Between the Lines

August 1, 2009

Historian Tom Robisheaux '74 likes intellectual puzzles and the stories that wrestle with those puzzles. As an undergraduate, he was drawn to questions about what it was like to live in a period that prized discovery, fostered religious restlessness, and produced new nation-states. From those questions, he found a focus in Europe's early-modern era, the centuries between 1400 and 1800.

As an instructor, Robisheaux's favorite course has an even wider reach: "Magic, Religion, and Science Since 1400." Near the end of the spring semester, in a large East Campus lecture hall, the course turned to J.R.R. Tolkien and fantasy literature. Robisheaux described Tolkien as "a wizard of language"—a talent that allowed the British philologist to create a Lord of the Rings world that was convincing and compelling.

His new book, the subject of this issue's cover story, was prompted in part by his discovery that, after more than 300 years, a story of witchcraft has deep resonance in a German village. The Last Witch of Langenburg represents a rich mix of magic, religion, and science. It also represents a creative, and a scholarly, risk for Robisheaux. He had to be scrupulous in adhering to historical method. But he built the book around a series of scenes; in that way, he applied a classic storytelling convention in painting a sharp picture of the narrative's places and characters.

Historians are judged by their colleagues on the extent to which their research "advances the discussion about a particular problem in history," Robisheaux recently told a radio talk-show interviewer. "That's not easy to do when you write for the general public.

"On the other hand, I feel very strongly that a lot of academic historians have stepped back from making our history accessible to a wider public, although there is a great hunger out there for really good, interesting, well-crafted history."

—Robert J. Bliwise, editor