Merry Wiesner-Hanks

(Professor and Chair of History Department at Univ. of Wisconsin/Milwaukee)

World History Professional Night: Lincoln, Nebraska

June 5, 2004

 

"A Renaissance Woman Adrift in the World"

 

Over the last several years, I have been engaged in teaching and research far different from what I anticipated when I finished graduate school twenty-five years ago, with a dissertation on 16th­century German working women. At that point, I was fully trained to teach courses in European history from the thirteenth century through the eighteenth, and thought I could perhaps handle a course or two on Africa, as African history was my minor field. I was first hired, however ­ a job I was unbelievable lucky to get, given the job market ­ to be one-quarter of a history department, and was responsible for teaching all of European history, Neanderthal to Nazis. Oh, and because I was female, and the first woman ever hired in the department, US women's history, too. (Apparently a uterus, and some understanding of women's situation somewhere in the world were the only qualifications needed to do this.) In talking with a friend right after I got that job, in a panic about how to choose a textbook for my Western Civ class (a course I had never had myself), he passed along a great piece of advice ­ look at them all and pick the second best for your students, because you'll need to crib your lectures from the best one. Appropriately Jesuitical, coming from a Jesuit, and also the voice of experience, for he had taught gigantic required Western Civ classes very successfully at Marquette for many years. It was advice that has come in handy many times since.

 

When I moved from a small college to a university, becoming one-twenty-fourth instead of one-fourth of a department, I figured that my days of dabbling were over. Ha! My experiences at Augustana were only the beginning, for in the last decade I've gone from teaching things I don't know very well in Europe, to teaching things I don't know very well in the whole world. Judging by conversations I have had in many different places and situations, including the last 3 days here, my experiences have been widely shared.

 

As department sizes shrink at the college and university level, many of us are asked to teach courses for which we have no graduate training, and may never have had even an undergraduate course, or perhaps anything at all beyond the fourth-grade "peoples of the world" curriculum. These are no longer simply courses in a closely-related field, but in completely different cultural traditions and historical periods. As colleges and universities face budget crisis, full-time faculty are replaced by much cheaper part-time or non-tenure track lecturers, many of whom teach a far wider range of courses than their tenure track colleagues because they are in no position to say no to department chairs seeking to hire them.

 

These changes have also resulted, at both the secondary and post-secondary level, from departments, schools, or districts deciding that they wish to broaden their offerings beyond Europe and North America. This sometimes means new people are hired, but just as often means that we who are already there are just expected to widen our areas of expertise, or at least of competence. Or these changes arise from state mandates, as states try to figure out how best to prepare students for the "global" economy, or (more cynically) as they respond to various pressure groups seeking to shape the curriculum.

 

This drive to expand geographically has also come from inside as well as outside for many people, as it did for me. In terms of research, I was working on a book on Christianity and sexuality in the early modern world, and was working on another project with a group of people who were specialists in Southeast Asia. One of them asked me why I was limiting my book to Europe, and I found I didn't have a good answer ­ somehow "because that's what I know" wasn't satisfying. Christian ideas and institutions shaped sexual attitudes and activities in much of the world in this era, with the most interesting challenges ­ and response to those challenges ­ posed by colonial areas. So I ventured in terms of research into the areas I'd increasingly been teaching, a pattern I was seeing in a number of historians, including some of you here.

 

These various combinations of political, intellectual, and personal factors ­ and each of you, I'm sure, can recount your own combination ­ mean that the number of courses and the enrollment in world history, comparative history, or the histories of parts of the world that used to be called the "third world" is growing steadily. (When I have talked about this with other people, I have always mentioned the role of AP in this, but there is no point in preaching to the choir.) Within this decade, according to many publishers, enrollment in introductory world history courses in the United States and Canada will equal or surpass that in introductory Western Civilization or European history courses. World history is now required for those seeking secondary certification in many states, a pattern that started in California, as I understand it. Though the heaviest history enrollments throughout the US are still in US history course, which will not change in the near future with 300,000 people taking the AP US exam, as the saying goes ­ though people from New York or Paris try to forget it ­ whatever happens in California eventually comes to the rest of the world.

