Yair Mintzker: The Many Deaths of Jew Süss

Joseph Süss Oppenheimer—”Jew Süss”—is one of the most iconic figures in the history of anti-Semitism. In 1733, Oppenheimer became the “court Jew” of Carl Alexander, the duke of the small German state of Württemberg. When Carl Alexander died unexpectedly, the Württemberg authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and condemned him to death for unspecified “misdeeds.” On February 4, 1738, Oppenheimer was hanged in front of a large crowd just outside Stuttgart. He is most often remembered today through several works of fiction, chief among them a vicious Nazi propaganda movie made in 1940 at the behest of Joseph Goebbels. The Many Deaths of Jew Süss by Yair Mintzker is a compelling new account of Oppenheimer’s notorious trial.

You have chosen a very intriguing title for your book—The Many Deaths of Jew Süss. Who was this “Jew Süss” and why did he die more than once?

YM: Jew Süss is the nickname of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, one of the most iconic figures in the history of anti-Semitism. Originally from the Jewish community in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1732 Oppenheimer became the personal banker (“court Jew”) of Carl Alexander, duke of the small German state of Württemberg. When Carl Alexander died unexpectedly in 1737, the Württemberg authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and eventually hanged him in front of a large crowd just outside Stuttgart. He is most often remembered today through a vicious Nazi propaganda movie made about him at the behest of Joseph Goebbels.

Why is Oppenheimer such an iconic figure in the history of anti-Semitism?

YM: Though Oppenheimer was executed almost three centuries ago, his trial never quite ended. Even as the trial was unfolding, it was already clear that what was being placed in the scales of justice was not any of Oppenheimer’s alleged crimes. The verdict pronounced in his case conspicuously failed to provide any specific details about the reasons for the death sentence. The significance of the trial, and the reasons for Oppenheimer’s public notoriety ever since the eighteenth century, stem from the fact that Oppenheimer’s rise-and-fall story has been viewed by many as an allegory for the history of German Jewry in general. Here was a man who tried to fit in, and seemed to for a time, but was eventually rejected; a Jew who enjoyed much success but then fell from power and met a violent death. Thus, at every point in time when the status, culture, past and future of Germany’s Jews have hung in the balance, the story of this man has moved to center stage, where it was investigated, novelized, dramatized, and even set to music. It is no exaggeration to say that Jew Süss is to the German collective imagination what Shakespeare’s Shylock is to the English-speaking world.

Your book is about Oppenheimer’s original trial, not about how this famous court Jew was depicted later. Why do you claim that he died more than once?

YM: We need to take a step back and say something about the sources left by Oppenheimer’s trial. Today, in over one hundred cardboard boxes in the state archives in Stuttgart, one can read close to thirty thousand handwritten pages of documents from the time period of the trial. Among these pages are the materials collected by the inquisition committee assigned to the case; protocols of the interrogations of Oppenheimer himself, his alleged accomplices, and many witnesses; descriptions of conversations Oppenheimer had with visitors in his prison cell; and a great number of poems, pamphlets, and essays about Oppenheimer’s final months, days, hours, and even minutes. But here’s the rub: while the abundance of sources about Oppenheimer’s trial is remarkable, the sources themselves never tell the same story twice. They are full of doubts, uncertainties, and outright contradictions about who Oppenheimer was and what he did or did not do. Instead of reducing these diverse perspectives to just one plot line, I decided to explore in my book four different accounts of the trial, each from a different perspective. The result is a critical work of scholarship that uncovers mountains of new documents, but one that refuses to reduce the story of Jew Süss to only one narrative.

What are the four stories you tell in the book, then?

YM: I look at Oppenheimer’s life and death as told by four contemporaries: the leading inquisitor in Oppenheimer’s trial, the most important eyewitness to Oppenheimer’s final days, a fellow court Jew who was permitted to visit Oppenheimer on the eve of his execution, and one of Oppenheimer’s earliest biographers.

What do we learn from these stories?

YM: What emerges from these accounts, above and beyond everything else, is an unforgettable picture of Jew Süss in his final days. It is a lurid tale of greed, sex, violence, and disgrace, but one that we can fully comprehend only if we follow the life stories of the four narrators and understand what they were trying to achieve by writing about Oppenheimer in the first place.

Is the purpose of this book to show, by composing these conflicting accounts of Jew Süss, that the truth is always in the eye of the beholder, that everything is relative and that there is therefore no one, single truth?

YM: No. The realization that the world looks different from different perspectives cannot possibly be the bottom line of a good work of history. This is so not because it’s wrong, but because it’s obvious. What I was setting out to do in writing this book was different. I used the multi-perspectival nature of lived experience as my starting point, not as my destination; it was a belief that informed what I did rather than a conclusion toward which I was driving.

And the result?

YM: A moving, disturbing, and often outright profound account of Oppenheimer’s trial that is also an innovative work of history and an illuminating parable about Jewish life in the fraught transition to modernity.

MintzkerYair Mintzker is associate professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of The Defortification of the German City, 1689–1866 The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew.

