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Research Pilgrimages

History is not a series of events or individuals which can be organized into tidy categories where one period, such as “The Middle Ages” begins and another period, “The Early Modern Period” begins. If we analyze the methods for keeping historical accounts, we see that western culture tends to tell the narrative from the victor’s perspective. We learn in a linear fashion, and feel insecure without a time line to guide us through the battles, the succession of royalty, the famous scientists and artists, and so on.

What we don’t learn is the history of everyday people. We don’t learn about the people who were oppressed in order for the very few to rise to power and a place in our textbooks. We don’t learn how history is a tapestry, with every strand of the past woven together to hold the present in place. We miss the relational aspect of the why and the how things are the way they are and wonder why the study of history has little meaning for most people.

Cloudy skies over SchleitheimMy own response to this is to take Research Pilgrimages to the places I am writing about. If I am writing about the Anabaptists of the mid-Sixteenth Century, I travel to Schleitheim and walk on the same ground as the Anabaptists traveled. Persecuted, hunted for bounty, these pacifists were socialists who shared what little they had. In the freezing snow, lost in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, I wondered how the Anabaptists could have survived in this bleak and barren place. My respect for them increased and my sense of their fortitude made it possible to teach their history with passion and write about them with a kind of knowing I would not have without leaving my comfortable home in Berkeley.

Statue of Charlemagne in crypt of Zwingli's church, Zurich, Switzerland. I met up with Katherine Zell (1497–1562) in Strassburg, with George Blaurock, Conrad Grebel and Felix Mantz (all executed by the Inquisition) in Zurich, and I sat in one of the back pews in the same church (Zwingli’s) where the wives of George and Conrad and the mother of Felix sat while they heard sentences of death passed on their loved ones. Then I could teach and write with passion about these early radical reformers. I could root around in archives until I found the names of the women in documents, and make those names as known as that of Zwingli’s to my students.  Süleyman mosque, Istanbul, Turkey, where Sultan Süleyman is laid to rest.  Hürrem is next to Süleyman. My most recent research pilgrimages have taken me to Turkey. I could not write the book I am writing now without having had these experiences, and also studying the language.

I am searching for the missing and for those who may be known only to scholars who study a narrow field. I am trying to set right some of our misrepresentations of other cultures. For example, a book that was fairly popular in the United States one year ago contains a line about the Ottoman Turks that refers to them as “raping and pillaging” in a village before continuing on their way. There is no documentation. It is generally believed that the Ottoman Turks were barbarians, and this prejudice has carried on to the 21st Century.

Taking a good, hard look at our own projections, our own prejudices, our covert behavior which we have difficulty identifying, much less reflecting upon—these kinds of things make it possible for us to grow and learn, even though it is sometimes painful.

See some of Alicias photographs

Copyright 2006–2012 Alicia McNary Forsey.  Last edited on Sunday 22 April 2012.

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