The Immeasurable Curiosity of Edward Peters

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Having delved into witchcraft, torture, inquisitions, and more, is this prominent medievalist guilty of curiositas?

By John Shea | Photography by Candace diCarlo

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Some 740 years ago, St. Bonaventure, a Doctor of the Church and Minister General of the Franciscan Order, argued that God had provided humans with as much knowledge as they needed to live the proper Christian life. “To investigate by reason beyond the point of adequate knowledge,” writes Dr. Edward Peters, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, “is to move away from divine wisdom and be guilty of curiositas.”

Since its appearance in the late Classical period, curiositas, which roughly translates as “curiosity,” has been a slippery term, sometimes considered a virtue, at other times a vice.

“The meaning changes depending on who’s using it,” says Peters, sitting in his cluttered office on the sixth floor of Van Pelt Library. Two walls are covered with tightly packed bookcases that stretch from floor to ceiling, and one of the office’s two desks appears to have been given over entirely to piles of journals, course materials, assorted papers—and, of course, books, with titles like Possessed by the PastBaudolino (Umberto Eco’s new novel set in medieval Europe); M. R. James’s Apocryphal New Testament; and Demon Lovers, a new book on witchcraft. 

For Bonaventure, explains Peters, curiositas was clearly a dangerous quality, given the various heresies that threatened to undermine Christian Europe. During the 13th and 14th centuries, Church leaders became increasingly suspicious of heterodox interpretations or alternative texts.

“There’s this consistent condemnation of other scriptures,” says Peters, “a fear that these are polluting, poisoning texts.” The inquisitors who sought to identify and eradicate heresy were themselves cautioned on what to ask the suspected heretics—and what to avoid asking. Even Bonaventure, a member of the faculty of the University of Paris who had studied heretical texts in order to refute them, had to defend himself from the charge of unhealthy curiosity.

“All of this connects back to curiositas —what should you know and why should you know it,” says Peters. Asked whether it is an impulse he shares, he shrugs: “We all do—anyone in academe—because you want to find out things.”

Finding out things has been Peters’ passion throughout his 35-year career at Penn. A medievalist like the historian after whom his professorship is named, Peters has wide-ranging interests that have taken him well beyond the conventional “specialty” niche of academe. One of his recent articles, in the appropriately broad-sounding Journal of the History of Ideas, takes the words of Christopher Columbus for its title: “The Desire to Learn the Secrets of the World.”

For much of his time at the University, Peters has been the sole medievalist in the Department of History. “Which means,” he explains, “I cover 1,500 years and three continents.” Not missing a beat: “I’m like cheap paint—I cover a lot, but not very well.”

That self-assessment is right on one count: he does indeed cover a lot. Besides witchcraft and heresy, he has taught and written about inquisition, torture, the Crusades and other acrimonious conflicts between Christians and Muslims—any of which could fuel late-night radio call-in shows and inspire quirky Web sites. The third edition of his textbook, Europe and the Middle Ages (1997), contains material on all of these topics and many less sensational but no less important ones, such as the growth of universities.

Consider what was on his plate during a “typical week in the life” earlier this term:

• Preparation for two seminars, “The World of Charlemagne” and “The World of Dante” (periods 500 years apart).

• Page proofs for the fourth edition of his textbook, Europe and the Middle Ages.

• Work on a lecture/article on Muslim usage of the term “Crusade.”

• A book review of a work on the 11th-century eucharistic controversy.

• Refereeing a scholarly article for a journal on the parallel development of punitive/penitential imprisonment and the doctrine of Purgatory.

• Preparation for a British visiting lecturer, R. I. Moore, scheduled to give the first annual Henry Charles Lea Lecture in April.

• Consideration of an invitation to write an article on Jewish-Christian relations, 1000-1200.

• Dealing with editorial revisions on 21 articles he has written for the Encyclopedia of Witchcraft.

• An invitation to lecture at St. Anselm University.

• An “e-discussion” with a collaborator on an article about demonologists at the Council of Basel (1431-1449).

