September 16, 2013

John Wolffe and Ronald Hutton on Historical Approaches

Welcome back! Our inaugural podcast of the new semester brings you two short interviews on the subject of historical approaches to the study of religion, recorded by David Robertson at the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Context conference in Milton Keynes, July 2013.

First up is John Wolffe, who gives us an overview of the approach, its strengths and weaknesses, the impact that the internet has had on historical research and the shift towards “new history” which focusses on the marginalised over the powerful. Professor Wolffe also describes how one of his recent projects was planned and executed,which should prove valuable to those of us planning historical research. He also extols the role of historical research in uncovering “hidden histories” which can undermine constructed and confrontational narratives of historical identity.

In the second half, Professor Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol gives a more in-depth case-study, talking about his book on the emergence of Wicca, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (OUP, 1999), and how it was received by the academy and by the pagan community. Of particular interest here for the interviewer was the fact that, although sections of the book are often given to undergraduate students, they somehow seem to prefer Gerald Gardner’s own fantastical account of initiation into a pre-Christian Moon-goddess cult over Hutton’s more down-to-earth – yet no less fascinating – account.

Thanks to the Open University for supporting these and other recordings.

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Discussion


9 replies to “John Wolffe and Ronald Hutton on Historical Approaches

  1. Ruth-Anne Avruskin

    Thank you for this podcast! It was the basis of a thought-provoking conversation about historical approaches to religion in my Master’s level Religion & Culture class. It also sparked an interest in Wicca that I didn’t know existed within me – it has prompted me to look further into Ronald Hutton’s work. Thanks again!

    Reply

  2. Gordon Dueck

    It is interesting that such a recreation of the story behind Wicca took place. Here we see a community where there was clearly a great error in the formation story of the group. I wonder about reactions to this retelling of the foundation myth among devout tellers of this story within the tradition. In a general sense, how well received are historical narratives provided by the historian in a group confessing their own story. I have in mind a community such as the Mennonites. Would groups such as these, with their own remembered and retold histories receive historical reconstruction against their believed stories? Does this approach to history, in the end, become active scholarship against mythological creation in a religious community? (Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada)

    Reply

    1. Post Author David Robertson

      Hutton and I discussed the different responses his reconstruction of the Wicca story have had. By and large, he’s been relatively well-received in the UK, but less so in the US. This is probably at least in part to his frequent presence in the pagan scene over here. But importantly, although he critiques the historical legitimisation of Wicca, he is laudatory about its functional legitimacy. So, in fact, many Wiccans see Hutton as helping justify Wicca despite its dubious creation myth.

      Reply

  3. Mathew Elder

    Thank you for this podcast. I enjoyed Wolffe’s discussion on the ability for historians of religion to impact religious communities and even challenge false or dangerous narratives. However, do you feel this is a slightly idealized perspective on the impact that academics actually have on religious communities? (Wilfrid Laurier University)

    Reply

    1. Christopher Cotter

      Well… yes. But couldn’t you also extrapolate the idea to academia in general? However, I am sure that there are intellectual historians out there who would be able to show us that the fruits of academic labour do tend to eventually become part of popular discourse… for good or for bad. Think of secularization theory, rational choice theory, paradigm shifts or the big bang. But here I am also getting idealistic… maybe that’s because I’m not entirely fed up with my Ph.D. yet 🙂

      Reply

  4. Amara

    I found Wolffe’s segment on how the Internet has changed research by providing printed source material available online interesting. Evidently there will always be pros and cons to this. The pro being the ability to research more effectively in a shorter amount of time at one’s desk, rather than spending time at a library searching for sources. Although this innovation has led to easier accessibility, articles that are not located online become more difficult to locate. I also found Ronald Hutton’s section on the foundation myth particularly fascinating. I think that Hutton’s research is a great way to record current thoughts of past occurrences. (Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada)

    Reply

  5. Sarah M

    Thank you for this interesting podcast! It was intriguing to hear both scholars touch upon the impact historiography can have on religious adherents and practitioners. I wonder, though, if Wicca is unusual in the extent to which it interacts with academics over the history of the movement – both in positive and negative ways. Hutton describes a general acceptance of his research in Britain and a fierce rejection of the same research in the U.S. and ‘the colonies’. In both instances, practitioners are engaged with academic research. Earlier in the podcast, Wolffe brought up the idea that religious movements might look to history as a source of identity, but I would suggest that movements typically look internally to accepted historical narratives. I would be curious to learn if Wicca is, as I suggested, unusual in its engagement with academe and historiography and – if so – why that might be the case.(Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada)

    Reply

    1. Christopher Cotter

      Perhaps this might be to do with the comparative ‘youth’ of Wicca? I guess movements which are less ‘established’ are likely to be more interested in scholarly work on their history… both in terms of taking some positive added legitimacy, and potentially to rebut claims which go counter to their internal narratives. Just some thoughts, though… I am no expert!

      Reply

      1. Post Author David Robertson

        Perhaps also the demographic is a factor – generally educated, middle-class and anglophone, and therefore in a good position to engage with the scholarship?

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