Thursday, February 13, 2014


“I have all this stuff – all these thoughts going on inside me and they all seem – so dangerous.”  Tyler from Jacqueline Woodson’s “The House You Pass on the Way.”
I started Jerry Pierce’s book “Poverty, Heresy and the Apocalypse: The Order of Apostles and Social Change in Medieval Italy, 1260-1307.”  It looks great.  Checking out the acknowledgements, I could just picture this charismatic bear of a guy with an ever-present smile on his face who did so much to re-invigorate the History Department during his too-short time with us.  He said he stumbled into his topic in Augustine Thompson’s class on medieval heresy because the topic he preferred, witchcraft, was already taken.  Jerry thanked Jonathyne Briggs for “his immeasurable support throughout the writing process, including draft reading (on short notice) and especially daily encouraging checkups as the writing neared its final stages.”  He also thanked “one of my best friends and companions,” his dog Abbey, “who faithfully stayed by my side during the writing process but, sadly, was not able to see the project to completion.”
 Fra Dolcino

In a favorable review for “History Today” John H. Arnold writes: Fra Dolcino was a radical: he preached that all goods should be held in common, that the pope was unworthy and that he, himself was the ‘true apostle of Christ’. He was also, if the chronicles are to be believed, a maniac. Hiding out in the mountains in northern Italy between 1305 and 1307, his followers ravaged the local villages, setting fire to churches, executing local people and generally running amok. Fra Dolcino was eventually captured and burnt at the stake. Several Italian chronicles record events and, in the Divine Comedy, Dante placed him in the depths of Hell.”  Arnold continues: “As with all stories of heretics, the historian faces several choices. Which sources to believe and to what extent? Whose ‘side’ is one on? Jerry Pierce is very firmly on the side of the Apostles and he makes clear from the off that he sees clear parallels between what happened to Fra Dolcino and the disastrous FBI operation at Waco, Texas in 1993 against David Koresh and the Branch Davidians cult.”

G. Geltner, writing for the English Historical Review, asserts that Pierce’s main achievement lies in illuminating “the weak evidential basis for the order’s reputation, among scholars and in the popular imagination alike, as heinously violent.”  The three contemporary accounts were by opponents of the order, and, Geltner writes, “subsequent interpretations have swallowed much of what these authors said hook, line, and sinker.”  Geltner concludes that Pierce ably exposes these texts’ tendentiousness and suggests a new reading but may have gone overboard in treating Fra Dolcino and his followers as well-intentioned good guys.  His unforgivable sin was challenging the Catholic Church.  Fifteen years after Dolcino’s death agents of the Vatican burned 30 of his disciples alive in the Padua marketplace.
I emailed Jerry congratulations on writing such an excellent book, and he replied: “Hey Jimbo! Thanks! I think the stuff towards the end about rebellion is the most exciting part. Yeah, Abbey was my pooch. She died suddenly from a random blood clot about a month after we moved to PA. I was right in the thick of writing, which kinda set me back. Now you need to get the History Department to bring me out to IUN for a lecture and book reading. HA!” Actually I’m working to have him speak at IUN.

Tuesday I’ll be talking to Chris Young’s students about doing oral history.  Oral history has a long, honorable tradition and is a necessary way to study history “from the bottom up.”  I’ll start with practical dos and don’t (using some of my experiences both good and bad), talk a little about memory and contemporary history, and go into detail on recent interviews I’ve done with Sheriff Dominguez, Congressman Visclosky, Earline Rogers, and Vernon Smith and experiences of my eight seminar students who in the mid-1990s participated in a Cedar Lake oral history project. 

Here’s how I described my “Cedar Lake gang,” as I called them, in an Editor’s Note” to my Cedar Lake Shavings (volume 26, 1997): 
Each made unique contributions.  Although all took turns videotaping, Daniel Avita was the most comfortable handling the camcorder and also the most popular with the older ladies.  Scott Carnahan, who grew up in Cedar Lake, went with me to Bea Horner’s apartment for what turned out to be a memorable interview (Scott asked her about her ancestors and she started weeping uncontrollably because some, Native Americans, had been forced to leave Northwest Indiana in the 1830s). David Espinosa made yeoman efforts to stifle his tendency to do most of the talking in a conversation and got some great bait stories out of Ted Gross, who owned Pine Crest Marina/ Boat Sales and Service.  Dario llano set records for most questions and least questions asked in back-to-back interviews with Chief Huck Moody and farmer James Saberniak.  Gail Simpson was perhaps our best listener, Kaneka Turner the most patient of the group, Jacki Snow the most persistent, and Gail Julaski the best at putting her subject at ease.
Not that, under my direction, we didn’t make our share of mistakes.  On the first day of the shoot we failed to secure the stage area properly and picked up a lot of extraneous noises.  Our sources, mostly senior citizens who had moved to Cedar Lake right after World War II intending to start families in a safe, countrified environment, sometimes got off the subject, perhaps due to our failure to explain our objectives.  In our zeal for interesting anecdotes we may have missed opportunities to be more analytical.  Still the raw material was rich and at times surprisingly candid.  To say the least, it was a learning experience.  Virtually all the students did their best interview the third time around, out of my earshot and using audiotape rather than videotape.

My afternoon itinerary includes trips to Albanese Confectionary to buy macadamia nuts for Toni’s birthday, best Buy to use my thirty dollars of credit I received for being over-charged for two Parquet Court CDs, and Toyota service to replace a headlight I discovered was out last night.  There are signs that we might get a gradual warm-up, but another blizzard is pounding the South and East Coast.  Jerry Pierce posted a photo of his car and mailbox along with this note: “My mission: find Punxatawmey Phil and kick him right in his goofy rodent teeth.  Who’s with me?”

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