All this is nothing new for Peters. His curriculum vitae lists dozens of invited lectures, often at the most prestigious universities in the country, and about a hundred articles and books, as well as countless book reviews and notices. He has had fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Philosophical Society, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. The honor most meaningful to him is being made a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America—“it’s your professional peers in all disciplines judging you.” So when Peters downplays his achievements, his colleagues and students beg to differ.

“Simply put, he is one of the great medievalists of his generation,” says Dr. E. Ann Matter, professor and chair of Penn’s Department of Religious Studies. “He is such a learned and urbane person that it is actually rather odd to think of him as an expert on torture (the subject of one of his books) and Inquisitorial politics!” She has taught courses with Peters three times, including a graduate seminar on Joan of Arc.

Peters characterizes Penn’s history department as a small one, half the size of history departments at comparable universities, and weighted heavily toward American history. Although he may sometimes wonder about what he terms “teaching fairness,” he also understands why the department is composed the way it is. “This is Penn, and this is Philadelphia,” he says, so the emphasis on American history makes sense. But, perhaps inevitably, that means less breadth and depth elsewhere.

Dr. Alan C. Kors, himself a professor of history at the University, calls Peters an “underappreciated treasure at the University of Pennsylvania.” He adds that Peters, “both in his research and his teaching, covers a wider swath of human experience than anyone in the history department,” stretching from the fall of Rome to the Industrial Revolution, with a geographic expanse “from the west coast of Ireland to the Ural Mountains and from Scandinavia to North Africa.” Moreover, Kors insists, “he does so with a learning and expertise and ease—he wears his learning very comfortably, without pretension, without affectation.

“The department has relied—and in some ways relied indecently—on the immeasurable collegiality of Ed Peters,” Kors adds. “If I were he, I would have gone on strike a long time ago.” 

Michael Ryan, director of the rare book and manuscript collections of the University’s library system, calls Peters “a grand colleague to work with,” and suggests with regret that he is probably “recognized more outside the institution” than within. Ryan admires Peters’ many enthusiasms (“he’s a polymath”) and linguistic tools, such as his ability to handle Greek, Latin, Italian, and German.

Some people, he adds, might argue that Peters should have been more focused, that “Ed spread himself too thin.” But Ryan invokes Isaiah Berlin’s comparison of the hedgehog, who knows “one big thing,” and the fox, who knows “many things.” Peters is the “classic fox,” says Ryan. “For my money, I’ll take the fox.”

But the fox has some hedgehog in him as well. For about three-quarters of his time at Penn, Peters has been studying the various aspects of curiositas. In his 1978 book, The Magician, The Witch, & The Law, he noted that curiositas was often associated with magicians: it was seen as “the passion for knowing unnecessary things”—and for gaining illegitimate knowledge. In an essay published in 1985, he wrote that St. Augustine “had designated curiositas, along with pride and lust, as three broad categories of sin, among which curiositas signified particularly the indulgence of the senses for the corruption of the mind.” For Augustine, the meanings of curiositasranged from “forbidden intellectual inquiry” to the more prosaic “excessive interest in the affairs of neighbours.”

Sixteen years later, Peters reported on early European views of travel and exploration, which some authorities condemned if they were inspired by idle or misguided curiosity. The romances about Alexander the Great, which became popular hundreds of years after his death, often showed the conqueror, in his immense pride, probing into forbidden matters.

In time, however, the “increasing frequency of discussions of journeys to the Holy Land and the farthest East coincided not only with the Christian identity as homo viator [man the pilgrim] but also with the doctrine that the world is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Man was thus a witness to the world and its secrets, which were seen as “good in ways that they could not have been for a pre-Christian critic or enthusiast of travel.” But the sinful associations of curiositas were never far away. Peters points out later in the essay that, “on the title page of the first Historiaof Faust, printed in Frankfurt in 1587, Faust is held up as an example of two of the three types of Augustinian sin, pride and curiosity.”

