In the early years of the twentieth century, Catholic libraries in Germany adopted modernized methods of organization to simplify their use: the arrangement of books by subject, alpha-numeric classifying systems, and card catalogs. The adoption may not seem like much, but in the structure and practice of Catholic knowledge the change was fundamental. How did this revolution come about and what did it betoken?
The first major text printed with movable type, the Gutenberg Bible (1454) symbolizes early print. Although this and other early printed books have long interested scholars, librarians, and collectors, many questions remain unanswered. For starters, how exactly did printing know-how spread from one town to the next? Who sold and transported the books from the workshops to the readers? Where did printers buy the vast amount of paper they needed to print their books? Who decided which content to print?
An impressive handwritten codex at the National Library of Israel embodies the intricacies and peculiarities of crafting, reading, and transmitting practical knowledge in early modern Jewish contexts. The volume, known today as manuscript NLI 8º 1070, was likely produced in the 1730s somewhere in the Polish territories. A variety of local Polish-Ashkenazi traditions are well attested throughout the codex: vernacular and elite, theoretical and practical, of Jewish and Christian provenance, and transmitted mainly in Hebrew and Yiddish, but with elements of Latin, German, Polish, Russian, and Ruthenian.
Francis Bacon’s belief that “knowledge is power” is one of the great epistemic mottos of all time. In early nineteenth-century Jewish Amsterdam, where civic emancipation had overturned the old corporate hierarchies, the rabbinic elite soon came to experience its merciless truth. In the newly established Kingdom of the Netherlands (1814), both their position and their expertise were pushed to the margins. To make things worse, the centralized organization of the newly constituted Israelite Denomination left no room for German-style Reform–Orthodox dualism. As a result, innovation and consolidation all took shape within a single, outwardly stable, yet inwardly polarized community, in which conservative rabbis and progressive lay executives vied for initiative and control. This perpetual state of discord posed high demands on a rabbi’s personal skills. It was no longer enough to be a competent teacher and judge; in order to survive, the rabbi had to become a kind of statesman. But what in his rabbinic experience would provide him with the wherewithal to become a politician?
In 1878 Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800–1882), probably the most famous nineteenth-century German-Jewish painter, created a work entitled The Heder, or Jewish Elementary School, which re-imagined his first school in Hanau near Frankfurt am Main in the early 1800s.
In 1646, the English polymath John Wilkins (1614–1672) published his popular guidebook for preaching, Ecclesiastes, but it was not the first “Discourse Concerning the Art of Preaching” with that name. Over a century earlier, in 1535, the renowned humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) wrote a treatise with the same title in hopes of reforming a clergy whose faults he had spent his career caricaturing and condemning. Erasmus’s own title referred further back still, evoking the book of the Bible in which a “preacher” (rendered from the Latin ecclesiastes) offers advice for good living in a fallen world.
Knowledge has long garnered the attention of historians, although their explicit focus has been primarily on science, scholarship, and professional or technical expertise. For a long time, a progress-obsessed notion of society’s inexorable scientification underlay this research interest. Processes of descientification or tendencies to marginalize knowledge received little attention. This lack of attention was also apparent for those forms of knowledge that guided practical and moral behavior or that were considered religious.1
The Fall 2016 issue of the free access GHI Bulletin includes a thematic forum on the history of knowledge with the following three articles:
- “The History of Knowledge and the Expansion of the Historical Research Agenda” by Simone Lässig
- “Old and New Orders of Knowledge in Modern Jewish History” by Kerstin von der Krone
- “Data, Diplomacy, and Liberalism: August Ferdinand Lueder’s Critique of German Descriptive Statistics” by Anna Echterhölter
My year began with a session at the 131st Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association on “the dynamics of religious knowledge” in the modern era, a panel I organized with Simone Lässig. The three papers—presented by Anthony Steinhoff, Jana Tschurenev, and myself—approached developments in religious knowledge as manifestations of social and cultural change in the long nineteenth century. The studies explored a variety of religious groups in a broad array of historical configurations, from nineteenth-century Jewish religious education to the multireligious setting of Alsace Lorraine after 1870 and anticaste and feminist critiques of Hinduism in colonial India.