“Writing a Moravian Memoir: the Intersection of History and Autobiography”

Screenshot 2015-05-14 19.19.51 Monday, May 11, 2015, University of Goteborg, Sweden

I delivered this seminar paper via Skype to a group of European scholars interested in ways of reading and analyzing Moravian memoirs.  The two day seminar was entitled “Life-writing and Lebenslauf:  Pillars of an invisible church” and was organized by Dr. Christer Ahlberger, in the faculty of History. In this paper I discuss ways of thinking about autobiography and the Moravian memoir, both as a radical act within the history of the genre and also, when analyzing the memoirs with the methods of DH, as a radical hermeneutic to reveal new voices in the historical record.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 19.24.46The genre of autobiography is a tricky one. Although only recently even acknowledged within the scholarly community as an object worthy of critical scrunity, autobiography has for millenia served the purpose of providing a model of the exemplary life. Whether in the form of saints’ lives, the chronicles of kings and queens, the political autobiography, or Johannes Arndt’s “best seller” the Historie der Wiedergeborenen, all have served the purpose of shaping others’ lives. Through autobiography the author is able to examine memory, shape experience, interrogate the reasons for action and examine conscience. For the reader, the genre provides an opportunity to view this process within another human subject, to witness the relation of authentic (or inauthentic) experience and emotion.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 19.26.34

What is the power of autobiography to do this? According to the French critic of autobiography, Philippe Lejeune, we must read autobiography to look for its functions: it is “a retrospective prose narrative produced by a real person concerning his own existence, focusing on his individual life, in particular on the development of his personality”.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 19.30.01

Lejeune further stresses the importance of the author’s position as the narrator, and the narrator’s position as the protagonist.  Thus, the “individual life” explored in an autobiography must simultaneously be that of the text’s author, its narrator and its protagonist.  Otherwise, the writer will fail to meet the autobiographical contract: the speaker that the reader takes to be the “I” of the narrative must truly be the “I” that experienced such events and emotions as are depicted within the narrative.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 19.34.58

According to Lejeune, one of the strongest forces that draws us to the autobiographical genre is what he calls the “autobiographical contract;” that is that we the reader know that there is a contract between the author, the narrator and the “I that is speaking that they are co-equal. And that I only exists when uttered.  Although Lejeune is definitely not the most recent critic of autobiography, I like to start with this simple equation (or matrix) as he calls it when I teach the genre because it makes abundantly clear the pragmatics of the autobiographical act.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 19.37.56This is a subject that is speaking about him or herself; and in the utterance of the word “I” that subjecthood is brought into being as performative, iterative act. And this powerful concept is one that was recognized by most famously St. Augustine, in his Confessions; and also Rousseau in his own work that celebrates the singularity of his self. Indeed the very genre of autobiography takes off after Rousseau’s proto-Romantic cult of the self in his autobiography. And, simultaneous with the Enlightenment’s philosophical establishment of a concept of self based within the limits of reason and intellect, the spiritual memoir, whether as a genre of creative non-fiction or else in its literary guise (see Goethe’s Bekenntnisse einer schönen Seele or Karl Philip Moritz’ Anton Reiser) takes on the role of exploring the experience of the religious.

In her monograph “Das Leben als Lehrtext” Christine Lost discusses the central role that communication plays in the constitution of the Moravian religious self in the 18th century. In her examination of several centuries’ worth of Lebensläufe from the Herrnhut archives, Lost describes the communicative structure of Moravian experience. Like the genre of autobiography outlined above, the Moravian Lebenslauf is both inwardly and outwardly directed; that is, it serves as a means of self-examination for the writing “I”, as well as participating in the construction of a communal identity.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 19.41.27

This dialectic of individual/community (that so influenced Friedrich Schleiermacher’s concept of religious consciousness and ethical action) reflects very much Zinzendorf’s own understanding of the function of the Lebenslauf.  Indeed, Lost discusses the various means implemented in the community to bring its members into fellowship with their peers. Multiple opportunities exist to record and hear autobiographical reflections in letters, memoirs, and diaries. According to Lost, these oral and written forms of communication came together with the gender-specific structures of the community, through the choir system, to underscore the Moravian notion that the human being is not divided into realms of mind/body/spirit, but rather is a holistic one.  In my own more recent scholarship on the Speakings I can claim that in addition to these letters, memoirs, and diaries, the Speakings also constitute an important form of communication within the Moravian communities and are a crucial factor in the process of shaping conceptions of self, identity, and Christ’s presence in the world.Screenshot 2015-05-14 19.45.56