Peters is now finishing up a large book on curiositaswith Dr. Richard Newhauser Gr’86, a professor of English and medieval studies at Trinity University in San Antonio and chair of its Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program. They met in a history seminar on curiositas that Peters taught in 1977. Newhauser, then a graduate student in the English department, took that first seminar at the urging of his dissertation advisor, since he was focusing on the moral tradition of the Middle Ages, primarily the vices and virtues.

“Shortly after the class started,” New-hauser recalls, “Ed helped us organize a session at a conference at Villanova” on curiositas. That kind of support for students and colleagues, he adds, is typical of Peters, who has been a “major influence on lots and lots of people.” From that point, the collaboration developed more ambitiously if slowly, as other projects came to the fore. Though they don’t have a publisher yet and won’t have a finished manuscript until later this year, the working title is “Curiosity and the Limits of Inquiry in the Western Tradition.” Newhauser says it will be a “major book,” more historical than literary.

Peters knows a thing or two about manuscripts and publishing. He played a pivotal role in reviving the University of Pennsylvania Press’s series on the Middle Ages, serving as its general editor for 25 years. Under Peters, the series had “a tremendous influence on the profession,” says Jerome Singerman, the Press’s acquisitions editor for the humanities.

And Peters’ impact goes beyond the medieval series. “Ed has gone down in legend for reviving the Press” as a whole, says Singerman, who notes that by the 1960s, the Press had reached its “nadir”; much of its backlist had been sold. Under the new direction of Fred Wieck, Peters began to dig into what was left of the backlist of translations and reprints, write new introductions, and update the bibliographical materials. Sometimes, Peters notes, the books dealt with subjects about which he had very little knowledge, forcing him “to acquire a respectable knowledge under severe time constraints.” He would take the new editions in a suitcase to the annual medieval conference at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo and display them on a card table—and, in the early days, give copies away. It did not hurt that Peters would also bring five or six six-packs of beer and charge a quarter a can. Back then, Peters says, “We were all pretty young and pretty durable.” In fact, Peters suggests that the rise in the fortunes of the Press coincided with the rise in popularity of the Kalamazoo conference.

“Ed would have a crate of beer in the back of his car, greeting everybody and willing to talk to everyone about the Middle Ages,” says Newhauser. The Kalamazoo conference, he asserts, “would not be so widely known without him.”

The next step for the Middle Ages Series was to add original books—and Peters often had a hands-on role in producing the monographs and sourcebooks, even doing some of the translating. For example, in Witchcraft in Europe: A Documentary History, 400-1700, first published in 1972, Peters and Alan Kors collected important texts on witchcraft in their most reliable forms and provided introductions and annotations. Now in its second edition, it still sells briskly.

“The success of the Middle Ages Series put the Press back on the map,” says Singerman, who notes that an outside committee that recently reviewed the Press called the Middle Ages Series “without peer in North America.”

Peters recalls reading an average of 30 manuscripts per year for the series, not to mention about half a dozen for other presses. “It’s a wonderful way to learn stuff,” he says.

Peters describes history as “an intellectual martial art.” Today, he adds somberly, “there are all kinds of people using history on us.”

His words recall the furor in the 1990s about proposed national history standards for teaching United States history, when academics of all political leanings and politicians exchanged charges (not for the first time) of shoddy scholarship, bias, ideological rigidity, and political correctness. As examples, he cites the biased way the Crusades are taught in Islamic schools as well as “the dumb instrumentalizing of Crusade history to explain everything wrong with the Middle East.”

Asked to cite more cases, Peters dashed off an e-mail response: “The recent arguments in the Balkans about ‘ethnic’ Serbs and Kosovars … the frequent misunderstanding of the history of Latin Christianity, or the nonsensical belief that people before Columbus thought the world was flat, or that there once was a ‘Pope Joan,’ or that millions of women were burned as witches, or that the Founding Fathers of the U.S. were 20th-century fundamentalist Christians … and on and on.”

