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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Doing intellectual history: the Great and Little Tradition

Is intellectual history about intellectuals? Or is it about the intellectual spirit of a given epoch and culture, the mix of ideas and assumptions? Is it, in other words, about what James Scott has called the Great Tradition and the Little Tradition?

Recall what Scott says about the two traditions in his seminal essays about peasant revolts from the seventies: the Great Tradition, which is usually developed in the urban setting by ‘high culture’ intellectuals, then spreads out into the rural setting, where it encounters the set of beliefs and symbols held by peasants, or the Little Tradition. The process of dissemination, however, is full of slippages:

“My contention … will be that there is something systematic about this slippage between religious and political ideas as understood and practiced in the city and their little tradition variants in the countryside. This slippage, I argue, is scarcely random or accidental - quite simply because the social characteristics of an idea's great tradition adherents differ in clear and identifiable ways from the social characteristics of its little tradition ad-herents. The former, taken broadly, live in large differentiated cities where much of their life is governed by impersonal legal norms, are generally middle or upper class, and are masters of a written tradition. The latter, also taken broadly, live in small, relatively homogeneous villages where much of their life is governed by local custom, are generally lower-class subsistence-oriented producers, and are part of an oral tradition. To the extent that this gross characterization has any validity, it alerts us to the fact that religious and political ideas may each be transformed in comparable ways as they reach the peasantry. If folk Catholicism is to the New Testament and St. Peter as folk communism is to Das Kapital and Lenin, we may then be able to say something meaningful about folk variants of great tradition ideas and practices in general.”

Scott’s contention originally conceives of the Great Tradition in terms of the systematic possibilities afforded by the text – with its rules of relevance, truth, consistency, etc. – and the Little Tradition in terms of the possibilities of the oral – with the veridical weight it puts on the relationship between speaker and speech, its subordination of coherence to a host of exceptions, etc. This looks much like an old division between those with and those without the book, or writing. However, if the framework here is creaky, I think it is useful to have these two traditions in mind when trying to understand the past from an anthropologically informed perspective. I would, however, add to the dialectic between them that the Great Tradition continually distances itself from a past that it casts as ‘superstitious’ or outmoded – that it describes in Little Tradition terms – and that this perception is not completely false. The little tradition is not completely un-textualizable. On the contrary, it thrives on what Bakhtin called the “word” – on the maxim, proverb, verse, fable, figure, divination – which in turn operates as a sort of doxic disturbance within the Great Tradition.

In order to represent the intellectual landscape of, say, French culture in the seventeenth century, it is best to keep in mind the existence of both of these traditions. An intellectual history that takes up, say, Descartes, Gassendi, Pascal, etc., may miss important things about French intellectual culture. For instance, we know that in the 17th century, both the Nahua in Mexico and the French in the countryside, and in churches and parlements, believed human beings could change themselves into other animals. The French belief in this fact was confirmed over and over in many witch trials. The difference between the Nahua and the French was, in fact, not so much a difference in belief as in governance, which allowed certain figures in the Great Tradition the discursive possibility of examining the human body and, in the end, doubting that it could change into the body of other animals. This condition was the result of certain unique features of social control in France that were not generated by the Nahua – the policing of belief, for example.

Of course, members of the “high culture” could very well use witchcraft beliefs – even if they didn’t share them – tactically.

Take the sad tale of Baron and Baronne Beausoleil. This tale is less known than it should be – feminist historians, take note! Baronne Beausoleil, born Martine de Bertereau, came from a noble French family in Touraine or Berry. Her husband, Jean du Châtelet, Baron de Beausoleil and D’Auffembach, was a 17th century virtuoso. His nephew was a well known surgeon and Cartesian. Beausoleil was a geologist and alchemist, who became well enough known for his work on mineralogy to attract the attention of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph, and his successor, who made him commissioner general of the mines of Hungary. He was enticed back to France by officials of the court of Henry IV. The French state was alarmed by the disarray in which they found the French mining industry. Thus, Beausoleil – who worked with his wife, Martine – was given broad powers to restart the mining sector in the provinces.

