GEMS in portraits: Thomas Donald Jacobs

GEMS in portraits Thomas Donald JacobsLast week, I had a pleasant and interesting meeting with Thomas Donald Jacobs from the History Department at Ghent University. Thomas is a doctoral student and a teaching and research assistant. He specializes in Early Modern European discourses about the Americas, as well as the politics and diplomacy of that era. His particular interests lie in border-crossing, the negotiation and representation of Jewish and Native American identity, Charles V’s policies towards New Christians, and Anglo-Hispanic relations during the mid-seventeenth century. In April, he co-organized the 39th American Indian Workshop “Arrows of Time: Narrating the Past and Present” together with GEMS member Michael Limberger, and Fien Lauwaerts. The conference was a success and caused “just the right amount of controversy”.

How did your interest for your research arise?

My current research focuses on mid-seventeenth century diplomatic practice. I mainly study rituals and protocols, and examine how they evolved during the interregnum – this is the period between the execution of Charles I and the succession of Charles II. My interest in diplomacy actually arose from the sixties science fiction series Star Trek, in which Captain James Kirk, Spock and Leonard McCoy travel through the Milky Way during the 22nd century, “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. In fact, Star Trek is about meeting new cultures, getting acquainted with novel rituals, and observing negotiations between various civilizations. More recently, I was (and I still am) struck by the election process and the presidency of Donald Trump. There have been so many incidents in which he is not following the protocols. To name but one example: the moment he met with Angela Merkel in March 2018, he did not want to shake her hand, while the diplomatic protocol clearly requires him to do so. What does this event mean? I am interested in the impact of such events internationally, and I look at similar episodes in mid-seventeenth-century Europe.

Do you consider your research in general as interdisciplinary?

Absolutely. For the kind of research I am doing, anthropology is an important field to explore and consult. I come across gift exchanges, meetings, coronations, and manhood ceremonies – and anthropology provides me with useful tools for analysing these kinds of rituals. Moreover, I do not believe it is at all possible for scholars in the humanities to cling to a single discipline. A lot of colleagues of the History Department work closely together with art historians, science historians, and philosophers. It is important to cross lines.

Have you ever experienced a ‘Eureka moment’ during your research?

When I started doing research, I was not sure if I was ever going to find the kinds of data that I needed. The sources are very scattered and there were a lot of things that I had to put together. I am interested in the ways in which diplomats thought about these meetings. And every now and then, I find very fascinating events – especially conflicts. Because his credentials were refused in England, the representative from Sweden in 1654 could not operate as an official ambassador. In an attempt to claim that rank, however, during his meeting with Cromwell, he refused to take off his hat even though this was an important part of the protocol. A Venetian secretary described in great detail how the ‘master of ceremonies’ irritably snatched off the hat twice. Such instances clearly do more than merely reinforce the state. Of course, this is an example of how protocols are deliberately violated. In a lot of cases, people just don’t know how the protocols work.

What is the most inspiring (literary) study you have ever read? And the most recent one?

One of the most inspiring papers I have read in the context of my research was “Much Ado About Nothing? Rituals of Politics in Early Modern Europe and Today” by Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger (Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster). It was presented at the 24th annual lecture of the German Historical Institute in 2010. In her paper, Stollberg-Rilinger exhaustively defines the ritual as an act (or sequence of acts) that is repetitive and standardized in its outward form, efficacious in the sense of bringing about a change of social, political, spiritual state or condition, performative in character, and symbolic because it points to something beyond itself, thus evoking a greater context of order, which it symbolizes and simultaneously reinforces (p.11-12). She illustrates the functioning of early modern rituals and concludes by returning to the present. This is important, because rituals are very topical. During the elections, Trump campaigned in Mexico. He was not granted an American flag on the podium, and people saw this as a slight against their community – they did not know, however, that Trump did not have the right to have a flag there. Yet, this demonstrates how symbols really matter to us. Stollberg-Rilinger’s paper is in fact a call to not consider rituals cute little anecdotes (as many historians have seen them for a long time), but to treat them as valuable sources for studying how people represent themselves and their governments.

Very recently, I read a paper by LeAnn Stevens-Larré and Lionel Larré on Sir Alexander Cuming and his meeting with the Cherokees (“A mad narrator as historian: Sir Alexander Cuming among the Cherokee (1730)” in Les narrateurs fous/Mad narrators, Jaëck, Mallier, Schmitt, Girad eds., 2014). According to the account of this diplomatic mission, Cuming was proclaimed and crowned “the king of the Cherokees”. The only problem: it was Cuming himself who wrote the account. It is highly likely that this was all made up and that he was a fraud (if not mad). This paper made me think about how you deal with these kinds of sources. In my research, I always try to make sure that I collect correspondences and newspaper articles, and examine everything comparatively with regard to specific incidents. As a scholar, you have to take into account that diplomats were often inclined to exaggerate.

About the image: Thomas demonstrating the Vulcan salute from Star Trek.

By Thomas Donald Jacobs and Sarah Adams