Brush up on your eighteenth-century British slang with Strange Vernaculars

SorensenWhile eighteenth-century efforts to standardize the English language have long been studied, less well-known are the era’s popular collections of odd slang, criminal argots, provincial dialects, and nautical jargon. Strange Vernaculars by Janet Sorensen delves into how these published works presented the supposed lexicons of the “common people” and traces the ways that these languages, once shunned and associated with outsiders, became objects of fascination in printed glossaries—from The New Canting Dictionary to Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue—and in novels, poems, and songs. Check out the whiddes below so you can chounter with the best of them; and don’t be alarmed if some of them sound strange to your modern lugg.

 

Idiot pot—the knowledge box, the head

Rantipole—a rude, romping boy or girl, also a gadabout dissipated woman

Coggle—pebble

Rumbo ken—a pawn shop

Bugher—a dog

Hot bak’d wardens—pears

Golden pippins—apples

Crap-merchant—hangman

Coom—come

Nerst—next

Bingo-mort—a female drunkard

Black mouth—foul, malicious railing

Clod-hopper—a ploughman

Conny-catching—cheating the unwary, figured as hapless rabbits, or coneys

Stauling ken—a house that will receive stolen wares

Autem—church

Nab—head

Bite—cheat or cozen

Fencing cully—receiver of stolen goods

Fambles—hands

Cove—a man

Dimber—pretty

Bowse—drink

Darkeman—night

Whiddes—words

Harmanbeck—a constable

Feather-bed-lane—any bad road, but particularly that betwixt Dunchurch and Daintry

Anglers—cheats, petty thieves

Dead-men—empty pots or bottles on a tavern table

Chuck farthing—a Parish-Clerk

Keffal—a horse

Chittiface—a little puny child

Chounter—to talk pertly and sometimes angrily

Pateepan—a little pie or small pastry

Cow-hearted—fearful

Prog—meat

Scowre—to run away

Stag-evil—A disease, a palsy in the jaws

Thirdendeal—a liquid measure containing three pints

Thokes—fish with broken bellies

A parson’s lemon—a whore

Diver—a pickpocket

Rapping—perjury

Cleave—a wanton woman

Leap in the Dark—execution by hanging

Crimps—contractors for unloading coal ships

Cocquets—warrants

Bully-ruffins—highway-men

Night sneak—house burglary

Nimming—thieving

Collaring the coal—laying hold of money

The college—Newgate prison

Fatal tree—the gallows

Leatherhead—“a thick skull’d, Heavy-handed fellow”

Long-Meg—a very tall woman

Lord—a very crooked deformed or ill-shapen person

Malmasey-nose—A jolly red nose

Brick—loaf of bread

 

Janet Sorensen is associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of The Grammar of Empire in Eighteenth-Century British Writing.

Francisco Bethencourt: Exhibition ‘Racism and Citizenship’

Exhibition ‘Racism and Citizenship’, Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Lisbon
6th May to 3rd September 2017
Curator: Francisco Bethencourt, Charles Boxer Professor, King’s College London,
and author of Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century

When Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century was translated into Portuguese I was invited by the director of Padrão dos Descobrimentos to organize an exhibition on that subject there. The monument had been created in 1960 by the Salazar regime to commemorate Portuguese overseas exploration and colonialism, obviously ignoring the suffering inflicted on other people. I immediately accepted the challenge to transform a comprehensive book into an exhibition naturally based on images and focusing on the Portuguese case. I needed an argument, a narrative, and a structure.

I decided to focus this exhibition on two interlinked realities: racism, understood as prejudice against those of different ethnic origins, combined with discriminatory actions; and citizenship, seen as the right to live, work, and participate in the political life of a country, equally involving duties and responsibilities. The tension between exclusion and integration lies at the heart of this exhibition. I invite viewers to reflect on various historical realities and recent developments, with the help of objects—paintings, sculptures, engravings, shackles, manillas, ceramics, posters, photographs, and videos. Images are presented in a crude way, but they also reveal subtle contradictions, hinting at what lies beyond outward appearances.

The exhibition is arranged into two parts, early modern and modern, and six sections: a) the hostility towards Jews and Moors living in medieval Portugal, which was renewed after forced conversions; b) a focus on people of African origin who were enslaved and transported to Portugal, Brazil, and Asia; c) the representations of native peoples of the New World and Asia, which led to the first European conception of a hierarchy of the world’s people; d) the Portuguese colonies, where slave labor was replaced by forced labor; e) the contradictory realities of the 20th century, in the colonies and Portugal alike; f) the dynamics involved in the attempt to repair the fractures in the contemporary and post-colonial period.

Racism was always confronted with informal forms of integration, which became predominant in the postcolonial period. The assertion of citizenship followed the Revolution of April 1974 and the independence of the colonies in 1975. It is a new period, still under the shadow of informal racism, but in which new values of legal equality have been supported by the state. The anti-racist norm became a reality, still to be systematically implemented. The last section of the exhibition shows the recent work of Portuguese and African artists, who use colonial memory to reflect on new issues of collective identity.

During the period under consideration, Muslim expulsion took place, as did the forced conversion of Jewish people, the slave trade, the colonization of territories in Africa, America and Asia, the abolition of slavery, decolonization, and immigration.

The exhibition aims to encourage the public to question past and present relations between peoples, combining emigration with immigration, exclusion and integration, lack of rights and access to citizenship.

