Excerpts from ‘An Interview with Charles Zika’

‘A World Enchanted: Magic and the Margins, a collection of essays in honour of Charles Zika’ available for sale from the Melbourne Historical Journal.

This interview appears in A World Enchanted: Magic and the Margins, a collection of essays in honour of Charles Zika, a Festshrift honouring the life and scholarly work of Professor Charles Zika, a CHE Chief Investigator at The University of Melbourne. This volume explores both cultural and intellectual histories of witchcraft, as well as examining marginalised communities and their representations within contemporary societies.In a portion of an interview conducted by Sarah Ferber, Zika discusses how he came to study history, and what Australian medieval and early modern historians have contributed to the field.


SF: In the introduction to your book, Exorcizing our Demons, you talk about the ‘intellectual environment, discussion, interactions, engagement and audience without which individual scholarship can easily become a form of antiquarianism.’Could you talk a little bit about the people who influenced you, both in your academic choices and your approach to study?

CZ: Historically speaking, my first attraction to the kind of history I would go on doing in various ways occurred when I was an undergraduate and remembering that was always important in my later teaching. What attracted me to history especially was the way in which different aspects of history and society came together and also the way in which history ought to be an interdisciplinary kind of activity. So my first mentor, when I moved from Middle Eastern Studies to History as part of an undergraduate course, was my later Masters supervisor Ian Robertson. And what attracted me to the kind of work he was doing was that it was looking at the relationship of politics to society, to culture in particular. There was a broader group of people working in Melbourne at that time, some of them having been taught by Ian or somehow influenced by him, who were working especially across history and art history, and that was, I think, quite important for me in forging some kind of understanding of what cultural history might be.

Secondly, what was very significant for me then was to leave Melbourne and the University of Melbourne for a period of almost three years and to work in a very different kind of context in Germany at the University of Tübingen. There, having been released from the confines of disciplinary structures, I purposely looked at a wide range of writing, and what interested me were the historians like—outside my field, EP Thompson—who were working with history and politics and sociology. And I have to say that was the first kind of attraction, people working in that sociological field, as well as history. And I found that very exciting and that set the tenor for the development of my work later on….

Interdisciplinarity was absolutely fundamental and it seemed to fit in with my personal engagement with politics, the conviction that politics is really fundamental to what we do as scholars and what we do as human beings, and somehow trying to bring those sorts of things together. And I suppose the connection with anthropology is that this helped underwrite the conviction that—as a slogan of the 1970s expressed it—the personal is political. It seemed that by looking at other cultures, whether Melanesian or African, or (an area in which I was more expert, South West German), I was able to look through a sort of prism at my personal experience of Melbourne, Australia, Brunswick, with what I was doing on the Primary School council, for instance, as well as what I was doing in the classroom. Somehow it illuminated the political meaning of the everyday and the way in which this is part of a broader understanding of society; and=–what seemed to me absolutely fundamental—the need to peruse and to teach the underpinnings of what power in society is and what democracy is. So I think reflecting back on it—although I maybe wasn’t as aware of it then, or I’m maybe creating a kind of narrative after the event—(laughs), we all do this!—I think that is one of the reasons I felt so attracted to the relation between history and anthropology.

But on the other hand I have to say that I was always interested as a child in foreign cultures, I was always interested in the stories I was told, in books I read, in films. It was a curiosity about other cultures which was connected to a questioning of my own culture. The fascination was that somehow the environment that I was living in was very different from the stories that my father used to tell me about this childhood and young adulthood in a very different society that was distant and rather exotic. And then also my mother’s stories about her family and her culture. I think that was the wellspring of my curiosity to learn about other cultures and the fascination with the problem of finding a commonness in all the difference.

SF: You have already touched on political questions that were relevant in the 1960s and 70s when you were beginning the life of a scholar and you have talked about questions of interdisciplinarity in influencing your work and the way in which you constantly tried to reiterate a kind of holistic relationship between your work and your life. Can I ask you to develop beyond that on a simple and fundamental question, one that I think is of interest to people who are just starting out as postgrad or early career scholars. As a teacher, when you are trying to impart a sense of what it might mean to live the life of a scholar, what do you think of as scholarship?Charles-Zika320x320

CZ: I find that a really difficult question, to be honest! I think a life of scholarship is about first of all being attuned as much as possible to the world around oneself. And I begin with that rather than with the material objects of one’s scholarship. For what we bring to our scholarly field, whether it be the everyday life of the Melanesians or whether it be the life and society of people in a sixteenth-century German city, depends upon our own experiences, depends upon our own social context, the kind of questions and the insights that we have into our own experience and the experience of those around us. I would say that as a first thing.

Secondly [pauses]: what is scholarship? I think it’s being true in some ways to the material that we are studying. It is being committed to it, trying to understand why it’s significant, maybe even limiting ourselves to its limited possibilities, but extracting from it those things which seem to be significant. And that is where our own broader understanding of those fundamental approaches to knowledge, which we sometimes describe as theory or insight, come into play. They help us understand and make sense of the significant elements in different societies. I suppose a scholarly life is the combination of those two things and some kind of commitment to the way in which the disciplines that are being created by people other than ourselves are also the things that we want to expand and open, so that we are not only able to create something new, but others can also build on our understandings, our particular, though sometimes very small breakthroughs, and can keep expanding those and making them relevant to others now and into the future.

