4 October 2011


Teofilo F Ruiz. The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. Princeton University Press, 2011

This seems an apposite book for the times we live in, as the spectre of the final crisis of capitalism looms ever larger. Ruiz discusses the various reactions to the 'terror of history', a phrase said by the 'historian of religion' Mircea Eliade to describe not just the grand catastrophes but also the quotidian mortality of everyday life in the West.
Ruiz posits three reactions, one is the religious one, perhaps more specifically the apocalyptic religious vision which seeks to end the processes of history, indeed the organic round of birth, life and death itself and replace it with static 'perfect' world either on earth or some other worldly realm. Other reactions include the plunging into the world of the senses especially sensory excess, often using mind altering substances. The third reaction he classes as "immersing oneself in beauty", which he perhaps interprets perhaps too narrowly as the appreciation of fine art etc., surely the preserve of only the rich, but we might also extend to the scientists "beauty of equations" or the appreciation of deep time and space and the order of the natural universe.

Perhaps there is less difference in practice between the three paths that Ruiz enumerates, religion, sensory overload and 'beauty' all involve the production of altered states of consciousness which transcend the mundane world.

The value of this book is less in its actual historical discussions which at times are rather superficial, but its illumination of many activities in the modern world, from the Arab Spring to British binge drinking and the communitas of riots. We can also see this attempt to escape the terror of history by means of utopian political ideologies, or more banally the belief that the historical processes can stopped in their tracks, such as in Francis Fukuyama's notion that history had ended with the permanent victory of liberal capitalism or Gordon Brown's belief he had halted the historical cycle of boom and bust. I rather suspect that conspiracy theories also represent an attempt to escape this 'terror of history', holding out the vision that somehow the historical process is under somebody's control, even if it is a malign control.

Thomas Robisheaux. The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German village. W. W. Norton, 2009

Thomas Robisheux's 'microhistory' brings to life the protagonists in one of the last witch trials in Germany. In February 1672, Anna Schmeig, the miller's wife of the tiny hamlet of Hurden is accused of poisoning cakes that her daughter Eva gave to friend who had just given birth. The family portraits that come out of this book look surprisingly modern. The Schmeigs are what today would be called a dysfunctional family. Anna likes the booze rather too much and especially when drunk has a foul temper and is much given to curses and threats. Daughter Eva was intended to make a useful marriage with the son of a neighbouring miller, but has gone and got pregnant by local 'bad boy' Philip Kustner and had to marry him. Mummy does not approve. Eva is more than a little put out by her mothers' swearing and drinking.

These are clearly the sort of people who today would feature on shows like Jerry Springer and Jeremy Kyle. As Anna was also mean, and millers and their wives had, in general, a bad reputation, they may have got the reputation of being neighbours from hell. While today that term is used metaphorically, in the 17th century it could be meant very literally, the sorts of people who get ASBOs today, in those days got accused of witchcraft.

Robisheux shows how gossip circulates, and allegations of foul play develop. As he traces the activities of various court officials to get to grips with the situation, what starts out as an almost modern looking murder investigation turns into something else. That is the accusation of witchcraft, and the descent of the legal process into an Orwellian nightmare. In processes which in many ways prefigure the forced confessions and show trials of latter day totalitarian states, Anna has her words twisted and her motives constantly impugned. As in the Springer/Kyle type shows, mother and daughter end up shouting abuse and accusations at each other, only in this case the outcome for the looser (Anna) is death, by being torn by red hot pincers and then strangled (a mercy from the kind ruler) and burned at the stake. -- Peter Rogerson

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