BethencourtFrancisco Bethencourt is the Charles Boxer Professor of History at King’s College London, and the author of The Inquisition: A Global History, 1478–1834.

Steven and Ben Nadler: Happy Father’s Day

by Ben Nadler

Nadler

It’s now been two years since I began a collaboration with my dad, a philosophy professor, on a graphic book. He was wanting to do a philosophy book that would reach a wide readership, especially high school and college students, and I was fresh out of art school and looking for something big to do. When he suggested we do a project together, I didn’t hesitate at all. With his knowledge of seventeenth-century philosophy and my training in illustration, we could do something really original and exciting. Although he was in Madison, Wisconsin, and I was living in Seattle, we were able to work through hundreds of emails and phone calls. He would send me the text for the book, and I’d give him some comments and suggestions on what seemed to work and what didn’t. Then I would send him my pencil sketches and he would give me feedback as I tried to make these philosophers and their abstract ideas into a visually engaging and philosophically and historically informative story. Now, when people ask me what it was like working with my dad, it is hard to come up with even one example of friction or disagreement that took place during the process. We are both really happy with the final result, a 200-page graphic book that makes seventeenth-century philosophy—perhaps the most important and fascinating period in the history of philosophy—accessible and entertaining. In addition to having this book to show for our work, which I am incredibly proud of, I now have a far greater understanding of what my dad does for a living. And because he has an understanding of what it is about comics I find so compelling, we’re even closer now than before we worked together.

 

NadlerSteven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy and Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include Spinoza: A Life, which won the Koret Jewish Book Award, and Rembrandt’s Jews, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Madison. Ben Nadler is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and an illustrator. He lives in Chicago. Follow him on Instagram at @bennadlercomics. They are the author and illustrator of Heretics!: The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy.

Yair Mintzker: Court Jews, Then and Now

“Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” is a delightful movie. Directed by Joseph Cedar (“Beaufort,” “Footnote”), it tells the story of Norman Oppenheimer, a gentle if somewhat overbearing middle-aged man, who operates as a wheeler-dealer on the fringe of New York Jewish society. Oppenheimer has a murky past and a gloomy present. He does not seem to have much of a family, a physical office, or even a home. But one day he runs into Micha Eshel, a rising star in Israeli politics, and in the spur of the moment buys him a pair of expensive shoes as a gift. Eshel is touched by the unexpected gesture, and three years later, when he becomes Israel’s prime minister, the two reconnect. What follows is a series of tragicomic events that change both men’s lives forever.

“Norman” has an impressive cast, including Richard Gere in the main role, Lior Ashkenazi as the Israeli politician, and Steven Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Michael Sheen, and Hank Azaria. The exaggerated Jewish characters, the over-the-top accents, the Woody Allen-like dialogues, and even the soundtrack, all place “Norman” firmly within contemporary American Jewish culture. This, together with the movie’s many subtle criticisms of Israeli politics, makes it a natural American sequel to Cedar’s wonderful previous film, “Footnote,” which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2012 in the category of Best Foreign Film (Cedar is Israeli).

And yet there is more  to “Norman” than immediately meets the eye. Three hundred years ago, there lived another Jewish “fixer” named Oppenheimer whom “Norman” is clearly referencing. His full name was Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, though he is better known today as “Jew Süss.” Just like Cedar’s fictional character, the historical Oppenheimer started too as a small time operator, befriended an up-and-coming politician, and quickly rose to power. And just like his modern namesake, Joseph Süss Oppenheimer eventually also fell from power in scandal and disgrace.

Süss Oppenheimer was born in Heidelberg in 1698, and became in 1733 the “court Jew” (personal banker and advisor) of the duke of the small German state of Württemberg. He quickly became rich and powerful. But when the duke died unexpectedly in 1737, the local authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and finally executed him for a series of made-up charges, including treason and sexual transgressions against Christian women. Extremely well known in other parts of the world, in the United States “Jew Süss” is remembered today mainly through a vicious Nazi propaganda movie made about him in 1940 at the behest of Joseph Geobbels. In a recent interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’haretz, Cedar acknowledged the influence of this background story on “Norman.”

What does Cedar gain or lose by drawing a parallel between Norman Oppenheimer and “Jew Süss”? This much is clear: though the historical Oppenheimer was executed nearly three centuries ago, his trial never really ended. Already during his trial, it was clear that what was being placed in the scales of justice was not any of the accused’s supposed crimes. Rather, the significance of his story is to be found in the role it came to play as a parable about Jews’ attempts to integrate themselves into modern, non-Jewish society. Here was a man who tried to fit in, and seemed to for a time, but who was eventually rejected; a Jew who enjoyed much success but then faced extreme prejudice, prosecution, and eventually death. Thus, at every juncture when Europeans addressed the “Jewish Question,” the story of this man moved to center stage, where it was investigated, dramatized, and even set to music. It is no exaggeration to say that “Jew Süss” is to the European collective imagination what Shakespeare’s Shylock is to educated Americans today.