In his comment about witches, Peters is not minimizing the horrible fate of those who were killed—they are indeed “victims” —but he is questioning how many. In his introduction to Witchcraft in Europe, he notes that while it is “impossible to calculate exactly the total number of convicted witches, women and men,” who were burned at the stake or hanged between the 15th and 18th centuries, “historians have been astonishingly casual with their estimates.” Some of the “least competent” estimates have gone as high as nine million, he notes, whereas the most recent scholarship “rarely allows more than a total of 50,000 victims over the entire period.” Nonetheless, he says, “witnesses all convey the impression that the witches existed in incalculable numbers and that convictions and executions consumed them in great numbers.”

When television tackles history, the result may be less a matter of instrumentalizing than of incompetence. As a consulting expert, Peters has had “unspeakably awful” experiences with A&E (for a show on the Knights Templar) and the History Channel (on the Inquisition).

One way that Peters introduces his students to the martial art of history is by handing out informative, frank, and often entertaining “protocols.” They begin with a series of quotations about the nature of the study of the past, from historians and non-historians alike. From the novelist L. P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” From the historian Friedrich Paulsen: “History can teach only those who listen to it, not those who want to tell it something.” From the humorist P. G. Wodehouse: “You need dynamite to dislodge an idea that has got itself firmly rooted in the public mind.” And finally, what Peters calls the Tierney-Kaminsky Corollary to Wodehouse: “You need five times more dynamite to dislodge an idea that has got itself firmly rooted in the academic mind, in textbooks, and in pop journalism.” (Peters confesses that he created the corollary himself but cleared the use of their names with the two prominent historians.)

“The study of history is as rigorous and demanding as the study of any other subject,” Peters asserts. “What makes history slightly more difficult than other subjects is the fact that people often arrive at its study with some confusion as to its nature, a rather larger amount of misinformation than in other academic disciplines, with firmly held opinions based on that misinformation, and the peculiar idea that the past should—or can—be judged exclusively by the standards of the present.”

In the introduction to Witchcraft in Europe, Peters and Kors note that “Western minds” can grapple dispassionately with the matter of sorcery and witchcraft in primitive or non-Western cultures, but when it involves our own culture, “we feel ourselves faced with a much more complex problem.” The techniques of investigation and description that serve us so well in the study of other cultures often go out the window.

“If we are ever to understand or explain the phenomenon of European witchcraft,” they write, “we must begin by appreciating Europeans’ sense of the ontology of a world with demons and witches in it and the character of the participants (both accusers and accused) involved.”

They sketch the crucial developments: a sense, by 1100, that the victory of Christianity had not been complete; an increasingly widespread Christian cosmology; a growing body of investigators and judges empowered to root out theological errors. And although earlier Christianity had put little stock in ideas of demons and witches, that had certainly changed by the 15th century.

Perhaps most important to the European frame of mind, write Peters and Kors, “once the diabolical sorcerer and witch had been irrefutably identified as the visible agents of Satan upon the earth, then the social, political, and economic turmoils of the late medieval and early modern European world, the agonizing disintegration of Christendom into warring religious camps, and the brutalizing and disheartening recurrence of plague and famine all served to heighten that sensibility to the power of evil, to demonic powers, upon which the persecutions largely depended.” In this light, the witch hunts should be seen not as “an insane ‘aberration,’ but a desperate attempt to apply a system of putative knowledge toward restoring order in the world.”

In his protocols, Peters offers examples of corrective history that rebut “the crude instrumentalizing of materials from the past.” One is his own 1989 book, Inquisition. Like his broad-ranging books on heresy and torture, Inquisition earned enthusiastic reviews from both specialists and general readers. In a review for The New York Times, English novelist Anthony Burgess wrote: “Mr. Peters’s book is as good a compendium as you will find—scholarly, well-annotated, exact but unpedantic.”

