former students. In July 2020 a festschrift compiled by these former students and colleagues was presented to Mark at a tribute to that mentorship (Monarchy, State and Political Culture, ed. Craig Taylor and Gwilym Dodd).

Mark’s externally-funded projects centred on creating public access online to the extensive but often obscure records of medieval government from The National Archives and the Borthwick Institute for Archives. A particularly well-received project, England’s Immigrants 1350-1550, identified circa 70,000 immigrants living in 15th-century England. This last project led Mark into collaboration with the Historical Association and the Runnymede Trust, creating new teaching materials for schools, providing training for teachers and contributing to the content of a new national curriculum in History that focused on the long history of migration to Britain. One output of this work, ‘Our Migration Story’, won the Guardian award for Research Impact in 2019. Other new initiatives that flourished in York because of Mark’s leadership and support include the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (the AHRC-funded collaborative doctoral training centre), the Centre for Christianity and Culture, the Festival of Ideas, and the York Medieval Press (an internationally-acclaimed imprint of Boydell and Brewer); all projects that shared his commitment to making scholarship accessible and relevant to the widest possible range of audiences.

Students and colleagues alike remember him above all as a kind and generous man, someone who was always in your corner and wanted you to achieve your best. Underpinning all these achievements was Mark’s very happy home life with Richard, who joined Mark in supporting (and feeding) his extended academic family of students and colleagues. Mark’s professionalism at work was always combined with modesty, good humour, a ready smile, and a generous understanding of colleagues. He laughed a lot and enjoyed life to the full.

I second this. Mark was a brilliant and productive scholar, and a warm and kind person as well. He will be missed. 

The Apotheosis of St. Louis

Tom Madden in First Things (hat tip: Matt Phillips):

As a medieval historian, I always cringe when medieval people are judged by modern standards. Their world was very different from our own. Yet the virtue and piety of St. Louis IX of France have always seemed to transcend his age. The crimes leveled against him in this petition are at best misleading. Although praiseworthy today, religious toleration was regarded as dangerous in the Middle Ages. Yet Louis IX (unlike other medieval rulers) still obeyed the Catholic Church’s admonition that Jews were not to be harmed. Like St. Paul, Louis hoped for the conversion of the Jews. Indeed, more than once he served as a godfather for the baptism of a converted Jew. From a modern perspective, Louis’s part in the burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1240 is indefensible and certainly constitutes persecution. The theologians at the University of Paris—the best minds of their age—judged that the Talmud contained heresy and blasphemous references to Jesus. From Louis’s medieval (not modern) perspective, it was a threat to his kingdom and a hindrance to the conversion of the Jews. That does not excuse it. Louis followed the advice of churchmen, yet as St. John Paul II eloquently expressed it, those churchmen made grave errors. The pope sought pardon for “the sins committed by not a few (Catholics) against the people of the Covenant.” He continued, “We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood.”…

Left unmentioned by Louis’s modern detractors is his lifelong devotion to issues of social justice in a world that cared little for such ideas. At his own expense, he continually paid to feed and clothe hundreds of Paris’s poor. Every evening he shared the royal table with local homeless and usually insisted that he wash their feet before they left. He established several hospitals for the poor and homes for battered women and ex-prostitutes. He personally visited lepers and washed their sores. After his humiliation in Egypt, Louis refused to don the rich regalia of the French crown, dressing simply and living humbly for the rest of his life. He was the sort of person, like Mother Teresa or John Paul II, whose reputation for piety and virtue was so great that contemporaries had no doubt he would one day be a saint. He was canonized in a record 27 years.

Read the whole thing. My own photo of the statue

The Practice of History

A friend writes:

In practice it seems to have become a norm to say “historians agree,” when when that is not true, or sometimes just on the basis of some recent article or paperback, and which is popular with a certain crowd.

There is almost a tendency to present history as an activity in which some set “findings” have been made that have a fixed meaning.

Such a reality is not true even in many experimental social sciences which at least use statistical significance as a guide to reliability. It is even less the case with history where the nature of the profession precludes such statements. The very historians who do the most detailed archival, philological, and novel work are so often overwhelmed with that that they do not have a very good grasp of other areas of history, and even less the findings of social, psychological, and natural sciences. Whereas those who, because they come across well on camera, who speak most generally often simply do not have enough scholarly depth.

And for people on the left who really really feel that some piece of historiography has totally transformed historical understanding so that they know something that hoi polloi don’t, always keep in mind the sad case of Michael A. Bellesiles [link added].

My favorite example of this phenomenon is provided by Noel Ignatiev’s book, How the Irish Became White (1995). Ignatiev used “white” metaphorically to mean “part of the dominant group.” But since then it has become conventional wisdom that “the Irish weren’t even considered white in the nineteenth century!” One must use metaphors carefully. 