Therein lies “Norman’s” ultimate weakness. Tying it to the story of “Jew Süss” without ever mentioning anti-Semitism is to flatten a three-dimensional story. It’s akin to claiming that the Merchant of Venice is only about Shylock’s relationship with other Jews. Modern Jewish history, in the eighteenth century as well as today, is more than just the story of machers and more, too, than how Jews treat themselves. In that respect, and though it is really quite delightful, “Norman” is an unsatisfying movie. It is not a good retelling of the story of the legendary “Jew Süss.”

 

MintzkerYair Mintzker is associate professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew.

Steven and Ben Nadler on Heretics!: An enlightening graphic novel

NadlerThis entertaining and enlightening graphic narrative tells the exciting story of the seventeenth-century thinkers who challenged authority to lay the foundations of modern philosophy and science and help usher in a new world. With masterful storytelling and color illustrations by father-son duo Steven Nadler and Ben Nadler, Heretics! offers a unique introduction to the birth of modern thought in comics form. These contentious and controversial philosophers—from Galileo and Descartes to Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, and Newton—fundamentally changed the way we look at the world, society, and ourselves. Heretics! tells the story of their ideas, lives, and times in a vivid new way. Read on for a conversation between Steven and Ben about the process of working together on a graphic novel, their favorite illustrations, and what they each learned along the way.

Ben:  So Dad, tell me, what gave you the idea for us to do a graphic book together on modern philosophy?

Steven: Well, my editor at Princeton University Press had asked me to write a big new history of philosophy, perhaps with some illustrations done by you. But I wasn’t sure that was something I wanted to do. However, I was intrigued by the notion of doing something really creative with a history of philosophy in the seventeenth century, my specialty. And then, with you recently graduated from art school, I thought it would be really fun to do something together. And it was! Let me ask you: why did you want to do it?

Nadler

Ben: It was an offer I could not refuse. I was an intern in Seattle just out of RISD, but not really employed as an illustrator. So I was hoping this book would be a good way to get that career started. I was also part-way through a graphic novel that didn’t seem to have an end in sight, so the idea of doing a more collaborative project that had some structure and a deadline was appealing. Plus, it was a chance to bond with my father! What were your expectations going into it?

Steven: I was hoping that we could find an engaging and entertaining way to introduce a broad audience to a really interesting period of philosophy and a fascinating group of philosophers. I want this book to be read not just by professional philosophers and philosophy students, but general readers of all kinds, including high school and college students. It had to be really accessible and tell a good story. The hard part for me, in writing the text, was to avoid two extremes: on the one hand, being too dry and academic, and, on the other hand, being condescending and patronizing. I had to find the right balance between academic writing and simplistic popularizing. What was the hard part for you?

Nadler

Ben:  The hardest part was finding the right visualizations for some of the really abstract, conceptual and heady ideas that you wrote about. It’s one thing to draw biographical comics about philosophers, and another to try to illustrate Leibniz’s concept of “monads.”

Steven: Yes, I do remember your panicked phone call asking me what the hell a monad is.  We had to give a lot of thought to how to depict a monad visually, and I checked in with various colleagues to see if they had any ideas.  Everyone was kind of stumped.  I think you came up with the best solution.  The other tough challenge was how to illustrate a person’s soul (as distinct from their body). Again, I think you did a great job with that visually.  What’s your favorite page or chapter of the book?

Nadler

Ben: The page where the two guys are getting pushed out the window was really tough, I had to spend a whole day trying to get the perspective right. That might be my favorite illustration, because of how much work went into it and seeing the final pay-off. I also tend to like the later pages, after I settled into my drawing habits and improved over the year and a half we worked on the book. I completely re-drew the first twenty pages or so after everything else was finished, just to try to maintain a consistent look. What about you? I’m going to guess it’s God waving goodbye as the earth gets on the school bus.

Steven: Yes, I love that image of God waving goodbye to the world.  And the illustration of the defenestration is wonderful, really bold.  I also like the corpuscle in motion, roller-blading with headphones, in the section on Gassendi, and the image from the Newton chapter showing the earth and the moon being tugged toward each other by gravity as they hold on to the edges of the panel.  In the end, did you enjoy the experience of illustrating philosophy? It’s hard to do, and I think you did a brilliant job—but then again, I’m your father, and a little biased.

Nadler

Ben: Thanks, Dad! I did enjoy it, it was challenging and fun. I learned a lot about what makes a book come together. I especially liked researching and implementing all of the costume design and set pieces for 17th century Europe, it was a really immersive way to learn about western philosophy.

Steven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy and Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include Spinoza: A Life, which won the Koret Jewish Book Award, and Rembrandt’s Jews, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Ben Nadler, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, is an illustrator. They are the author and the illustrator of Heretics! The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy.

 

Nadler portraits

A peek inside The Art of Philosophy by Susanna Berger

Delving into the intersections between artistic images and philosophical knowledge in Europe from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries, The Art of Philosophy shows that the making and study of visual art functioned as important methods of philosophical thinking and instruction. Featuring previously unpublished prints and drawings from the early modern period and lavish gatefolds, The Art of Philosophy reveals the essential connections between visual commentary and philosophical thought. Watch the trailer to learn more:

The Art of Philosophy: Visual Thinking in Europe from the Late Renaissance to the Early Enlightenment by Susanna Berger from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

Susanna Berger is assistant professor of art history at the University of Southern California.