In examining how the practice of inquisition was distorted or put to polemical or artistic uses, Peters traces how inquisition developed from Roman law and became an instrument by the church to enforce religious orthodoxy. He also shows how the Inquisition was depicted in polemical writings, literature, and art: in The Monk (1796), one character in its clutches is said to suffer “the most excruciating pangs, that ever were invented by human cruelty,” while 19th-century “Inquisition novels” added an erotic component. The Inquisition was evoked as well in political writing—to condemn the ancien régime, say, or to inspire reform.

Peters also traces its transformation into something unconstrained by historical evidence. “Myth stubbornly haunts the assertions of history,” he writes, “and history continually challenges the veracity of myth.” But he states flatly that there never was “a single, all-powerful, horrific tribunal, whose agents worked everywhere to thwart religious truth, intellectual freedom, and political liberty.” The Inquisition of each nation or region had regional differences. In a conversation about the notorious Malleus Maleficarum—“The Hammer of Witches,” written by two 15th-century German Inquisitors as a handbook for uncovering and dealing with witches—Peters notes that despite what we might have expected from the Spanish Inquisition, the theologians of Spain did not approve of the Malleus—“they were very skeptical.”

Peters insists that we need Western historiography as a “control” on the misuse of history. Historiography, he says, is “a way of thinking, a way of handling evidence, a way of testing the logic of any kind of statement.” And he is constantly testing the logic, coherence, and factuality of his own statements as well as those of others. In the preface to the second edition of Witchcraft in Europe, he notes that two historians in the mid-1970s “independently proved that one of our texts … was in fact a nineteenth-century forgery.” As Kors tells it, the knowledge of that error “was just rankling [Peters] and the revision finally gave him the chance to correct it.”

Witchcraft would undoubtedly have existed in the minds of inquisitors even if no one ever confessed to being a witch. But a confession added a patina of respectability to the proceedings. Then, as now, there were ways of making someone talk.

In his 1985 book, Torture, Peters provides a historical context for the appearance—and reappearance—of torture. The early system of laws depended on “immanent justice,” which Peters explains as the assumption that God is present continuously in the material world and would not permit wrongs to go unpunished. That system required a belief in the validity of sworn oaths.

Gradually, however, the old system was replaced by the inquisitorial system, which relied more on judge and jury and less on divine intervention. The new system required “that proofs be sought, produced and examined, that witnesses be classified and interrogated under oath, and that the accused have some rational means of defense against the charges.” At the same time, however, the inquisitors believed they required an acknowledgement of guilt—confession—on the part of the accused.

“For all the uncertainties that attended the gathering and weighing of evidence, the testimony of witnesses, and the unpredictability of judges and juries, confession provided a remedy, and in some cases, chiefly capital ones, it came to be required,” he writes. “It is the importance of confession upon which hinges, if not the revival, then surely the spread and integration of torture into the legal systems of the thirteenth century.”

The revelation that French authorities in Algeria had been torturing prisoners in the 1950s—a few short years after the horrors of Nazism—dealt a severe blow to the notion of humanistic progress. Peters is especially caustic about General Jacques Massu, who in 1971 published his self-serving memoirs of the Algerian war. Massu defended his use of torture in Algeria “on the grounds that the particular circumstances then obtaining demanded its use, and that military necessity dictated it.” According to Peters, Massu’s book is a classic instance of a common argument for the legitimacy of torture, “that torturers may be responsible servants of the state in times of extreme crisis.” Peters also cites an American academic philosopher who was “innocent of the literature and history” of torture, and who in 1982 posited a “heroic, unemotional torturer in the service of the state on behalf of innocent victims”—a situation that Peters labels “idealized and sanitized.”

In his preface, Peters responded sharply to a reviewer of the first edition. “Complaining that I had failed to distinguish in modern history between torture under an ‘authoritarian’ regime and that under a ‘totalitarian’ regime (the heuristic difference apparently being that the former can change policy and the latter cannot), the reviewer neglected to note that it does not matter to victims whether they are tortured by authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. The experience of torture is the same.”