Antonia Gransden, 1928-2020

From the Guardian (hat tip: Chris Berard):

Antonia Gransden, who has died aged 91, was among the foremost medievalists of her generation. Her substantial and sustained scholarship spanned seven decades and continues to guide today’s students and researchers.

She will be best remembered for her two-volume, 1,000-page survey Historical Writing in England (1974, 1982), which covers the period from circa 550 to the early 16th century, from Gildas the Wise to Thomas More. Before that work anyone going in search of the roots of medieval historiography faced churning through the 250 volumes of the Stationery Office Rolls Series, or else had to find and translate the original parchment.

I was lucky to acquire both volumes of Historical Writing in England – it is certainly a very useful work. 

Book Reviews

In the discipline of history, the single-authored monograph is the basic unit of scholarship, and an academic’s prestige is usually arbitrated by the number of such books that he can produce, and by the influence that these books have had. No one has time to read every book that gets published, though, so reviewing is an important service to the profession. That is, a given issue of the average historical journal will contain about five articles (often preliminary studies that will later appear as chapters in books), and some seventy book reviews. A review is typically about 1000 words long; it summarizes the book in question and gives a judgment of its quality. The idea is that a scholar will get the journal, look through the reviews to see what’s new, read the ones that are relevant to her interests, and if anything looks really compelling, check the books out from the library, order them through interlibrary loan, or even buy them from the publisher (although academic books do tend to be rather pricey).

In her turn, she will be expected to produce book reviews herself. Summarizing a book is time consuming, but not too difficult. It’s an exercise in the art of précis – of making the book’s message as simple as possible, but no simpler. The tricky part is judging the book’s quality. For that, you need to know what else has been published on the same topic, and really good review will cite those works in proof – it will “situate the work in the historiography,” as the jargon has it. The temptation is always there to give the book the benefit of the doubt, on the assumption that the author has more expertise than you do, and nothing would have gotten published if it wasn’t pretty good in the first place. However, a scholar owes it to his readers to seek out and mention any errors of fact or overall weakness. Moreover, some books just aren’t very good, for various reasons. I know someone who will refuse to review such books; she’ll just send them back to the journal editor, since writing an honest review might alienate the author, and “you never know who might be on a fellowship selection committee.” This move is better than just lying about a book’s quality, I suppose, but to me it’s cowardly, and I don’t like it. We get tenure for a reason: the idea is that we are licensed to speak truth to power without having to fear for our livelihoods. Such guaranteed job security is not just about opposing Trump, the alt-right, evangelical Christians, Wall Street, or the State of Israel from our perch in the Ivory Tower, but also about calling out the members of our own profession on their mistakes, as uncomfortable as that might make things for us at our next big conference. (At the same time, I don’t believe in being gratuitously mean, like one grad school professor who gave me a C- on a book review that I had written for his seminar, with the comment “you are too nice!” – I had criticized the book, just not forcefully enough for his liking.)

So when you’re reviewing a book you try to be fair, and if it has any problems to find a middle ground between turd-polishing and being a big jerk. And you definitely try to review the book that was written, not the book that you wanted to read (another thing that too many academics like to do). 

I myself have managed to publish a number of book reviews over the course of my career – by my count 25, some of which have been referenced on this blog. My most interesting experience with book reviewing began in the autumn of 2009, when I received, from the editor of Reviews in History, a draft of a review of my own recently-published book on St. George by Sam Riches, who herself had written a book about the saint. She liked some aspects of my book, but had some reservations about it, and concluded that “it is not the definitive work on St. George in the English tradition – that has yet to be written.” I received the review because one of the features of Reviews in History is that it gives the book’s author a chance to respond. Now, at the time, I believed that one should never respond to a review. This was the message of Paul Fussell’s “Being Reviewed: The A.B.M. and its Theory,” republished in The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations. The “A.B.M.,” to Fussell, is the “Author’s Big Mistake,” that is, a “letter from an aggrieved author complaining about a review,” which “generally delivers the most naked view of the author’s wounded vanity” and reads “as if some puling adolescent, cut from the high school basketball team, has published a letter about how good he really is, and written it not very well.” So I let it slide, and the review was published in January 2010, with the notice that “the author of this book has not responded to this review.” 