Saint Patrick’s Day special offer from Princeton University Press

Saint Patrick’s Day was made an official Christian feast day in the early 17th century to celebrate the arrival of Christianity in Ireland and the heritage of the Irish people. Today, it is celebrated in countries all over the world. As a nod to Irish culture and history, we’ve put together a list of essential reading. To receive a 25% discount on these titles, shop at press.princeton.edu and enter P06288 discount code in the box during checkout.  Your discount will be applied when the order is processed.  Offer expires on April 17, 2017.

Let us know which ones you’re reading on Twitter and Instagram!

Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth
Mark Williams

Williams

Revolutionary Lives: Constance and Casimir Markievicz
Lauren Arrington

Arrington

The Princeton History of Modern Ireland
Edited by Richard Bourke & Ian McBride

McBride

Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke
Richard Bourke

Bourke

On Elizabeth Bishop
Colm Tóibín

Bishop

10 facts about the early life of Ernst Kantorowicz

LernerIn this first complete biography of Ernst Kantorowicz (1895–1963), Robert E. Lerner takes an in depth look at an influential and controversial German-American intellectual whose colorful and dramatic life intersected with many of the great events and thinkers of his time. Though he exerted influence well outside of his field, Kantorowicz is most famous for two books—a notoriously nationalistic 1927 biography of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and The King’s Two Bodies (1957), a classic study of medieval politics. Drawing on many new sources, including numerous interviews and unpublished letters, Lerner tells the story of a major intellectual whose life and times were as fascinating as his work.

A few things you may not know about the life of Ernst Kantorowicz:

In the United States Ernst Kantorowicz told people that he “loved his father,” unusual language for him, and he kept a photograph of him on his bedroom dresser.

Kantorowicz was born into a wealthy family—they owned a successful distillery business.

He had two sisters; Sophie, known as Soscha, with whom he was close, and Margarete, known as Grete or Gretel, with whom he was not.

Toward the end of his life, he described himself as being of, “Jewish descent, not Jewish belief.” When he was young, Yiddish was likely not spoken in his home, and he was almost certainly not Bar Mitzvahed.

When Kantorowicz was growing up, his parents thought that teaching him English was essential since they believed he would be working in the family business. Thus, they engaged an English governess for him until he was 12.

In gymnasia (high school) Kantorowicz never received the highest possible grade in any of his courses. Most were either barely passing or failing, and he did not do his homework. Many of his classmates had comparable performances.

Kantorowicz volunteered for his local field artillery regiment on August 8, six days after Germany declared war on France, at the age of 19.

He entered the army as a private in 1914 and was promoted to corporal, then to sergeant in October 1915. In June 1915 he received the Iron Cross, second class. In 1917, he was awarded the Iron Crescent, the Ottoman equivalent of the Iron Cross.

When the Great War was over, Kantorowicz began studying economics and finance in preparation for his role in the family business. He also took courses in the study of Islam, pursuing an interest he had developed when he was stationed in Turkey during the war.

In February 1919, Kantorowicz transferred from the University of Berlin to the University of Munich. He told a friend it was because he thought he could get more work done in Munich, but his other motive was that he had fallen in love with Josefine von Kahler.

For more detail, pick up a copy of Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life.

**

Robert E. Lerner is professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University, where he taught medieval history for more than forty years. The author of many books, he is a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America and the American Academy in Rome, and a former member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Robert E. Lerner on the captivating life of Ernst Kantorowicz

LernerRobert E. Lerner met Ernst Kantorowicz as a graduate student at Princeton, and was left with an unforgettable impression. The first complete biography of the man to date, Lerner’s Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life details the fascinating life of the influential and controversial German-American intellectual whose dramatic life intersected with many of the great events and thinkers of his time. Recently, Lerner took the time to answer some questions about the biography and what led him to Kantorowicz as a subject.


You have written a number of books on history before, but this is your first biography. What led you in this direction?

RL: My subject, Ernst Kantorowicz (1895-1963), author of celebrated works in history, was wounded at the battle of Verdun in 1916, fought against red revolutionaries in Munich in 1919, was a prominent member of a bizarre poetic circle in Germany during the Weimar era, spoke publicly in opposition to Nazism in 1933, eluded Gestapo arrest in 1938, lead a fight against a McCarthyite Board of Regents at the University of California in 1949-50, and was a central personality at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Moreover, he was a major intellectual figure of the twentieth century. Is that enough?

But why did you decide to write it now, when previously you have written almost exclusively on medieval topics?

RL: Actually, the project had been taking shape for decades. I met Kantorowicz once when I was a graduate student at Princeton, and he left an unforgettable impression. Later, in 1988, I was asked to speak about him on the occasion of a conference on “German-Speaking Refugee Historians in the United States.” To prepare, I interviewed a number of his surviving friends. And then I realized that there were many others I had not interviewed, and then I learned that there were many surviving letters, and so it went. I became a sort of Kantorowicz memorabilia collector. (I own the great man’s clothes brush—no joke.) “EKa,” as he preferred to be called, had a scintillating wit and was the subject of a large number of arresting anecdotes. But how could I go on collecting without anything to show for it aside from the contents of file folders? So a biography had to be written.

What are some of the things you’d like to have readers take away from your book?