Rather than spanning the two and half centuries since the institution of the Lebenslauf in the 1750s, my own work focuses on the beginnings of the genre and its potential as a radical force to change perceptions of the 18th century and also the nature of the writing self. The expectation that all members of the church should engage in such self-relation brings with it a windfall for historians of gender and race, in that those frequently elided from mainstream history are given a voice within the church. And this brings it radical implications that are completely ignored by Christine Lost, for example.  Whether through a memoir, through the speakings, or through the regular and public report of the activities of the Gemeine, Moravians during the long 18th century were presented with multiple opportunities to reflect on their lives as aesthetic and verbal constructs.  How does having these opportunities change their concept of themselves as spiritual beings?  And what, if anything, can we learn from this today?Screenshot 2015-05-14 19.48.24

When I first started working on Moravian women’s memoir, I was warned by one German scholar in particular that they would not yield up very much; after all, “Die sind ja alle gleich”. That dismissive claim of course acted as only spur to my further research. From my own extensive reading in the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, I knew that these were the personal testimonies of real women’s lives, not just formulaic expressions of conversion and redemption. Deciphering the German script had led to windows being opened on the thoughts, emotions, experiences, and life trajectories of women from classes that usually did not have a voice in the history of autobiography. And for this reason I chose to produce a collection of Moravian Women’s Lives almost 20 years ago.  There are of course patterns of experience and emotion that replicate themselves in the memoirs. Lost identifies specific stages in her study, such as the description of childhood, puberty, the path to the Gemeine, and the subsequent acceptance (both spiritual and physical) into the community. Authors use specific terms to describe these stages, associating a distance from God and Jesus with “Unruhe, Gottesferne, Suchen” and the finding of a place within the Gemeine as the attainment of “Ruhe”.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 19.50.21Moving to North America and the memoir collection that is in Bethlehem, PA we can examine similar studies of large collections of documents that have been carried out. For example, just before my own work on the women’s memoirs was published, Beverly Smaby produced a fascinating study using the methods of social sciences to “distantly read” the Bethlehem collection of memoirs to see of the there was a correlation between the decisions that men and women described as having to face in their Memoir and the social structure of their community. Most famously, she showed that in the early period of the Bethlehem community, during the “Oeconomie,” gender differentiated decisions occurred  far less frequently than in the later period, once the householder economy had been founded. In Lost’s work we do not unfortunately find such a differentiation across time or genders that might lead to insights into the changing perceptions of self in the Herrnhut community. Following the chart on the slide we can see how Smaby extracted a pattern of life decisions that were common to the memoirs in her sample.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 19.53.36For my own book on the Moravian Women’s Memoirs that was published in 1997, I took a sample of 30 memoirs from the archives in Bethlehem. My criteria for the sample were a) the women had lived and worked in Bethlehem during the period known as the General Economy (1740-1760) b) the memoirs were written in the first person, with maybe framing comments written by either the Choir Helper or the surviving husband, and c) would reflect the range of activities that Moravian women undertook in each of these choirs in this period. The majority of memoirs were written by either married or widowed women (7 married and 18 widowed) and only 5 by Single sisters.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 19.56.15Whether married, widowed or single, the Sisters all had occupations within the Gemeine. Single, widowed and married women were able to serve as Choir Helpers in the Gemeine, and also work within the choir as a sickwaiter, launderess, cook, or gardener. However, only married women could work in the mission field. The range of women’s activities is surprising, and I admit to selecting memoirs that would be of interest also to the readers. Again, the experience of the writing and reading I creates an instantiation of that person in history.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 19.58.16Although from my reading of the corpus of women’s memoirs it was clear to me that certain terms were dominant (a repetition of verbal patterning that might lead the German scholar I mentioned above to the conclusion that the memoirs were “alle gleich”) I had never performed the kind of statistical or visual analysis on the texts that Beverly Smaby had. With the tools that are now available through the field of Digital Humanities it is possible to extract textual digital data (plain text files) from transcriptions and in my case translations and create word patterns. This word cloud, a simple visual representation of the word frequencies within the 30 memoirs I included in my book that has used the Taporware stop to exclude the most commonly occurring words such as “and” and “the”, shows the most commonly occurring words in the women’s memoirs to be “Savior”, “dear” and “Heart”.

