A Marriage of Two Minds
USC College historians Peter Mancall and Lisa Bitel author new books and prepare for their silver wedding anniversary.By Pamela J. Johnson
July 10, 2009
Peter Mancall and Lisa Bitel enjoy more in common than many married couples. Both are historians in USC College. Both are Harvard grads. And both have authored newly released books.
Mancall appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart July 14 discussing Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson (Basic Books, 2009). The book chronicles the mutiny leading to the disappearance of the great Elizabethan navigator.
Bitel’s book, Landscape with Two Saints: How Genovefa of Paris and Brigit of Kildare Built Christianity in Barbarian Europe (Oxford University Press, 2009), tells the stories of two extraordinary holy women.
Married for 24 years and parents of Sophie, 20, and Nick, 17, Bitel and Mancall critique each other’s works.
“Love, honor and edit,” joked Bitel, also chair and professor of the Gender Studies Program and professor of religion in the College.
The couple met as second-year graduate students at Harvard University. Mancall, who grew up in Philadelphia and earned his bachelor’s at Oberlin College. Bitel, who hailed from outside Detroit, received her B.A. from Smith College. At Harvard, they took the same medieval history seminar. Bitel was the group’s only student focusing on Celtic and medieval studies.
The pair wed in 1985, one year before Mancall completed his Ph.D. and two before Bitel earned hers. After teaching at Harvard for a few years, they became history professors at the University of Kansas. But the two playfully dispute over who was recruited first.
“Peter went to Kansas to give his job talk a week after our first child was born,” Bitel said. “He eventually told them he had a wife who was also an historian.”
“What do you mean, eventually?” Mancall retorted with a laugh. “I told them as soon as I got off the plane. They wanted Lisa.”
Twelve years later, in 2001, USC College recruited Bitel and Mancall through the Senior Hiring Initiative. Mancall, who holds a joint appointment in anthropology, soon helped to create the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute, which he directs. Last month, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded an $883,000, three-year grant to support the institute’s programs, including fellowships for USC faculty and Ph.D. students. In addition, Mancall has served as associate vice provost for research advancement.
He also works with the Los Angeles Unified School District, instructing elementary school teachers on crucial topics for early American history lessons such as the role of Native Americans and African-Americans. Mancall is striving to preserve history lessons in elementary schools. He also tries to make the subject exciting and pertinent to students.
An expert on early Native American history, Mancall has written extensively on the subject. In Fatal Journey, he discusses Hudson’s unsuccessful attempts at forging a relationship with Indians, who could have taught him how to survive in harsh conditions.
The book tells the tale of Hudson’s fourth and final voyage in 1610. Searching for the quickest route from England to East Asia for precious spices, Hudson and his crew, including his teenage son, boarded Discovery and sailed across the North Atlantic into bodies of water now known as Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay. Hudson incorrectly believed that the large body of water led to a passage that would take him into the Pacific Ocean and hence East Asia.
In November, the ship became encased in ice in modern James Bay (at the southern edge of Hudson Bay) and the crew hunkered down on shore for the winter. Suffering in the icy conditions with diminishing supplies, the crew wanted to return to England. Hudson refused and insisted on resuming their search for the northern passage to the Pacific in the spring. The crew mutinied against Hudson, sending him, his son and seven sick crew members adrift in a longboat.
No one knows for certain what happened to Hudson and his shipmates, who were never heard from again. But Mancall, who focuses on this time period, has an advantage over other historians.
“Most biographers on Hudson stick to the documentary record relating to Hudson himself,” Mancall said. “I’m a specialist in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, so what I can bring to the story is context. Hudson’s behavior may seem bizarre. But if you fit it into the time period it begins to make sense.”
Mancall’s book draws some conclusions, including Hudson’s most fatal flaw that he was unable to make a pact with the Crees who inhabited the territory where he and his men spent the winter.
“In the North, visitors could not survive without the help of the native peoples,” Mancall said. “Hudson had dealings with Indians. It’s not that he wasn’t trying. He tried and he failed.”
Bitel also brings more to the College than her expertise in history. Specializing in medieval Europe, Bitel brought to USC the longstanding, award-winning Monastic Matrix, a digital archive that collects and makes available all existing data of professional Christian women in Europe between 400 and 1600 C.E.
A faculty fellow of the USC Center for Excellence in Research (Mancall is, too.), Bitel works on gender equality issues across disciplines. She is also an academic advisory committee member of the College’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
Her latest book explores how ordinary people learned to become Christians at the start of the Middle Ages. She tells the broader story through the tales of two Christian women leaders.
“Women couldn’t be priests; they couldn’t go and baptize a thousand,” Bitel said of the Middle Ages. “But they could be the ones facilitating this change of religious habits. They sponsored the building of churches and holy places. These women were role models. They were hugely influential.”
The history of Brigit and Genovefa explains not just how the legendary peripatetic women became targets of devotion, but how and where Europeans became Christian, and what religion meant to them on a daily basis. The story of these two saints also demonstrates the pervasive influence of gender and ethnicity, as well as regional culture and material environment, on the process of religious change.
Through Genovefa and Brigit, Bitel demonstrates what the written words of missionaries and theologians never can: the active participation of converts in the history of their own conversion.
Because her field is more esoteric than many, Bitel says it is a challenge to attract a general audience.
“It’s harder for me, because someone like Henry Hudson, or something related to American history is a natural draw for students who have gone through U.S. schools,” Bitel noted. “When you get into something more exotic like the distant past of Europe, the past of religion, and especially if you throw in a gender perspective, it’s a little harder to get the masses in the classroom.
“So part of my job is to get people interested in the distant past. To persuade them that they will find something useful and relevant.”