by Nuala P. Caomhanach

Felix Schlichter is a Postdoctoral Fellow at The Leibniz Institute for European History and formerly a Herzog Ernst Fellow at Universität Erfurt. Schlichter’s main research interests include pagan history, biblical history, philology, and intellectual history in the early modern world/seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He spoke with Nuala P. Caomhanach about his recent JHI article, “Euhemerus and Euhemerism in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries” (volume 84, issue 4).

Nuala Caomhanach: The seventeenth century bishop of Avranches Pierre-Daniel Huet opens your engrossing article. You mention that by the 1730s, Huet’s Demonstratio evangelica (1679), which defended the truth of the Christian religion, had gone through eight editions. Was the book’s popularity the reason you located it as a text for analysis, or did the serendipitous trail of literary and archival breadcrumbs lead you to it? What made Huet’s text so conceptually or intellectually stimulating to his contemporaries?

Felix Schlichter: I couldn’t claim that my focus on Huet was in any way due to my own research. In recent historiography (and, in truth, even in the seventeenth century itself) he is often presented as the prime representative of the particular approach to biblical history and pagan mythology which is the subject of my work. As to why the Demonstratio proved so stimulating to contemporaries, that is both easy and difficult to answer. On the one hand, it is quite simply one of the most extensive, thorough, and learned defences of the Christian religion, written in a period in which new ideas made such a defence particularly appealing to not only academics but learned Christians more generally. It is a great example of pious scholarship: mobilising arcane knowledge and new scholarly methods to defend well-established (and universally accepted), essential points of Christian doctrine. The more difficult question is why, and whether Huet’s audience thought that the work was also convincing; a question undoubtedly coloured by the almost unanimously negative judgements of later eighteenth-century critics. In some ways, I hope in the course of this article to have some shed some light on the reason why Huet’s contemporaries thought his argument praiseworthy and, at the very least, probable, even if we might scoff.

NC:  How does this article fit into your broader field of interests and research? How do these kinds of texts inform your methodological approach to early modern religious history?

FS: The article is in many ways an offshoot of my broader research into the manner in which scholars of this period conceptualised the relationship between the history of the biblical text on the one hand and the historical narrative of pagan mythology on the other; and the manner in which they used the latter to substantiate the former. The most famous example of this relationship is undoubtedly the propensity of scholars (Huet is once again a propitious example) to identify biblical patriarchs with pagan gods. The short shrift these attempts received among later generations has largely filtered into more recent historiography. But Huet and his contemporaries were not stupid; they may have been wrong, but (and this was my starting presumption) they likely had good reasons for believing that they were not wrong. I have always thought it more interesting to ask the question of why a generation of supremely learned scholars thought that their theories, which now appear fanciful and abstruse, were legitimate, rather than simply dismissing them as historical (and pious) oddities (or worse, stupidities). The label of Euhemerism was, I thought, a nice way into this question: it got to the central issue at the heart of this disjunct, namely the fact that seventeenth-century historians had a different conceptualisation of ancient, primordial (we might say, pre-Hellenic) history to their later counterparts.

NC: You utilize the category “Euhemerism” as a lens and a case study to understand not only your historical actors, but the subsequent scholarship and historiography on this topic. You argue that this category not only obscures important differences between the seventeenth and eighteenth century mythographic scholarship but has cast a long shadow in the way we study the history of Christian mythography today. What does this tell us about the craft of history and historiography? In what direction do you think your field needs to go?

FS: I think it very much depends on which direction you approach the question from. In some of my other written work, I have continued to use the label “Euhemerist” because it is the single best English word for denoting a scholar who turns historical mortals into pagan gods. But it is a fundamentally descriptive, not analytic term: I guess that is what I wanted to demonstrate. In the previous question I mentioned how I wanted to analyse seventeenth-century scholars on their own terms, to take seriously what they took seriously. The main obstacle to this has always been the popularity and dominance of the Enlightenment in intellectual historiography. I think scholars of early modern intellectual history in recent years have done brilliant work in breaking down this traditional conceptualisation, and I see my analysis of “Euhemerism” as being just a small contribution in that vein. Clearly, our conceptualisation of “Euhemerism” has a history and an origin in the eighteenth century which means we must be careful when applying it to the work of earlier scholars. As long as historians exercise this due care, I think we will gain a better understanding of what was really going on when it comes to the history of Christian mythography.

NC: At times converging, at times diverging; while your historical actors form an ever shifting network of intellectual thought over Christian mythography, you demonstrate how both biblicist and non-biblicist interpreters of myth agreed on one main point, that “myth was corrupted history” (673). What was at stake for your historical actors here? In what ways was creating a division between myth and history about broader power and authority structures during this period?

FS: It’s a difficult question, and I don’t think I have a concrete answer. I can, however, provide some broad, somewhat simplistic, ruminations. I think the basic problem is actually a methodological one: before the nineteenth-century, i.e., before the advent of systematic, academic, sustained archaeological excavation, scholars had scant historical sources for any history which occurred before Homer. This became a particularly prescient problem in the seventeenth century, when historical scholarship developed a new importance and degree of sophistication, where knowledge was increasingly historicised, and in which historical defences of the Christian religion became paramount. As a result, we see the originally Greco-Roman (or perhaps more specifically Varronian) notion of myth as perverted primordial history take on a new importance, and come to be systemised to a degree that it had not been before. I don’t believe that scholars of any century have ever used myth as extensively, not merely as an historical source which exemplified the culture or psychology of its time but because it contained a definitive, precise, historical narrative. Therein lies the great Shakespearian tragic flaw of these heroic, biblical, diffusionist scholars: by seeking to confirm the authority of the Pentateuch through historical testimony they historicised a divine text.

