MARINA RUSTOW, historian of the medieval Middle East, wins MacArthur Fellowship

Marina Rustow

Marina Rustow (Photo courtesy of John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Marina Rustow, the Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East and professor of Near Eastern studies and history, has been awarded a 2015 MacArthur Fellowship.

Rustow is among 24 scientists, artists, scholars and activists who will each receive $625,000 no-strings-attached grants over a five-year period from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a capacity for self-direction.

Rustow’s area of specialization is the medieval Middle East, particularly texts from the Cairo Geniza, a cache of more than 300,000 folio pages of legal documents, letters and literary materials that span more than a millennium and were preserved in an Egyptian synagogue. In its announcement, the MacArthur Foundation cited Rustow for research on the Geniza texts “that shed new light on Jewish life and on the broader society of the medieval Middle East. Rustow’s approach to this archive goes beyond decoding documents, in itself a formidable task, to questioning the relationship between subjects and medieval states and asking what that relationship tells us about power and the negotiation of religious boundaries.”

Life among strangers: Exile in the Middle Ages

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IN THE 1300s, A ROVING GANG OF THUGS went on a crime spree in France that included robbery, homicide and burial — possibly alive — of a body in a public privy. One of the gang’s members was Philip “Little Phil” Cavillon, an Englishman who’d been sentenced to exile in France.

The lives of Little Phil and other exiled English subjects in the late Middle Ages are the focus of a new book by historian William Chester Jordan, the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History. By studying English judicial documents, petitions to the king for pardon and surviving French records, Jordan pieced together the stories of these forsaken individuals in the scholarly work From England to France: Felony and Exile in the High Middle Ages (2015, Princeton University Press).

Not all of the exiles were murderers, but most had committed a serious crime, such as arson or theft, and then sought refuge in a church where they confessed their sins. Protected from execution by the church, the offenders were condemned to exile.

Between 1180 and 1350, thousands of men and the occasional woman went into exile, or “abjured the realm,” boarding ships in the port of Dover and arriving, often penniless and desperate, in the village of Wissant in a Dutch-speaking region of France. Some sought work as farm laborers, servants or prostitutes, while others, like Little Phil, resumed their lawless behaviors.

Jordan’s stories of these exiles bring to life what it was like to live at the height of the Middle Ages, an era that was prosperous by medieval standards but was close enough to subsistence level that theft was a threat to survival and punishable by death.

The practice of sentencing of criminals to exile probably arose as a backlash to the harsh punishments — notably hanging — allowed by medieval English law, Jordan said, drawing comparisons to the use of exile by France, which transferred felons to French Guiana, and Russia, which shipped political prisoners to Siberia.

“When society realizes that too many people are being executed,” Jordan said, “you begin to see the rise of alternatives such as exile, which itself contributed to many deaths, but far out of sight of the authorities.”

–By Catherine Zandonella

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Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878 – 1928

StalinIt has the quality of myth: a poor cobbler’s son, a seminarian from an oppressed outer province of the Russian empire, reinvents himself as a top leader in a band of revolutionary zealots. He later embarks upon the greatest gamble of his political life and the largest program of social reengineering ever attempted: the collectivization of all agriculture and industry across one-sixth of the Earth.

In Stalin, Stephen Kotkin, Princeton’s John P. Birkelund ’52 Professor in History and International Affairs, offers a biography that, at long last, is equal to this shrewd, sociopathic, charismatic dictator in all his dimensions. Kotkin rejects the inherited wisdom about Stalin’s psychological makeup, showing us instead how Stalin’s near paranoia was fundamentally political, and closely tracks the Bolshevik revolution’s structural paranoia, the predicament of a Communist regime in an overwhelmingly capitalist world, surrounded and penetrated by enemies. At the same time, Kotkin demonstrates the impossibility of understanding Stalin’s momentous decisions outside of the context of the tragic history of imperial Russia.

Found in translation: Scholar locates source of 18th-century Quran

Alexander Bevilacqua

Graduate student Alexander Bevilacqua with George Sale’s 1734 edition of the Quran, a highly influential English translation, in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton’s Firestone Library. Bevilacqua rediscovered the source material for Sale’s translation in a London archive. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

In a London archive, Alexander Bevilacqua found it: a medieval copy of the Muslim holy book, the Quran. Its aging pages, Bevilacqua knew, contained the original source for a highly influential 18th-century English translation of the Quran by George Sale.

Bevilacqua had embarked on a quest to find out how Sale, a self-taught Arabic speaker and amateur scholar in England, came to write such an enduring and unprejudiced translation in 1734, at a time when many Europeans viewed Islam with distrust.

A Ph.D. candidate in history, and fluent in five languages, Bevilacqua studies the ways in which cultures exchange ideas across the ages. His inspiration comes from growing up in Italy, surrounded by Roman ruins and the Musliminfluenced architecture of nearby Spain.

In this interview, Bevilacqua explains the importance of his finding.

Arabic manuscript

Bevilacqua discovered this medieval Arabic manuscript of the Quran, which served as a basis for George Sale’s English translation, in the London Metropolitan Archive. Sale borrowed this copy from the Dutch Church in 1733. (Reproduced with permission of the trustees, Nederlandse Kerk Austin Friars, London)

Why was George Sale’s English version of the Quran so influential?