Whereas concordances and word lists have been compiled of literary and philosophical works for centuries, and with the rise of computing these corpora-based methods have become more accessible and accepted in scholarly circles, this visualization of the women’s memoirs might seem merely visually interesting and yet not scholarly. Indeed, critics of such maps and visualizations contend that these tools counter traditional notions of the “proper way” to read texts, which usually means close, hermeneutically and historically based reading. However, as Edward Whitely has argued, “the mind is just as capable (if not more so) of extracting meaning from shapes and patterns as it is at processing written language”. Indeed,  “recent evidence shows that the optic nerves connecting the eye’s retina to brain operates at 10Mb per second, equivalent to an Ethernet.” (Tufte, Envisioning Information, 50)

For my own scholarly purposes, visualizing these women’s texts opens up a new dimension to my understanding of them. Having transcribed, translated and published all of these manuscripts, I know them very well. Translation has indeed been called the most intimate act of reading and as this close friend of these women’s written lives I am startled by the new ways of reading old texts.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.00.04For example, Moravian women’s memoirs can also be visualized as a force directed graph that shows the proximity of relations between what the algorithm recognizes as people, places and organizations. This graph created with the same corpus as the previous word cloud has been created by a program called Rezoviz, (http://docs.voyant-tools.org/tools/rezoviz/) which is also available through the Voyant suite of online tools.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.02.32

Striking in this visualization is the complete centrality of Jesus to the corpus. All names and places emanate from that central point. These are computer created visualizations of Moravian experiences of their lives; but to my mind show striking parallels to Valentin Haidt’s paintings of Zinzendorf as the teacher of the peoples.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.04.30The prevalence and centrality of the concept of Christ as Savior can also be shown with the digital tool ManyEyes, developed by IBM and now part of the Jigsaw platform, Jigsaw: Visual Analytics for Exploring and Understanding Document Collections (http://www.cc.gatech.edu/gvu/ii/jigsaw/). This particular visualization creates a word tree of all the phrases in multiple document sources that contain a key term. in this case “Savior.” In the live view of this screen, each of those phrases is a link that will take you to the occurrence in the document. As with the previous word cloud, the size of the branch indicates word frequency, larger branches reflect repeated text usage.This particular screenshot is showing only 25% of the occurrences within the corpus in order to fit them on the screen.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.06.24Another visualization from the Voyant suite that reveals fascinating dynamic relationships between memoirs is Links, (http://voyeurtools.org/tool/Links/) which represents the collocation of terms in a corpus by depicting them in a network through the use of a force directed graph. In this graph the frequency of the word is indicate by relative size of the term.   Here one term can be entered into the search window “Saviour” and then one can add to the graph by clicking on the term and adding a new one in the search window. I added “Jungmann” to the second widow, which reveals the linking term “husband” between the first word cluster and the second. By clicking on Jungmann to expand the number of terms a new cluster appears in the third window that links “Delawares” to the previous clusters.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.07.47

Through expanding the number of dominant terms in the graph, an accurate summary of topic domains that occur in the memoir of Margarethe Jungmann can be visualized. Again, because of my own intimate knowledge of the text I can verify the accuracy of this representation and also be surprised by connections that I had not thought were there.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.09.11

One of the ways in which we can visualize connections between entities in separate documents is to use the “Graph” view in Jigsaw. This is again a node-edge representation of links between entities but rather than uploading the corpus as one document, we can see connections between documents. For this visualization I created 32 separate text files for each of the memoirs (plus two that were not in my book) and then entered them into the Jigsaw interface. I was interested to see how many of the documents a) contained the place “London” b) who of the women were connected through their connection with London.  On this graph the documents that contain the work are the white rectangles. When you expand that rectangle all the entities that appear in that documents appear as a cloud. This can be very distracting, so you can then control for multiple occurrences (which might be more significant) and then move the documents around in the window view for better clarity. Here in this window we can see the way in which the communicative network of the Moravian world is instantiated through the lives and memoirs of the Moravian women (and remember, these are just the women in the collection). Contrary to perceptions of Pietistic women as isolated and quietly living in the closed communities, these kinds of visualization can show us the rich and connected lives they led.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.10.28

This interconnectedness is again something that the Moravians themselves visualized in their own self-representations of their communities. Here, for example, is a contemporary visualization of the history of the church as a vine with many branches.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.12.54