RL: That depends partly on their interests. Those interested in the writing of history might want to see how a brilliant historian drew innovatively on the widest variety of sources—legends, prophecies, manifestos, panegyrics, mosaics, coins, ceremonial chants, and legal treatises. Others interested in the cultures of the Weimar Republic might want to become aware of how a secular Jew espoused the occult ideal of a “Secret Germany.” But anyone at all might want to see how a man who sent a copy of his first book to General von Hindenburg later became so alienated from everything the general stood for that he named a Thanksgiving Turkey “von Hintenburg” (rear-end-burg). Kantorowicz was not only notoriously eccentric (he wore a vest-pocket handkerchief even to cook-outs and on the beach) but had a coruscating wit. I’ve been thinking of compiling a “Kantorowicz joke book.” But for the present I hope I’ve written a gripping intellectual biography.

Robert E. Lerner is the author many books, mainly about the subject of medieval times. He is a fellow member of the Medieval Academy of America and the American Academy in Rome and a former member of of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton. Lerner is professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University, where he taught medieval history for more than forty years.

Doom vs. Boom: Robert Gordon and Joel Mokyr on the future of American growth

From Northwestern Now:

It has been called the ‘clash of titans.’ Two of the biggest names in economics research–Bob Gordon and Joel Mokyr – have been battling it out in the press for years with fiery arguments in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, plus debates in countries all over the world, including the latest at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Robert Gordon, author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth, and Joel Mokyr, author of A Culture of Growth, go head to head in their latest debate on the future of economic growth in the United States. You can listen to it via the Northwestern Now podcast, or read the full transcript.

 

Gordon

 

Mokyr

Mark Williams: A look at Irish gods and their legacy

WilliamsAgeless fairies inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal elves; W. B. Yeats invoked Irish divinities to reimagine the national condition. Why have Ireland’s mythical beings loomed so large in the world’s imagination? In Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth, Mark Williams weaves together the fascinating stories of some of Ireland’s famous gods and goddesses, from the heroic Lug to the fire goddess Brigit. He explores the religious history in the myths, showing how Ireland’s pagan divinities were transformed into literary characters in the medieval Christian era. Recently, Williams took the time to answer some questions about Irish gods and their stories.


Apparently Ireland has a pantheon of native gods?!

MW: Yes! — though in many ways they are unique, and don’t look all that much like the pantheons of other peoples and places. They’re called the Túatha Dé Danann in Irish, or ‘The Peoples of the Goddess Danu,’ as it’s usually translated. They tend to be imagined as immortal, beautiful aristocrats, sumptuously dressed and eternally young. In many stories from medieval Ireland, they live in a kind of parallel world, which can be accessed via the hills and Neolithic passage-graves which dot the Irish landscape. Some of them have vivid personalities: there’s the Morrígan, a battle-goddess who sometimes takes the form of a crow, for instance, or the young and heroic god Lug of the Long Arm. My favorite is Brigit, the goddess of poetry, medicine and blacksmithing who also moonlights as Ireland’s most important female saint — or at least has been thought to.

What is unusual about the Irish gods?

MW: Across Irish literature, in both Irish and English, their major characteristic is ontological ambiguity: the nature of their nature, so to speak, is never wholly fixed. In the first place, it’s hard to simply identify them as gods, as they have only an uncertain and wavering link to the actual deities worshiped by the pre-Christian Irish. Ireland’s conversion to Christianity saw the jettisoning of the vast majority of deities the Irish had once worshiped, while a small number were ‘reincarnated’ as medieval literary characters. This latter process was in no way inevitable, and the Anglo-Saxons did nothing of the sort, for example: you don’t find versions of Woden and Thunor turning up as literary characters in secular story, whereas the Irish constantly worked former gods into their sagas and tales, often worrying about how to place them in a Christian cosmos. Serious suggestions included the idea that they were merciful angels, ‘half-fallen’ angels, demons, or a race of humans who had somehow escaped the Fall and so retained more-than-human powers.

That the old gods were remembered at all was down to the deep respect for the past, which was characteristic of the medieval Irish. The Anglo-Saxons knew that they had arrived from somewhere else in the relatively recent past, but the Irish — around the conversion period, at least — seem to have thought themselves to be indigenous to their land. They were deeply invested in their own nativeness, so that their landscape, culture, and ancestry were all bound up together. (A new story was developed later which asserted that they hailed from Scythia, via Spain). But literature and shaping of a literate culture were in the hands of a clerical intelligentsia, who felt perfectly at liberty to make major changes in the depiction of ancient, once-divine figures. It is very striking how much the multi-talented god Lug (or Lugh) resembles the biblical King David, for example — both are young, handsome, royal figures, both are skilled musicians and poets, and both kill a giant with a slingshot to the head in single combat. Though there is no question that a god named Lug (or Lugus) was part of Irish paganism, one wonders how much of his ancient character actually persists in the literary Lug. This kind of remodeling might have happened to any number of the divine figures in Irish literature; far from representing the ignorant interference of clerics in ancient traditions, it actually reflects an attitude of deep respect on their part, and underscores their investment in the patterns and personages of their island’s ancient past.