But I came to revise my opinion over the next couple of years. Fussell’s examples of A.B.M.s were taken mostly from the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, and mostly involved works of fiction, or popular non-fiction. Academic books, I came to perceive, are somewhat of a different matter: they make arguments, which can be defended, and as long as one sticks to the facts without getting testy, then it’s all part of the conversation. I read a number of responses to reviews that were in this vein, and I figured that there would be no harm in my doing it too. So in the summer of 2012, I took some time out of my life to pen a response to her review, which I’m pleased to say that the editor of Reviews in History posted, even at that late date. (For the record, I was never upset that Dr. Riches didn’t give my book fulsome praise. It is better to be talked about than not talked about!) Read both and decide for yourself who makes the better case. 

As a result of my contact with the editor, he asked if I would care to review a book that he had just received. I said that I would be happy to, and he sent it to me. I read it twice, as is my habit – it’s one thing to dash off a review for a graduate seminar the night before the assignment is due, it’s quite another to write for publication – you want to make sure that you have really understood what the author is trying to say, because you want to be fair and you don’t want to appear sloppy in print. This operation took a little longer than I hoped, and I got the review to him two weeks after the deadline he had given me. In response, I received an email with the subject line “Terribly sorry” and a message saying that “I forgot that I had two copies of that book, and I gave the other copy to someone else for review.”

“So I take it that review was better than mine?” I responded jokingly.

“It wasn’t, actually,” he replied. “But I’ve already sent it out for the author’s response!”

I had a good laugh about this. If nothing else it shows the importance of meeting deadlines! As it happens I easily placed my review somewhere else. Generally editors won’t accept unsolicited reviews – they have no idea about the agenda of the would-be reviewer – but after explaining the situation they were happy to publish it, and they didn’t even ask me to shorten it. The editor of Reviews in History asked if there was anything he could do for me. I said that there was a book I was interested in reviewing, and he arranged to have it sent to me. This one I ended up reading three times, because I found it difficult and I wanted to do it justice, even I didn’t like it very much (attributable largely to a disciplinary divide – I am a historian, the author was a literary critic). The review was published in the fall of 2013; the author, as I had originally, chose not respond. 

That summer, I had further contact with the editor of Reviews in History on account of another review of my book that I discovered in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology. By that point my book had been reviewed about a dozen times in various venues – again, some people liked it, others didn’t, and that’s fine. This review, however, sounded strangely familiar. As I read it, I realized that a large chunk of it was simply plagiarized from Sam Riches’s review in Reviews in History! Like a good citizen, I immediately informed Dr. Riches and the editors of Reviews in History and the JEGP about this gross violation of scholarly protocol, and the JEGP withdrew the review in its next number. The author, one Giovanni Narabito of the University of Messina, did not seem to have much of an institutional presence there, and a bit of googling eventually revealed a plausible explanation. The Wikipedia entry for Italian crime boss Giuseppe Narabito explains that his clan “established a cell in Messina on Sicily,” where they “exercise considerable power up to the present. The clan turned the University of Messina into their private fiefdom, ordering that degrees, academic posts, and influence be awarded to favored associates.”

It could be that “Narabito” is the Italian equivalent of Smith or Jones but it sure looks like someone was promoted for non-academic reasons here. But why not just stick to protection rackets and drug smuggling, I wonder? Those activities are a lot more lucrative!

Robert K. Massie, 1929-2019

From the New York Times:

Robert K. Massie, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who wrote gripping, tautly narrated and immensely popular books on giants of Russian history, died on Monday at his home in Irvington, N.Y. He was 90.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said his wife, the literary agent Deborah Karl.

In monumental biographies of Peter the Great (1672-1725), Catherine the Great (1729-96) and Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra, who were assassinated with their five children and others in 1918, Mr. Massie captivated audiences with detailed accounts that read to many like engrossing novels.

I’ve read only one of his books: Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War (1991), which I enjoyed. The article claims that:

Some criticized Dreadnought as lacking disclosures from original materials — a regular criticism of Mr. Massie’s reliance on secondary sources — but others praised his dramatic description of a grand failure in crisis management.

But that was not the impression I got when I read the book; in fact, I thought that he relied too much on extended quotations from letters, speeches, or telegrams, etc. (Yes, primary sources are important, and some of these make for good reading, but I’ve always thought that it’s bad form to quote them repeatedly and at length – exert some power over your sources and incorporate their ideas into your own prose.) Otherwise, the book was quite compelling, and it was fascinating to learn about such people as Kaiser Wilhelm, Bismarck, Holstein, Eulenburg, or Hohenlohe; and on the other side Queen Victoria, Lord Salisbury, Joseph Chamberlain, Cecil Rhodes, the young Winston Churchill, Herbert Asquith, Jacky Fisher, or David Lloyd George, and about the process by which Nelson’s Victory was transformed into Fisher’s Dreadnought. Those two strands never really come together, and the book doesn’t even end with the Battle of Jutland, but it remains an engaging portrait of that important period of European history parallel to Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower (1966).