If we go back to the Graph view in Jigsaw and this time enter a term like “sinner” denoting, as Lost says, the distance from God, we get a different picture. Here documents that contain the terms are placed in a circular fashion around the periphery of a circle that contains organizations and places connected with the term.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.14.22

One of the advantages to the Jigsaw platform is that you can create multiple visualization simultaneously that reveal different kinds of connections. For example, here on the left hand side we have the word tree for Sisters and then on the right we have a window that contains the “List” view. This view presents a series of lists of entities of different types found in the set of documents that can be ordered according to frequency of occurrence. So here, in the list on the left, the search term “Sisters” is linked to the list on the right that consists of places and organizations. Therefore we can see both the narrative context of the terms, its relative frequency and also the places and groups with which the term most frequently appears. In the Moravian Women’s Memoirs, for example, Sisters are most frequently linked with Bethlehem, Maryland, Philadelphia, London, etc.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.16.39

The document view in Jigsaw allows the viewer to select a document in the collection on the left and then the main window on the right shows a) the whole document with the highlighted terms of people, places, and entities b) the summary sentence that the algorithm calculates as best summarizing the whole document. This is extremely useful for a closer reading of a longer text.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.18.21

All of the visualizations above have been based on computer generated algorithms reading the text as data. However, what of the geospatial visualization of these women’s lives? Where did they come from? Where did they work? In order to create mappings of the Moravian women’s lives I extracted biographical, temporal and geospatial data from the collection of the memoirs.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.19.49

Then, using ArcGIS online I imported this data as different layers of information in conjunction with other layers I already had created for my work in Native American and Moravian mission history in North America. In this slide the base layer is an 18th century globe map from the David Rumsey collection onto which the birthplaces of the women in the memoir book have been added. They appear here in the shape of a “heat map” that varies color based on density of location. In the live map we can zoom in to these areas to see that the Palatinate, Moravia, London, Bedford, Pennsylvania and New York are the areas that these women were born in. One is born in West Africa.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.21.49This next map shows the places of birth of all the women buried in the Bethlehem Gottesacker from the 18th century. This data I had compiled when I first started working on the Moravians in the 1980s. I include this layer here as a comparison to the previous one so that we can see the representative nature of the selection of women in the memoir book; and also see the addition of women from Norway and Sweden, the Caribbean. Again the same area in Central Europe are the densest locations.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.23.44

This layer shows the areas of activity of these women in the memor book. The hot spots here are London, New York, Pennsylvania, and the Caribbean. Again, compared to the birth layer we can see that the women move around a lot.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.25.16

Focusing in on North America we see a more concentrated view of women’s work spheres.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.27.25



One of the longest and most detailed memoirs in the collection is by Margarethe Jungmann, born Bechtel in the Palatinate in 1721. She and her family moved to America when she was still a child. In many ways her life is paradigmatic for those Moravian women who became missionaries. From this overview of the locations of her life we can see that her main sphere of activity is within that of the sample of women.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.29.10If we zoom in to her field of activity in North America we can get an idea of the distances she traveled while active in the mission field. I have also been able to time-enable her life layer so that we can see how often she was traveling as a missionary.  But these visualizations of the geospatial and temporal data of Margaretha Jungmann’s life do not tell her story. Surely they are a way to understand the historical importance of a life like hers, one that counters the dominant paradigm of women’s lives as being static and uninvolved in the creation of history, limited to the private realm of family and oikos. But they are perhps the other side of memoir, the external life that when related tells the story of the Moravian church as Zinzendorf envisaged it.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.33.51I would like to end my presentation today with some comparisons of these women’s memoirs with men’s. Is Smaby right in her conclusion that there is a surprising lack of difference between men’s and women’s memoirs? Margarethe Jungmann’s second husband was Johann. He also left behind him a long and detailed memoir that I have transcribed and published (add citation). This visualization of the translation of his memoir shows Bethlehem at the center of his life, not the Savior.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.35.39

A Cirrus word cloud of just the raw frequency of the terms in his memoir reveals this picture. Bethlehem at the center of his world and the Savior coming a close second.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.36.58

As my final visualization I would like to offer you the network of topics for the one slave narrative I have published, of Andrew the Moor. Born in what is today Nigeria, and captured by slavers as a child, Andrew’s world is very different from that of Johannes Jungmann or his wife.  As we can see, at the center of Andrew’s verbal world is his owner, Mr Noble. Not the Saviour.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.38.02

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.39.21

Screenshot 2015-05-14 20.40.00


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s