The second peculiarity about the gods is that they are often depicted as ‘fairies’ — the not very satisfactory English term for the Irish áes síde, ‘the people of the hollow hills’. It is the second of these two Irish words which was later anglicised as Shee — a term familiar to all aficionados of nineteenth-century Irish literature. Rather than being gods, in this guise they act as humanity’s idealized twin-race. They are beautiful, immortal, and gifted with magic powers, and their lifestyle is largely characterized by graceful ease. In many ways they are the forerunner of Tolkien’s Elves, but they are less solemn and remote. In this guise they balloon in number: they become an imagined people, not a pantheon.

The third factor is that towards the end of the first millennium AD the Irish developed a complex backstory for their island, and a place for the Túatha Dé Danann was found within this elaborate timeline. They were now imagined as only one of a series of invading races who had ruled Ireland in the deep past. The climax of this kind of ‘synthetic history’ (as it is known) came in the late eleventh century, with the creation of ‘The Book of Invasions.’ In this schema, the gods were imagined as human beings who had simply learned how to supercharge their abilities with magical knowledge. They were (the synthetic history tells us) the third or fourth race to rule over Ireland, before they were in turn defeated by the incoming Gaels, the ethnic Irish. This scenario is transparently a creation of the high Middle Ages, but it became the basic imaginative frame for Ireland’s native gods until the nineteenth century.

The upshot of all these variations on the ontology of the Túatha Dé Danann was that it was actually quite difficult for antiquarian writers in modernity — as they combed through the records of the Irish past —to spot that these literary figures had once been Ireland’s native gods. Considerable preparation of the intellectual ground was necessary, and here the newly developed scholarly disciplines of anthropology, philology, and comparative mythology all played important roles. It wasn’t until the 1870s that the idea really took off, and soon it became a cultural and scholarly commonplace.

Why are the Irish gods less famous than the Graeco-Roman and Norse gods?

MW: The classical gods were the divinities of two cultures which were deeply admired by later ages, and were inseparable from the literature of those cultures; the gods of Greece and Rome therefore became part of the universal intellectual and imaginative patrimony of Europe. In the Middle Ages and on into the Early Modern era, Christian intellectuals felt perfectly at liberty to adopt them as symbols, personifications, allegories, and rhetorical tropes. (Dante calls on Apollo, for example, right at the heart of the greatest Christian poem of the Middle Ages). And later, with the Romantic movement, the impulse emerged to take the classical gods down from their niches in literary rhetoric and reclaim them as images of divine power in the natural world, even as living spiritual forces. So the gods of Greece and Rome have never actually been away, and have been naturalized for centuries in literature in English.

It’s worth noting, however, that the classical gods had no specifically national dimension, precisely because they were so universal. The Norse gods were quite different. Like the Irish gods, they were associated with a vernacular northern European language and had starring roles in a splendid medieval literature. In modernity, they could be claimed as the ‘native’ gods of those areas of Europe in which a Germanic language was spoken. This meant Germany, of course, but also — because of the Anglo-Saxon heritage — England, which gave the Norse gods a ready-made audience and a role as the ‘divine machinery’ in many forms of quasi-nationalist creative expression. The classic example is Wagner, whose monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen brought the Northern pantheon to international attention as a family of archetypal figures on a cosmic scale, explicitly paralleled to the gods of Greece. The Gaelic gods, in contrast, were associated only with Ireland and with the poorest and most remote parts of Scotland, and so seemed vague and outlandish in comparison.

Why did someone like W. B. Yeats take an interest?

MW: Yeats, and his friend the mystic George Russell, are really the essential figures in the late nineteenth century recovery of the Irish gods, though they had important precursors. Yeats was well-placed to take advantage of the new scholarship which had retrieved the Túatha Dé Danann as Ireland’s native pantheon. In his early-career siftings of material, he was able to boldly assert the fundamental identity of the fairies of folklore, the Túatha Dé Danann of the medieval literature, and the gods of the ancient Irish. Here the occult acted as a crucial unifying frame; Yeats was deeply invested in occultism as a system of thought, and he used it to give meaning and context to the Irish pantheon. To use anachronistic language, he came to believe, around the turn of the century, that the native gods were the archetypes of the national

unconscious, and that it might be possible to retrieve and reactivate them, creating a system of hermetic ‘images’ with which to reimagine the national condition. To this end he attempted to establish the so-called ‘Celtic Mysteries’ — a hermetic order on specifically national lines which would invoke and stir into life these figures from the depths of the national psyche, persuading them to intervene in a conflicted present. He certainly didn’t succeed in the way that he expected, but—more than a hundred years later—more people have heard of Lug, and Danu, and Brigit than ever before, and indeed the Irish gods are the focus of several forms of renewed and reimagined modern Paganism. So who knows? They are certainly alive now.

Is Ireland’s Immortals meant to be funny?

MW: In places, yes, I hope so; the material seemed to demand it, but in two different ways. On one level, the ferocious weirdness of some of the medieval tales can be laugh-out-loud funny in a way that must have been intentional on the part of the saga-authors. My colleague at Oxford, Heather O’Donoghue — who’s written a wonderful history of Norse mythology — has remarked that myth tends to be the most surreal manifestation of a given culture, and I’ve tried to bring this dimension of the literature out. I dwell, for example, on a scene in a ninth-century saga in which the Dagda, the Falstaffian ‘great father’ of the Irish gods — the rough equivalent of Zeus — takes a very long time to relieve his bowels, before being spanked by a woman he is trying to seduce.

