Classical Knowledge, Power, and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Dutch Rabbinic Education

Tell me, o Muse, of the man . . .
— Homer
 

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? Continue reading “Classical Knowledge, Power, and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Dutch Rabbinic Education”

The Text as Fieldwork: The Book of Nature in Early Modern Japan

In early modern Japan, the study of nature, known at the time as honzōgaku, was primarily a bookish enterprise. The work of scholars who studied rocks and minerals, herbs and plants, flowers and trees, insects and fish, birds and animals—or, as they collectively called them, “myriads of things” (banbutsu) or “herbs-trees-birds-beasts-insects-fish-metals-jewels-grounds-stones” (sōmokukinjūchūgyokingyokudoseki)—began and ended with books. Canonical encyclopedias like Li Shizhen’s Bencao gangmu (Honzō kōmoku in Japanese editions) and Kaibara Ekiken’s Yamato honzō served not only as foundations of scholars’ research and repositories of institutional knowledge but also as the ultimate source of legitimation for their claims on nomenclature, taxonomy, morphology, and aspect as well as for the pharmacological, gastronomical, agricultural, and aesthetic use of plants and animals. Continue reading “The Text as Fieldwork: The Book of Nature in Early Modern Japan”

Selecting and Organizing Recipes in Late Antique and Early Byzantine Compendia of Medicine and Alchemy

Ancient recipes are usually short texts; one can easily find more than one recipe written on a single papyrus sheet or on the page of a Byzantine manuscript. Despite their brevity, however, they open an invaluable window onto a wide array of techniques and practices used to manipulate the natural world. Ancient recipes could pertain to various fields of science and technology—from cosmetics to cookery, from agriculture to horse care. In this post, particular attention will be devoted to two contiguous and, to a certain extent, overlapping areas of expertise: medicine and alchemy. As we will see, the works of two important authors, Oribasius and Zosimus of Panopolis, reveal the ways that recipe collections forged new forms of knowledge transfer in the fourth century CE. Continue reading “Selecting and Organizing Recipes in Late Antique and Early Byzantine Compendia of Medicine and Alchemy”

Hunters, Inquisitors, and Scholars: The Construction and Demarcation of Expertise in the Manuals of Frederick II and Bernard Gui

At first glance, the practical manual by Emperor Frederick II (1194–1250) and the one by the inquisitor Bernard Gui (1261–1331) do not seem to have any specific features in common. Whereas the first treatise, De arte venandi cum avibus (1240s), deals with the art of falconry,[1] the latter work, Practica officii inquisitionis (1323–24), aims to provide useful knowledge for the inquisitor.[2] Each work has been repeatedly acknowledged as an outstanding example in its particular field of knowledge. Little attention, however, has been given to the specific strategies used in the texts to construct and demarcate expertise. Continue reading “Hunters, Inquisitors, and Scholars: The Construction and Demarcation of Expertise in the Manuals of Frederick II and Bernard Gui”

Constructing Authority in Early British Aviation

By definition, experts play a vital role in creating, sustaining, and disseminating any particular body of knowledge. But what constitutes an expert? How is authority obtained? Does this change over time? There are no absolute answers, which is to say that the question of who is considered to be an authority is culturally and socially constructed, and therefore interesting to historians. Here, I will consider the construction of authority in British aviation in the early twentieth century, paying particular attention to its manifestations in the public sphere.[1] Because aeronautics was the subject of intense media scrutiny, but as yet lacked formal criteria for demonstrating expertise, anyone who wanted to claim the mantle of authority at some point had to come to terms with popular expectations. Continue reading “Constructing Authority in Early British Aviation”

Religious Knowledge in Historical Perspective

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. Continue reading “Religious Knowledge in Historical Perspective”