So, usually, is the logic behind it. Yet despite the memory of the September 11 attacks (which Peters calls “the new elephant in the living room”) and the fear of future 9/11s, the arguments against torture “remain formidable,” says Peters in an e-mail. “Aside from the U.N. conventions and other agreements to which the U.S. is a signatory, there is the problem of the torturer (they are made, not born, and who will make them—and later unmake them?) and the problem of the gamble—if one tortures and gets no information, what has one done? If one does [torture] and does [obtain information], how likely is one to do it again? And so on. Not so much a slippery slope as a slippery precipice.”

“I have sometimes envied scholars with a proper single field or a single, homogeneous corpus of sources,” Peters has written, “but I also wonder if I could ever have been one.” His own career has been “neither predictable nor single-minded,” he adds, as “old interests have never gone away, and new interests often oddly loop back to them.”

All of which explains why Peters’ upcoming book on curiositas “is, in a sense, autobiographical,” as Michael Ryan puts it. “That’s Ed—he’s nothing if not curious.”

A dangerous quality, indeed. 

Dr. John Shea Gr’84 is the editor of Penn Medicine.


The 1496 edition of the Malleus Maleficarumlooks harmless enough from the outside. Barely five inches wide and eight inches tall, its spine has grown bare—apart from the title, which was pasted on sometime in the last century, and which is usually translated as “The Hammer of Witches.” But although its light-brown leather covers are mottled and worn, they are supported by two robust blocks of wood that suggest hard, frequent use.

Inside, its off-white pages are remarkably intact, apart from an occasional tea-colored stain. The type is black gothic, with flecks of red ink at the capital letters. Seeing the red on these double-columned pages, it is hard not to be reminded of the fiery deaths suffered by those judged to be witches: The Malleus was written by two Dominican inquisitors to instruct other inquisitors on how to determine who was a witch—and how to deal with them.

“It was not a display book,” says Dr. Edward Peters. “It was a user’s book.”

The Malleus is one of about 15,000 volumes in the Henry Charles Lea Library, which adjoins Peters’ office on the sixth floor of Van Pelt Library. Ever since Peters arrived at Penn in 1968 as the Henry Charles Lea Assistant Professor of History, he has served as the Lea Library’s curator. (Michael Ryan, director of the University library system’s collection of rare books and manuscripts, offers what must be the highest compliment he has: “Ed is a born librarian who had the unhappy fate of becoming a historian.”) Transported from Lea’s home to the Penn campus, the library’s old-fashioned splendor lives up to every expectation of what the reading room of a wealthy, scholarly 19th-century gentleman should be—if, that is, the gentleman was particularly interested in inquisition and heresy. 

Lea was one of the foremost scholars of early Europe, and a collector who had the means to purchase what he wanted. His books on the Inquisition and witchcraft—including that edition of the Malleus, which he acquired in 1876—are still consulted. Though the holdings are primarily related to the Middle Ages, he was also interested in world religions, legal history, and church history.

In an essay about the Lea Library, Peters notes that when it was given to Penn in 1925 by the historian’s children, the library held “around 7,000 volumes, including 400 medieval manuscripts, incunabula (books printed before 1500), transcriptions of manuscripts and archival material from Europe, Lea’s scholarly correspondence, drafts and corrected proofs of his historical works, unpublished research and reading notes, as well as the entire room and its furnishings.”

In addition to the large glass-topped seminar table in the center, the room contains Lea’s original desk and chair, a painting and a sculpture of Lea, and an elegant fireplace. Persian carpets cover the floor, and a stairway leads to the second story.

Around the perimeter of the room, on both levels, are glass-doored bookcases and shelves of rich dark wood, which Peters identifies as eastern black walnut. The shelves are filled with volumes and folios such as the two-foot high Rerum Italiarum Scriptures, the two-volume Codex Apocryphus Novi Testamenti, and Lea’s own History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages (1888), a three-volume set bound in black leather.

The Lea Library impresses both the students in Peters’ classes (who gawk at the bookish surroundings) and experienced scholars from Europe, who rhapsodize about the room and its holdings. “Their jaws drop,” says Peters. “They’re absolutely dazzled.” 

—John Shea

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