 

New York and Paris may have an easier time accepting this, actually, than either one of the Cambridges. Elite schools have lagged behind the trend toward internationalization and globalization of the humanities curriculum. Harvard and Columbia, for example, continue to require European history or western civilization of all students or all history majors, though this may finally be changing at Harvard. Departments in these schools are large enough, however, to allow people to remain in field even with a broader curriculum. I was recently at a conference with a prominent scholar from Brown, who was stunned to learn that people at lesser schools have to teach whatever they're asked to do; her doubts about the wisdom of this occasioned rather uncharitable guffaws and comments of "get real" from most of the discussants.

 

Beyond North America, introductory courses are generally not labeled "world history," but many of them provide a comparative or broad geographic framework. The University of Adelaide in South Australia, for example, requires students to take one semester of a course called "Europe, Empire, and the World" and a second of a course called the "Twentieth Century World." Kobe University in Japan has a whole Faculty of Cross-Cultural Studies, in which one can take courses in "cultural interaction" with a historical focus. Students at Witwatersrand University in South Africa start their history with a course called "systems in collision" (exactly which systems appears to be up to the instructor) and Makerere University in Uganda has introductory courses in colonialism and post-colonialism. Students at Stockholm who want to take the modern history track start with a course that focuses on Sweden and the world, and those at the Freije Universiteit Amsterdam are required to take non-western history as one of six subjects.

 

The picture is not uniformly broad, of course. Like Harvard and Columbia, most European and Latin American universities are not global in their introductory course offerings. At Oxford, Frankfurt, and Sao Paolo, all introductory courses focus either on their respective national histories, or on general European history. At all three, students can focus almost exclusively on national history during their course of study, though at Sao Paolo they are required to take a two-semester course in European history. (But not a course on Africa ­ a situation that is a topic for another talk.) Specialization begins much earlier there, and continues, of course, much longer, particularly in countries like Germany and Denmark that have maintained the second dissertation, which is usually guaranteed to be so long and so narrow that no one but one's advisor and one's mother (if she lives so long) will read it.

 

Along with the development of a more global perspective, research and teaching in history has changed in another key way since I left graduate school ­ it has become far more interdisciplinary. At that point, there were some programs in American studies and medieval studies that involved lots of historians, and "area studies" centers that involved a few historians along with more economists, political scientists, and language scholars. (Cynics here would say that these were the smart historians, that is, those who realized this was the only way they would ever get federal grants.) But now there are also programs in women's studies, modern studies, Renaissance studies, cultural studies, liberal studies, Celtic studies, gay and lesbian studies, and on and on. History departments pride themselves on how many of their faculty are involved in all these programs.

 

Early attempts at being interdisciplinary were sometimes not very successful. My first experience with this was at a conference about twenty years ago, a conference titled "rewriting the Renaissance." Though the organizers strove to reach beyond boundaries, who they ended up with as participants were two historians, two art historians, two scholars of French literature, and twenty English literature folks, most of whom did Shakespeare. The feelings of exclusion at comments like "as well all know from Act 3, Scene 2 of Coriolanus" were rather strong. We two historians, I'm proud to say, resisted the urge to be equally exclusionary and did not lapse into quantitative jargon, though we could have. (Nothing like talk of regression analysis and Chi-squares to prove you are superior to your audience.)