NC: Your exposition of the genesis and genealogy of Euhemerus and Euhemerism highlights the need for meticulous yet mindful archival excavation and analysis. I would love to know more about the obstacles or limitations you met along the way in tracing out this lineage of intellectual texts and debates over the three centuries. If you had a magic wand (pagan or otherwise!), what would be on your wishlist of things you wish you could know more about but the archives/sources cannot reveal?

FS: There is one very big problem which I am not sure I managed to ever adequately solve: the problem of providing a broad historical conceptualisation of not just one but two very diverse generations of disparate scholars. Indeed, I am sure the critical reader has probably noted that I frequently use “seventeenth-century” and “eighteenth-century” as if they were analytic categories, rather than arbitrary chronological terms invented by Dionysius Exiguus. Added to this is the fact that, in order to highlight what I would call “broad, underlying” change, I have had to lump together scholars from all manner of diverse confessional, national, scholarly, and other backgrounds. No doubt there is some simplification in this. However, I do think that the broader point I try to make still stands, and that something different really was going on in the late seventeenth vis-à-vis the early eighteenth century (as Paul Hazard once suggested so eloquently). But it is always a challenge when working with so many texts, because they require the historian to sacrifice precise, individual specificities or differences in order to try and highlight broader, generational trends. Finding that which is common among different scholars is, I think, always fraught with more danger than highlighting differences between scholars who otherwise had much in common. Whether I have been successful–that will have to be for someone else to judge.

As for the magic wand, it is quite simple: however much work I do on this subject, I still do not believe that I truly know, by which I mean, that I really fully understand, that I can really be sure, whether the pagan god-biblical patriarch relationship I have outlined here is truly that which seventeenth-century scholars would accept. Sure, from the sources I have available, I believe I have gotten close, and perhaps (if I may me immodest for a moment) closer than some previous treatments of the subject. But historical questions of this kind are not reducible to scientific laws, like Newton’s gravity: I am happy to admit that we are still in the realms of probability, not certainty. When all else fails, there is only one thing to do: to reanimate Huet and ask him, as Woody Allen did to Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, whether my interpretation of his diffusionist relationship between god and patriarch is correct, or whether, as McLuhan said to Allen’s companion when he proffered his own abstruse interpretation of McLuhan’s oeuvre, I know nothing of the work I claim to be an expert in. But surely all intellectual historians have these thoughts from time to time.

NC: Knowing that not everything makes the final draft of the article, could you share a moment when you engaged with your sources and it induced a reaction in you (for example, a giggle, an anachronistic judgment, anger, a snort, horror)? Is there one nugget of archival material (a sentence, an image, a poem, an annotation) that you would love to write about but there is not enough context or substance to write a whole piece about it?

FS: I think there is always something inherently fun in writing about pious Christian scholars who thought it would benefit Christianity to identify Moses, a prophet beloved by God, the founder of writing and law and the Jewish theocratic state, with the wine-swilling debauched Bacchus, who once induced women to devour the flesh of their infants (Apollodorus, 3.5.2-3). Yet the funniest nugget of information I encountered is not due to my own research but that of Don Cameron Allen, who wrote two excellent works on pagan mythography in the early modern world, The Legend of Noah (1949) and Mysteriously Meant (1970). In the former, Allen discussed how various Christian scholars had sought to derive historical information from the scanty (pun-intended; see below) biblical narrative of Noah and the Flood, such as the size of the ark or the composition of the Noachic calendar. But surely the best insight was offered by the twelfth-century Frenchman Petrus Comestor, who surmised from the state of Noah’s nakedness in the presence of Ham that underwear had not yet been invented. The Cambridge University Library main reading room had to suffer my stifled and in no way immature giggles after reading this. I plan to save my piece on underwear in Christian Noachic literature until after I have achieved tenure, however.

NC: Your article demonstrates not only the problem of how history is written (and for whom) but highlights the broader issue of historical “firsts” or origin stories. You show how different interpretations led to a different type of history and that historical meaning-making can turn political rapidly. For example how the Bible fell from grace, so to speak, as it “was divested of its status as a complete and authoritative source for the primordial history of mankind” (681) or how scholars tried to align pagan and Christian histories into a congruent singular history. The parallels with our own contemporary moment in politics (of corrupted or alternative histories) and the role of academia are striking. Should we lean into such parallels, or are we stretching historical continuities too far?

FS: Personally, I would avoid such parallels, not least because people always like to twist such parallels to substantiate a particular (often particularly asinine) point of view. It would also do damage to my general belief that historical information only has any value (and can avoid such political exploitation) by being confined to its specific historical context. In a broader sense, however, it might tell us a couple of things which are always worth noting: firstly, that all our historical interpretations (even those considered universally correct) are not the discovery of a previously dormant truth, but rather the product of our own, historical and ever-changing, understanding of historical methodology; and secondly (and consequently) that it might always be worth asking when the interpretations we now take for granted first arose and the reasons they did so. Having said that, I must sadly admit that even these two fairly basic notions could in certain hands be used to buttress all manner of ridiculous and fanciful revisionist (re-)interpretations of historical and political truths. But I think I am going beyond my area of expertise now. 

Nuala P. Caomhanach is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of History at New York University and the Invertebrate Zoology Department at the American Museum of Natural History. Her dissertation examines the relationship between scientific knowledge, climate change, and conservation law in Madagascar. She illuminates how changes in the botanical sciences of ecology and phylogenetics have affected conservation ideology, policy, and practice. Additionally, she co-produces the Not That Kind of Doctor podcast with Dr. Grace East. The podcast invites PhD students and early career scholars to discuss their research in an informal manner.

Featured image: Example of abstract photograhy, Wikimedia Commons, user Robertgombos, CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED.