Religious tolerance study draws valuable support
What can a bunch of 16th-century religious exiles teach us about peaceful co-existence? That’s Jesse Spohnholz’s million-dollar question.
Humanities researchers don’t typically get grants for almost a million dollars—especially from governments of other countries. But Jesse Spohnholz isn’t your typical humanities researcher.
Energetic and affable, Spohnholz exudes both reverence and humor along with scholarly enthusiasm when he talks about historical as well as current events. He can quickly draw from his vast knowledge base to connect the past and present and can give centuries-old characters and ideas new life.
Such qualities are indispensable in his role as associate professor of history and director of WSU’s innovative Roots of Contemporary Issues World History Program, an integral part of UCORE (University Common Requirement). They also may have contributed to winning his latest high-dollar grant award.
Big thinking pays off
With his research partner Mirjam van Veen of the Free University Amsterdam, Spohnholz is set to receive a $917,000 grant from the Dutch National Organization for Scientific Research to investigate historical factors that helped shape the culture of toleration in the Netherlands today. The six-year project will be conducted at the Free University and will examine the role of 16th-century exiles who fled to Germany in developing the Netherlands’s culture of acceptance in the earliest decades the Dutch Republic.
“Grant applicants were encouraged to think big, and that’s just what my colleague and I did,” Spohnholz said.
Among other things, he will research 16th-century documents written in Dutch, German, and Latin to understand how a variety of religious groups co-existed during a period of the Dutch Golden Age, when the region’s science, art, and trade were among the most acclaimed in the world. (Think Dutch ships plying the oceans and painter Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring).
During that time, the Dutch Republic was Europe’s melting pot, home to an influx of refugees of multiple religious backgrounds. Among them were exiles who fled the Netherlands to the German Rhineland during Catholic Spain’s rule. After the region separated from Spain in 1572, becoming an independent state, many of these exiles returned.
“While in exile in Rhineland, people of a variety of faiths appear to have lived in peaceful religious coexistence. They learned to adapt, to compromise,” said Spohnholz. “After returning to the Netherlands, despite their differences, many of them emerged as advocates for religious tolerance and compromise.”
Deciphering handwriting across languages and time
To trace the lives of some of those long-deceased exiles, Spohnholz will have to track down and read volumes of 16th-century documents ranging from tax lists to marriage and baptism records and church meeting notes—all written in multiple languages. What’s more, he’ll have to decipher the handwriting of that period using his training in a paleography, or the study of historical handwriting styles.
“There was a lot of variation in how letters were shaped,” said Spohnholz. “Even someone knowledgeable in a particular language needs special training to be able to read the text.”
Spohnholz and van Veen launch the project this summer, with Spohnholz working in the Netherlands and Germany during June and July. They anticipate hiring two doctoral researchers to complete the initial archival research, and eventually hiring a postdoctoral researcher, developing a smart phone app and other public service and outreach projects, as well as co-authoring a book about their work.