 

That has changed completely, and cross-disciplinary work has totally altered the way we look at certain things. For just one example from the period I know best, look at women's monasticism in the period of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation: Art historians have explored how convents acted as patrons of the visual arts, ordering painting and sculpture with specific subjects and particular styles for their own buildings and those of the male religious institutions they supported, thus shaping the religious images seen by men as well as women; music historians have shown how women sang, composed, and played musical instruments, with their sounds sometimes reaching far beyond convent walls; religious historians have examined the ways in which women circumvented, subverted, opposed, and occasionally followed the wishes of church authorities; social historians have explored the ways in which women behind convent walls shaped family dynamics and thus political life. More importantly, scholars in all these fields have thought about the ways their stories intersect, as art and music both shape devotional practices and are shaped by them, as family chapels and tombs ­ often built by women ­ represent and reinforce power hierarchies, as artistic, literary, political, and intellectual patronage relationships influence and are influenced by doctrinal and institutional changes in the church. This scholarship has changed our narrative of the Catholic Reformation, changed the way we compare Protestants and Catholics, and changed how we talk about women's history.

 

This interdisciplinarity is not only a matter of our scholarship and research interests, but also of our teaching. Twenty years ago we though ourselves daring if we included (gasp!) a novel among our required readings in a history course, but now we regularly include all sorts of literary evidence, visual materials, songs, popular culture and material objects. We also provide much wider contexts for the more traditional types of materials that we use.

 

We scholars and teachers of history have thus entered new intellectual territories, but as we cross disciplinary and geographic boundaries, we often perceive of ourselves as frauds or interlopers, floating around in a huge ocean of material without a compass. To personalize this nautical metaphor, as I have gone global, I feel I am a Renaissance woman ­ in both sense of that phrase ­ adrift in the world.

 

I am filled with doubts and questions:

 

How do I begin to incorporate new materials, either from a different discipline or a different culture and time period?

Knowing that whatever I choose will become representative of a culture or type of material to my students or readers, how do I choose?

What am I seeking to gain from adding material or methods from another culture or discipline?

How can I ask the right kinds of questions, and help my students ask the right kinds of questions?

How do I measure the credibility of a newly-informed perspective?

When introducing new types of materials or approaches, how do I fully integrate these and not simply view them as "context"?

When dealing with other cultures, how do I balance difference and familiarity, both for myself and for my students, to avoid orientalizing and exoticizing and yet not erase otherness?

What are the special problems created by using a comparative framework, either one which compares geographic areas, or one which compares disciplinary perspectives?

What are the problems particular to teaching and writing about history, as opposed to other aspects of culture, because history relies on written records, which privileges certain cultures?

To what extent can I escape my own cultural or disciplinary perspective, especially one reinforced by graduate training?

Should my teaching be affected by the increasing numbers of students with non-European backgrounds in my classrooms, or is this generalized stereotyping and false identity politics, akin to the over-generalizations about "women's role" and "women's experience" historians of women have all learned to avoid?

How can I balance this wider perspective with the need to prepare students for subsequent tests or course work that are much more traditional in their scope?

Are there any borders that can not or should not be crossed?

 

These are questions I'm sure many of you have far better answers than I do, and the most satisfying answers are those that are being developed communally, through listerves, web resources ­ World History Matters, World History Connected ­ and actual F2F talking. I hope we will have a chance after my talk to do just that. For the rest of my time, instead of continuing on in self-critical self-scrutiny ­ which risks becoming self-indulgent hand-wringing ­ I would like to point out several examples from the topic I know best of ways that sailing (or occasionally drifting) into new areas allows a return home with exciting new goods.

What I know best is women, gender, and sex in the early modern ear ­ so what happens when we set ourselves adrift in the world, instead of staying moored in Europe?

 

Let's start, as we always do as historians, with some sources, say, the letters of Columbus. In describing the men of what is now Hispaniola, he writes: "These are the men who form unions with certain women, who dwell along in the island Matenin [this is one of the Virgin Islands], which lies next to Espanola on the side toward India; these latter employ themselves in no labor suitable to their own sex, for the use bows and javelins as I have already described their paramours as doing, and for defensive armor they have plates of brass, of which metal they possess in great abundance."