In doing so, they established a base at Morlaix. It was there that their first misadventure befell them: a priest, a Prevot Provincial she names, charmingly, Touche-Grippé, ransacked their chateau while they were away on some survey of mines in the area. He justified his search by alluding to his suspicion that they were dabbling in magic. After all, how could they succeed in their task if they were not using magic? One has to remember, too, that in the early 1600s, magic could be a synonym for science – it is used with this signification in Porta and Bacon.

Rather remarkably, Martine seems to have been entrusted with the task of public relations for the pair – which is how we know of this first, and as it turns out, premonitory dustup with the priest. For a while, the couple left France, but they were enticed back under Louis XIII. It was then they made the mistake of using their own fortune to explore for and open mines – thinking, evidently, that they would be reimbursed by the state.

Such were the circumstances when she published her pamphlet, La Restitution de Pluton. In it, she tackles the subject of her sex:

But how about what is said by others about a women who undertakes to dig holes in and pierce mountains: this is too bold, and surpasses the forces and industry of this sex, and perhaps, there is more empty words and vanity in such promises (vices for which flighty persons are often remarked) than the appearance of truth. I would refer this disbeliever, and all those who arm themselves with such and other like arguments, to profane histories, where they will find that, in the past, there have been women who were not only bellicose and skilled in arms, but even more, expert in arts and speculative sciences, professed so much by the Greeks as by the Romans.”

And here, after alluding to some classical instances, she gives her bonafides in the “occult art”: having descended myself in the shafts and caverns of mines (although they are frighteningly deep), as those of gold and silver in Potosi, in the Kingdom of Peru…In those of Neusoln, Cremitz, and Schemnitz, in the Kingdom of Hungary…”

Which has given rise to the report that she actually went across the ocean on some expedition to visit Peru. One wonders if this claim is exaggerated – it would certainly be interesting. And it is politically possible that the Beausoleils, who worked for the Habsburgs, could have gotten such passage. Of course, right after this claim comes another – about what is met with in the mines of Hungary and Germany: .. where one often meets small dwarves, of about three or four palms in height, old, and clothed like those who work in the mines, to wit with an old short jacket, and a leather vest, which hangs down over most their body, with a white cape with a hood, a lamp, and a stick in their hand, horrible specters to those who have not long had experience in the descent into the mine.”

The Restitution of Pluto is a rather strange title for a mining manual – for Pluto to receive restitution, one would think, something was called for on the order of returning ore – a sort of antimining. But the restitution that Baronne Beausoleil has in mind is the restitution of the fortune she and her husband spent on exploring mines for the French government. In addition, she complains of having had the household maps and documents concerning mining pilfered by Touche-Grippé. In the course of her pamphlet, she also undertakes to show how astrology and the ‘wand’ used by miners were employed in renewing old and worn out mines.

Perhaps this was the excuse that provided the base for her downfall. The case of baron and baronne Beausoleil is curious, in that we have no record of their trial, no documentation to tell us why they were separated and imprisoned, Martine de Bertereau in Vincennes, her husband, Jean du Châtelet, Baron de Beausoleil and D’Auffembach, in the Bastille. Martine was imprisoned with her daughter. The last indication we have of Martine, the woman who may have plunged into the fearsome mines of Potosi, and certainly did go down into many Hungarian and German mines, is contained in the letters of the Abbé de Saint-Cyran, who was imprisoned in Vincennes as a Jansenist priest. According to Saint-Cyran, Martine was ‘assez mal en ordre’ - she wore threadbare clothes. He was able to procure some better clothes for both of them. He also wrote to a friend as a favor for Martine, requesting him to inquire about the couple’s daughter, Anne du Châtelet, who had been left in the care of one of their friends. Anne had been taught Latin in order to “render her capable of the science of mining, which is hereditary in the family”. In another letter, Saint-Cyran defends Châtelet from the accusation of necromancy. His interest in astrology, Saint-Cyran assures his correspondent, was entirely scientific – the kind of divination that Saint Thomas approved of.

The Great Tradition is built on many bones, and some of the bones it grinds are of unfortunates who are caught in out of joint moments, and purged from our collective memory.

2 comments:

tx3amigos said...

Very interesting. Where did you get your reference info on Martine Bertereau? I would love to read more

tx3amigos said...

Very interesting article. Where did you get your reference info on Martine Bertereau? I would love to read more about her...