SF: So it starts with a disposition and ends with a practice….I would like to ask you if you think there is anything distinctive about what Australians have contributed to early European studies in the past twenty or thirty years, affecting the wider direction of scholarship.

CZ: Whatever you say about the influence of Australian scholarship in pre-modern studies in general, you need to qualify by the fact that we are a very small community, in some senses closely knit, in other ways not so. So it’s very difficult to talk about a kind of “group influence” on the vast world of medieval and early modern European scholarship. But if you are talking about certain kinds of characteristics of Australian scholars and the way in which you can see at least some of them influencing the fields in which they work, I think there are certain things that seem to be quite noticeable. If I think of a slightly earlier generation of scholars [than mine], for instance, both Bill Kent and Dale Kent, and someone like Bob Scribner out of the University of Sydney and then compare them with a later group of scholars, such as Lyndal Roper and Alex Walsham, and someone like Philippa Maddern, to name a couple more who were undergraduates at Melbourne, one of the things that you notice, is their somewhat unorthodox approach to scholarship in the field. I think this comes partly from distance, the fact that it’s a long way to Europe. We are certainly on the physical margins of our discipline and so we see it from a slightly different perspective. We certainly don’t see it from a national perspective. We don’t feel these national boundaries. We don’t primarily read in a French or German or Italian national tradition. Maybe we don’t carry with us the heavy baggage of national historiography. We can feel lighter about that because we don’t belong in the same kind of way. And that might even be the way in with Australian scholars also distinguish themselves from scholars in the US, who do have a much stronger sense of scholarly genealogies, transmitted through their particular supervisors. Maybe what is transmitted here is the belief that historiography need not limit students from moving in quite different directions. It also helps that we don’t have as strong a sense of professorial ownership of students and areas of scholarship.

So I think that distance is the first of all significant, the kind of metaphorical distance of the Australian university system, and what is also crucial is the fact that we are a small scholarly community. Because of that also we are not limited—I think this is significant—by a sharp divide between medieval and early modern historians. We breach those sorts of fences very easily. And maybe because we are small in number we don’t have high disciplinary fences either. We certainly have disciplinary fences and different kinds of traditions. But we are more disposed to working together—even if a diminution of staff in the humanities disciplines from the 1990s has made this more urgent. We have had to learn collaborative skills and interdisciplinary skills. I think all those things, plus the pedagogical approach that I spoke of earlier of encouraging scholars to find their own way has had, I would think, a positive influence on scholars in this field to go out and think about things in a different way. If I can just cite the cases of two scholars I have known best, Bob Scribner and Lyndal Roper, I think they are significant in that they have forged their own paths and those paths have been quite different to the paths generally trod by early modern German scholars, whether from Europe or North America. They have pushed the boundaries in different ways, and I think that as something to do with the context out of which they came.

SF: The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE) is a good segue from that. Please say a bit about it.


CZ: The nature of Australian scholarship has meant that for thirty to forty years, and even more so maybe in the last twenty, medieval and early modern scholars have been quite a closely knit community and that kind of experience has enabled them to think of other ways of collaborating. And it’s significant that, what is within the Australian university community, quite a small group of scholars has been the first one to have been hugely funded by the ARC in the form of this recent Centre of Excellence. The CHE is a large structure spread over five universities, interdisciplinary in nature, with the core period of research being the twelfth to eighteenth centuries. It’s a fantastic project which has been table to develop out of that [collaborative culture]. The key movers saw the possibilities. Of course the funding came just at the right time. But they seized the moment. There might only be one moment… or there might not be another moment for some time! In that sense it is a combination of luck and also vision. But the fact that these scholars could think of such possibilities in an outcome of the way in which this group has worked over the last thirty years. In a sense it’s a culmination of much of that energy that went into first establishing different association s in Australia (AHMEME, the Australasian Historians of Medieval and Early Modern Europe, and ANZAMRS, the Australian and New Zealand Associations of Medieval and Renaissance Scholars), and the realisation in the 1990s that we couldn’t afford two such organisations an that it would make more sense to wed and become one: ANZAMEMS (the Australian and New Zealand Association of Medieval and Early Modern Scholars). Such collaboration was built upon successfully through the early leadership of scholars at UWA, especially Trish Crawford and Philppa Maddern, to have first of all gotten a major ARC grant for a group project on the theme of citizenship, then a large ARC network grant (the Network for Early European Research) and then to move beyond that and apply for a much larger and complex collaborative project as an ARC Centre of Excellence. That has been able to be achieved from a mindset that developed over a twenty to thirty year period…


Interested readers can read the rest of Charles Zika’s discussion of his research in ‘A World Enchanted: Magic and the Margins, a collection of essays in honour of Charles Zika available for sale here from the Melbourne Historical Journal. Many thanks to Charles Zika, Sarah Ferber, Julie Davies and Michael Pickering for graciously allowing us to reproduce a portion of this interview.

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