 

Then there are sources about the intellectual world surrounding the voyages. Martin Waldseemuller, the German mapmaker, was the first to use the word "America" on his maps of the new world in the early sixteenth century, naming it after an enterprising Italian who claimed he had played a major role in "discovering" it. The name stuck because of Waldseemuller's influence, and he justified his decision like this: "I see no reason why, and by what right, this land of Amerigo should not be named after that wise and ingenious man who discovered it, America, since both Europe and Asia had been allotted the names of women." What a great sentence to start with to talke about gender, cultural traditions, mythologizing the past (whether the ancient past of Greek myths or the very recent past of Vespucci), and the role of misinformation in shaping history!

 

Then there is Isabella. Machiavelli completely avoided talking about her in The Prince though he talks about Ferdinand a lot. (The only female figure he names, by the way, is the goddess Fortuna, or Fortune, the one force that even the greatest prince with the most virtu cannot conquer, though he might try. Machiavelli describes this attempt in highly gendered terms: "It is better to be impetuous than cautious, for fortune is a woman, and if one wishes to keep her down, it is necessary to beat her and knock her down." That's another great sentence to start a course with.) But getting back to Isabella ­ she is the first in a long line of female monarchs in early modern Europe, a line that became so long and powerful that subsequent political theorists could not avoid the topic. Dynastic accidents in many areas led to women serving as advisers to child kings or ruling in their own right ­ Isabella in Castile, Mary and Elizabeth Tudor in England, Anne in Brittany, Mary Stuart in Scotland, Catherine de Medici and Anne of Austria in France. The debate about female rule that ensued involved not only somewhat marginal political theorists such as John Knox, the reformer of Scotland and author of The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women ­ but as central a figure as Jean Bodin. Bodin argued in The Six Books of the Republic (1576), that the state was like a household: "So we will leave moral discourse to the philosophers and theologians, and we will take up what is relevant to political life, and speak of the husban'ds power over the wife, which is the source and origin of every human society."

 

That husbandly authority came from God, for Bodin, and royal power was an extension of this. Resisting either would lead to anarchy, which was worse than the worst tyranny. Bodin's ideas about royal power are usually discussed as part of the development of political theory, and his ideas about the power of husbands are discussed as part of the debate about female rule. But not only are they part of the same work, they're part of the same sentence! (another great sentence)

 

Bodin's opponents were French Protestants, the originators of what has come to be called "resistance theory," a body of ideas that is increasingly seen as central to the eighteenth century revolutions, American, French, and Haitian. (and believe me, after reading the labor systems question, I know lost about the Haitian Revolution!) But did his opponents and their intellectual heirs also disagree about the power of husbands? Here's the radical Parliamentarian Henry Parker: "The wife is inferior in nature, and was created for the assistance of man, and servants are hired for their Lord's mere attendance; but it is otherwise in the State between man and man, for that civill differenceis for the good of all, not that servility and drudgery may be imposed upon all of the pompe of one." And here's a slightly better known resistance theorist: "Were our state a pure democracy there would still be excluded from our deliberationswomen, who to prevent deprivation of morals and ambiguity of issue, should not mix promiscuously in the public meetings of men." Those are, of course, the words of Thomas Jefferson, who, as the genetic research on the descendants of Sally Hemings has made clear, certainly knew very intimately about "ambiguity of issue."

 

To follow another line Bodin's thought to the New World: Along with writing the Six Books of the Commonwealth, Bodin wrote several books about witchcraft, in which his horror at wives' revolts against their husbands or subjects' revolts against earthly monarchs is matched by his horror at the witches' supposed rebellion against God and the divinely ordained order: "Those too who let the witches escape, or who do not punish them with the utmost rigor, may rest assured that they will be abandoned by God to mercy of the witches. And the country which shall tolerate this will be scourged with pestilences, famines, and wars; and those which shall take vengeance on the witches will be blessed by him and will make his anger to cease." Such enemies of God were not only to be found in Europe, but also in the Americas, where native women practiced the same kind of witchcraft as the women at home. Bodin makes this comparison several times in his work, and Jean de Lery, a French Calvinist explorer, adds a description of the witches' sabbath taken directly from Bodin to the third edition of his travelogue about the Tupinamba of Brazil. Lery comments: "I have concluded that they have the same master; that is, the Brazilian women and the witches over here were guided by the same spirit of Satan; neither the distance between the places nor the long passage over the sea keeps the father of lies from working both here and there on those who are handed over to him by the just judgment of God."