On another level, some of the activities of those involved in the gods’ retrieval in modernity — especially in what might be called the late-Victorian New Age — can’t help but raise a smile in a more cynical era. To me it’s fascinating that a connection can be traced between major political movements that affected the fate of nations on the one hand, and the activities of a clique of irrationalizing intellectuals, fired up by some pretty way-out ideas, on the other. That aspect of things seemed to demand a certain respectful wryness, because the idea of ritually awakening the archetypes of the national unconscious is an astonishing and beautiful one, even if the actual execution could be a bit bonkers. The only such person whom I couldn’t write about respectfully — to start with — was William Sharp, the Scottish writer who posed as a Hebridean seeress he named ‘Fiona Macleod.’ He was a plus-fours wearing six-footer with a big, red face, but he wrote all his most successful ‘Celtic’ work in the guise of this wafty, Enya-like figure. He probably reminds me a bit too closely of my own naïve, teenage forays into things Celtic — all mist-shrouded dolmens and dangly druidical tat — and the act of self-exorcism led me to be unfair to Sharp. I was taken to task — quite rightly — for being too nasty by one of the referees of the book, and in revisions I hope I’ve been more even-handed.

Finally, I have to say that writing about Liam O’Flaherty’s 1930 story The Ecstasy of Angus — a steamy bit of erotica involving the hot-to-trot goddess Fand and the love-god Angus Óg — was an absolute hoot. As the couple get down to it, O’Flaherty actually brings on a chorus of fairies who prance about brandishing dildos. It was impossible to analyze with a straight face, though I hope I’ve made the case that the story does have a dark, politically serious dimension to it.

Why did you write the book, and what influenced it?

MW: I had various aims in mind. First, there was a gap in the scholarship: there was no up-to-date guide to the gods in medieval Irish literature, nor to their recuperation in the modern era. In the two parts of the book I’ve tried to tell both stories in a way that makes one dimension illuminate the other. I’d always wanted to do the project: my undergraduate training was in Classics and English, so I cut my intellectual teeth on reception history, meaning the afterlife and reworking of classical texts by later writers. So we would look, for example, at Milton’s reuse of Virgil and Homer, or at Shakespeare’s allusions to Ovid, or at the links between the end of the tradition of epic poetry and the genesis of the novel. One of the things this gave me was a predisposition to read culture in terms of wholeness and continuity, rather than fracture and disjointedness. But the relationship between Irish literature in English and medieval Irish literature is very different to that between later literature and that of Graeco-Roman antiquity. With the Irish material, ‘reception’ of this sort is problematic because everything is charged with the legacy of a contested and traumatic colonial history, so my impulse towards wholeness needed considerable modification. In 1981 Richard Jenkyns — later to be my Oxford tutor — wrote a splendid book called The Victorians and Ancient Greece, which I actually read at school, and that was a big influence: Part Two could have been subtitled ‘The Victorians and Ancient Ireland.’ Another big influence was the Norse expert Heather O’Donoghue, as — of course — were the works of Roy Foster: one of the greatest pleasures of the process was getting to know him. The biggest influence of all is Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol. I read his The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles when I was seventeen, and Part One of the book is in one sense a vast expansion of his chapter in that book on the Celts, ‘The People of the Mist.’ He has also written an elegant few pages about Yeats’s and Russell’s astral adventures in his book The Triumph of the Moon, and Part Two of Ireland’s Immortals handles the same material at book length.

One thing I hope for the book is that it might have the effect of freeing things up a bit for younger scholars in Celtic. Celtic Studies as an academic discipline emerged from various kinds of Romantic nationalism in the nineteenth century, and the legacy of that origin is only now really being assessed by scholars — we’re starting to get superb biographical studies of major figures, for example. But the most obvious consequence has been a massive counter-reaction in scholarship against anything woolly or mystical: Celtic Studies has evolved into a hard-headed and rather inward-looking discipline, focused on the production of critical editions and the analysis of the languages. Unfortunately, the field is currently undergoing a period of contraction: there are fewer places in the world where the languages are taught, and important Professorships—including that at my own institution—are under threat. I hope one thing the book might do is to say, look, as Celticists we can reach out, we can talk to colleagues in English and in intellectual history. People who work on Irish literature in English and those who work on literature in Irish hardly ever seem to talk to one another, with a few noble exceptions such as Declan Kiberd. I hope that one thing the book will do is to underline that there is genuine value in seeing the bigger picture from time to time. (That said — lest any colleagues reading this think me to be encouraging a hermeneutic free-for-all — I must say to any student Celticists out there: make sure you learn your paradigms.) But the literature — extraordinary, uncanny, and beautiful as it is — will languish in neglect until we get in the habit of claiming for ourselves significance and status.

Mark Williams teaches medieval Irish, Welsh and English literature at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, where he is the June Li Fellow in the Humanities and Tutor in English. He has also taught for Cambridge University’s Department of of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, & Celtic. Williams is the author of Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700–1700.