Prior to his version, the best information about Islam was available in Latin. Sale included a lengthy preface in which he explained many historical facts about Islam. His efforts undercut the prejudicial notions about Islam that had circulated since medieval times. Sale’s translation remained the standard English version into the 20th century.

How did you come to discover the Arabic manuscript that Sale used?

Sale tells us in his preface that he employed a commentary written by a medieval Arabic scholar named Baydawi, which he had borrowed from the Dutch Church library in London. According to church records, the manuscript was donated in 1633 by a Dutch trader who had purchased it in Istanbul. The book sat in the library for 100 years until Sale borrowed it. I found out that the Dutch Church’s collection had been transferred to the London Metropolitan Archive, which houses city records. Its custodians didn’t quite realize they possessed such a precious book. The first time I visited, I was able to touch it, but after I explained its significance, I was asked to wear gloves.

What influence did the manuscript have on Sale’s translation?

Sale used particular words and phrases that were my smoking gun to show that he was working from this particular copy of the Quran rather than from existing European translations. Sale’s reliance on the commentary that accompanies the text shows us that Europeans of the time wanted to know how Muslims read and understood the Quran.

English version

An edition of George Sale’s translation of the Quran is held in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton’s Firestone Library. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

What have you learned about historical research?

One thing I’ve learned is that knowledge is so often produced in collaboration, or rather, by the efforts of multiple people, sometimes in the same time and place and sometimes over the centuries in different places. Sale consulted both European and Arabic authorities. This kind of discovery also reminds me how much remains to be learned about our past.

“Alex’s finding adds to our understanding of the 18th-century European mind and its openness to using tools from the Arab tradition to understand the Quran,” said Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. Bevilacqua’s advisers are Grafton and Michael Cook, the Class of 1943 University Professor of Near Eastern Studies.

Bevilacqua’s research was funded by the American Historical Association, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies and the Society for French Historical Studies. His article on George Sale’s translation of the Quran, an edition of which is held in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton’s Firestone Library, will appear in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes in November 2013.

–By Catherine Zandonella

Three win Guggenheim Fellowships

D. Graham Burnett

D. Graham Burnett (Photo by D. Hong)

Three professors have received 2013 Guggenheim Fellowships for demonstrated excellence in scholarship or creative work.

D. Graham Burnett, professor of history; Deana Lawson, lecturer in visual arts and the Lewis Center for the Arts; and Colson Whitehead, lecturer in creative writing and the Lewis Center for the Arts, were selected by a network of former Guggenheim Fellows to receive grants that would provide them with the ability to work with significant creative freedom for six months to one year.

Deana Lawson

Deana Lawson, D. Graham Burnett, and Colson Whitehead win Guggenheim Fellowships (Photo by Dru Donovan)

Burnett focuses on the history of earth and oceanic science from the 17th through the 20th centuries. He has written about changing human conceptions of nature, art and technology, and serves as an editor at the Brooklyn-based art magazine Cabinet.

Lawson’s work uses photography to approach personal and social histories, particularly in black culture. Her artwork has been exhibited in galleries throughout New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia and Atlanta, including the Museum of Modern Art, Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Print Center and Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. She has also displayed her photographs in the Helene Bailly Gallery in Paris and the KIT Museum in Düsseldorf, Germany.

Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead (Photo courtesy of Colson Whitehead)

Whitehead’s novel John Henry Days was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the Los Angeles Times Fiction Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and his collection of essays The Colossus of New York was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Whitehead has received a MacArthur Fellowship and a Whiting Writers Award.

William G. Bowen and Natalie Davis receive National Humanities Medal

William Bowen (Photo by David Lubarsky)

William Bowen (Photo by David Lubarsky)

At a White House ceremony, William G. Bowen, Princeton’s 17th president, and Natalie Zemon Davis, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, Emerita, were awarded the National Humanities Medal for 2012. The medal recognizes 12 individuals for their commitment to deepening the nation’s appreciation of, as well as access to, resources in the humanities.

The National Endowment for the Humanities nominated Bowen, a professor of economics and public affairs, emeritus, for the award in recognition of his contributions to higher education and economics research in America. According to the official citation for the medal, Bowen has “used his leadership to put theories into practice and strive for new heights of academic excellence.” Bowen served as Princeton University president from 1972 to 1988.

Natalie Zemon Davis

Natalie Zemon Davis (Photo by Michael van Leur)

Davis was honored for insights into historical research, which has allowed the public to engage with history and better understand what life might have looked like for previous generations. Davis, who focuses on the social and cultural history of early modern Europe, has worked as a consultant and scriptwriter for the 1982 film Le retour de Martin Guerre, which led to the publication of her book on historical events in France in the 16th century, The Return of Martin Guerre.

360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story by Sean Wilentz

360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story

Professor Sean Wilentz tells the story of Columbia Records’ rich history and the creation of some of the greatest albums ever made.

For 125 years, Columbia Records has remained one of the most vibrant and storied names in prerecorded sound, nurturing the careers of legends such as Bessie Smith, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Beyoncé and many more.

Written by Sean Wilentz, Princeton’s George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History, 360 Sound tells the story of the label’s rich history as it interweaves threads of technical and social change with the creation of some of the greatest albums ever made. The lavishly illustrated book contains over 300 rare and revealing images from the Columbia archives. Wilentz is a preeminent historian whose work spans music, politics and the arts.

 

Publisher: Chronicle Books, 2012 (Cover image and text courtesy of the publisher.)