 

This link was also portrayed visually, and our interdisciplinary efforts have taught us to pay attention to the visual record. An engraving from the 1580s or 1590s by Crispin de Passé after Martin de Vos shows the god Saturn in his chariot pulled by two dragons through the sky, with different groups and activities over which he holds sway depicted below; on the right are Native Americans mining gold and silver and cooking human body parts on a grill, while on the left a magician casts spells before a cauldron and witches dance through the air.

 

Pierre de Lancre, a French magistrate appointed in 1609 by King Henry IV to investigate the activities of witches in the Basque region of France, noted that the reason there were so many more witches in his day than earlier was the coming of European missionaries to the New World, which had forced more of Satan's demons to return to Europe. The demons traveled, in Lancre's opinion, with Basque fishing ships, remaining with "impudent and undisciplined" Basque women when their husbands left again in search of cod. These women's only marketable agricultural commodity was apples, and they "ate with abandon this fruit of transgression, which caused the trespass against God's commandment, and they ignored the prohibition made to our first father."

 

One can go on and on with quotations from leading European intellectuals about the connections between witchcraft and indigenous American beliefs, just as one can go on and on with quotations about women's rule in the state or household. The Malleus Maleficarum, the guide to demonology and the interrogation of witches that shaped the witch-trials in much of continental Europe, was published only six years before Columbus's first voyage, a voyage sponsored by one of those "monstrous" ruling queens.

 

And speaking again of that queen ­ what a great opportunity she provides for seeing how family and sexuality operate in world history! Along with backing Columbus, Isabella made astute marriages for her children. Her son John died before she did, but the marriage of her daughters linked Spain with every country that could assist them against their most powerful neighbor, France: her oldest daughter Isabella married King Manoel of Portugal; Joanna married Archduke Philip of Habsburg, who was heir to the Burgundian Netherlands through his mother and to vast holdings of the Habsburg family in central Europe through his father, who had also been elected Holy Roman Emperor; Catherine married Arthur and then Henry, the sons of Henry VII of England. These marriages are mentioned in the most traditional of political histories (the kind that we and our students are so often bored by), but we need to make sure we (and our students) understand that these are marriages. That is, they are heterosexual unions designed to create children and pass down inheritance, including the right to rule countries. To paraphrase James II, "No children, no king." Those traditional histories tried to ignore the fact that politics was really all about sex and families, but Isabella (and the American presidency) shows you can't really separate them.

 

The connections between family, sex and politics were just as clear in the first European colonies as they were in European dynastic linkages. Christian officials ­ Portuguese, Spanish, and later French and English ­ tried to impose European gender patterns of monogamous marriage, male-headed households, limited (or no) divorce. Where these conflicted with existing patterns, however, they were often modified, and what emerged was a blend of indigenous and imported practices. In some areas, such as the Andes of South America and the Philippines, women had been important leaders in indigenous religions, and they were stronger opponents of conversion than were men; this pattern was enhanced by male missionaries' focus on boys and young men in their initial conversion efforts. In other areas, women became fervent Christians, confessing and doing penance for their sins to intensively they harmed their health, and using priests and church courts to oppose their husbands or other male family members.

