Spotlight course: Religion and Popular Culture, 1400-1700
February 2, 2014Tweet
For Douglas Jones, different “voices” can paint dramatically different pictures of an historical era or event. In his course Religion and Popular Culture, 1400-1700, the visiting assistant professor of religious studies plans to highlight voices too often ignored.
“If we look at the ‘ordinary folk,’ there is a different picture of big, grand events like the Protestant Reformation than if we just listen to Luther or Calvin,” he said.
The opportunity to share accounts of the “ordinary folk” with students is what excites Jones most about the spring 2014 course. He said students will get a chance to engage with lesser-known sources that have been written out of history or ignored, such as the accounts of the uneducated, women and other marginalized groups — vanguards of what ultimately became known as “popular culture.”
“After the invention of the printing press and movable type, we see the emergence of a whole new class that can read but lacks formal education,” Jones said. “They were reading and writing, but not influenced by the schools and universities’ definitions and interpretations.”
Jones incorporates “micro-historical” sources into the class that reveal elements of the bigger picture through “tiny slices of history.” One such source — the book The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg — tells the story of Menocchio, an uneducated Italian man who exemplifies this “new class.”
“(Menocchio) could read all of these books, but not in the traditional way,” Jones said. “For example, he read the Bible and came up with heretical interpretations.”
Jones said he believes there are benefits to micro-historical sources, both to the class and to the students.
“Microhistory tells the story of a ‘little nobody,’ but may still tell us more than a textbook,” he said. “And students enjoy reading books more like novels than a history book.”
In addition to highlighting alternative historical interpretations through microhistory, Jones encourages students to be like Menocchio in their studies.
“Students come up with their own prompt (when writing a paper) and engage with voices of the past without scholars telling them what it means,” he said. “Much like the popular culture people we look at, they come up with their own thoughts.”
Engaging with voices of the past in a nontraditional way has always been a focus for Jones, who studied “alternative,” “subversive” and marginalized religious groups in his path to a doctorate in religious studies. He wrote his dissertation on the Family of Love, a religious movement in the early modern period, and studied other groups such as the Branch Davidians, Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate, all 20th-century religious movements.
“I looked at their attempts to communicate with the mainstream,” he said. “I had an interest in trying to understand their religious point of view — not to condone it, but to understand it on their level.”
Jones recommends Religion and Popular Culture, 1400-1700 to history and Judaic studies majors. As acting director of the religious studies minor at Binghamton University, he also encourages interested students to check out both the course and the minor.
“(I would recommend the course to) any student interested in alternative history, questioning the dominant narrative about what the Reformation was about and historiography,” he said.
With its appeal to these students, Jones hopes the course will disprove a common misconception.
“History is not just a list of names and dates to be memorized,” he said. “It is malleable and open to new thoughts.”