 

Religious and secular officials also established and maintained racial hierarchies, regulating marriage and other types of sexual activities so as to maintain boundaries between population groups. Like Thomas Jefferson, they worried about "ambiguity of issue," and the encounters they were most concerned about were sexual ones. This continued, of course, with the next wave of European colonialism; a British official stationed in Kenya in the early twentieth century, Robert Baden-Powell, worried that contacts between British boys and indigenous people would cause them to "go native" and eventually lead to masturbation, effeminacy, and homosexuality. To counter this, he founded the Boy Scouts, for which he was knighted.

 

There were some deviations from this advocacy of maintaining sharp boundaries, however. An early nineteenth-century Columbian liberal, Pedro Fermin de Vargas, begins a discussion of the "problem" of indigenous people with standard racist assertions: "To expand our agriculture it would be necessary to hispanicize our Indians. Their idleness, stupidity and indifference towards endeavors causes one to think that they come from a degenerate race which deteriorates in proportion to the distance from its origins it would be very desirable that the Indian be extinguished." His proposal for how to accomplish this extinguishing was not extermination or isolation on reservations, however, but "by miscegenation with the whites, declaring them free of tribute and other charges, and giving them private property in land." Vargas's ideas were fairly common in Latin American in the early to mid-nineteenth century, and would become even more commonplace in many places by the early twentieth century, particularly in Mexico and Brazil. About ten years ago, Eve Sedgwick commented: "making heterosexuality historically visible is difficult because under its institutional pseudonyms such as Inheritance, Marriage, Dynasty, Domesticity, and Population, heterosexuality has been permitted to masquerade so fully as History itself." Statements like Vargas's provide a wonderful chance to strip off the mask, to ask questions about and to historicize heterosexuality in a global context, in the same way that whiteness is currently being historicized.

 

My examples have wandered through time and space, but that's what happens when you drift off into unfamiliar territories ­ you see new things, and also things that allow you, no, force you, to see very familiar things in a new way. This is what women's history has done ­ it's hard to read Machiavelli the same way once you pay attention to that sentence about beating fortune down like a woman, or read More's Utopia the same way once you notice the scene where wives bow down before their husbands "to confess all sins of commission and omission, and ask to be forgive," or read Rousseau the same way once you learn how treated his long-tome mistress and his children, or, to tread on really dangerous group, to read "all mean are created equal" in anything but a gender specific way once you understand what the author of those works thought about women. (Later in the same document he says: "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," a great sentence to put with the one I quoted earlier for a "compare and contrast" exercise.) Going global does the same thing. I certainly don't teach the Renaissance or the Reformation in the same way that I did when I thought of them as European events, (or even worse, Italian or German events), and I certainly don't think about my German working women (when I get a chance to think about them at all, which I still try to) without thinking about where the cotton cloth they were weaving was going, what the guns they helped to make were doing, and where the diseases they were treating came from (r perhaps did not come from?). This doesn't mean that I no longer have doubts, or ma no longer struck by the hubris of the enterprise we're engaged in ­ who can pretend to know the history of the whole world? ­ but when I look at my colleagues who've not joined us on this voyage, I can't imagine being stuck on the shore.

 

 

 

Q: Picking out a cultural artifact to be representative ­ do you have an answer to the question you raised?

A: When I put a new thing in, what do I take out? Very difficult to make those decisions. You have to do it very carefully. Any suggestions? Also trying to do more interdisciplinary things ­ how do you include it all?

 

Q: Creating DBQs?

A: Discovering the Global Past (The DISCO series ­ also for US and Western) ­ very distinctive format with a lot of explanatory material. Need a lot of coaching and help, and Bruce Wheeler came up with the structure for US history students. The structure is helpful for students. Whenever you go somewhere new, there's already someone who is an excerpt in something.

 

Q: What is the status of women's studies/history?

A: You can't be cutting edge forever ­ there's always something new. Women's history has been around for 30 years now ­ you lose your "cutting edgeness." New fields, ie: gender analysis and history of gender have stemmed from it. Joan Kelly Award is the AHA prize for women's history ­ had 87 submissions this year. Women's history is not "dead."

 

Taking traditional sources and looking at it in different ways.