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Historian’s book probes ‘Two Troubled Souls’

January 8, 2014

Book cover of “Two Troubled Souls: An Eighteenth-Century Couple’s Spiritual Journey in the Atlantic World.”Aaron Spencer Fogleman, a professor in the NIU Department of History, celebrated the publication of a new book last month.

“Two Troubled Souls: An Eighteenth-Century Couple’s Spiritual Journey in the Atlantic World,” published by the University of North Carolina Press, tells the story of Jean-François Reynier, a French Swiss Huguenot, and his wife, Maria Barbara Knoll, a Lutheran from the German territories.

Reynier and Knoll crossed the Atlantic several times and lived among Protestants, Jews, African slaves and Native Americans from Suriname to New York and many places in between. While they preached to and doctored many Atlantic peoples in religious missions, revivals and communal experiments, they encountered scandals, bouts of madness and other turmoil, including within their own marriage.

Fogleman offers a lens through which to better understand how individuals engaged with the 18th century Atlantic World and how men and women experienced many of its important aspects differently.

The lives of Reynier and Knoll illuminate an underside of empire where religious radicals fought against church authority and each other to find and spread the truth; where Atlantic peoples had spiritual, medical and linguistic encounters that authorities could not always understand or control; and where wives disobeyed husbands to seek their own truth and opportunity.

A scholar of early America and the Atlantic World from 1492 to 1867, Fogleman focuses his research on migration, religious conflict, gender, and the impact of revolution on early American society, as well as on that of the Atlantic World.

He recently answered questions for NIU Today about his new book, which he began researching and writing in 2008.

NIU TODAY: How did you learn of the story of Reynier and Knoll?
Aaron Spencer Fogleman: I began learning details of this couple’s story before feeling the need to write a book about them. While researching my previous book about religious conflict in the American colonies, Reynier and Knoll kept appearing in the documents I was using. They appeared to be a fascinating couple because they were involved in so many different religious conflicts and because so many contemporaries commented on the activities and character of each of them. So I began keeping a file on them.

Aaron Spencer Fogleman

Aaron Spencer Fogleman

NIU TODAY: What inspired you write this book?
ASF: Because my file on Reynier and Knoll and grown so large, I knew that I was sitting on a good story, but that is not enough to make one devote the time and energy to write a book in this profession. It was the opportunity to write about the lives and struggles of individual, unknown people in extraordinary historical circumstances that inspired me to turn this material into a book. I wanted to show how men and women could and did become involved in the large events of Atlantic history in the 18th century like migration, religious experiments, conquest, slavery and resistance, yet remain individuals who experienced personal triumph, failure and strife, not unlike husbands and wives do today. I am unaware of another full-length study of an otherwise unknown married couple that allows one to draw conclusions about the similarities and differences in the ways men and women experienced these important historical events, and I wished to explore these points at length. I also wanted to take advantage of the rich documentation on Reynier’s and Knoll’s lives to explore these important events in the Atlantic World in a strong narrative fashion that will hopefully hold the interest of readers from beginning to end.

NIU TODAY: What most surprised you as you researched their lives?
ASF: During my research I was struck by how it was possible to relate to this couple, even though they were extremely unusual and lived in much different circumstances than I do. When studying the documents and their context more closely, their feelings, hopes, dreams and aspirations emerged, as well as constant fighting, disappointment and tension in their lives and marriage. I never thought this would happen when compiling the initial file on them years ago. When Knoll wrote, while facing deadly disease, rape and humiliation in Suriname, that she wished she could sprout wings in order to fly home to Germany – even if it were only for an hour – my heart leaped out toward her. When Reynier struggled to get his book published in the 1740s, I could understand, because the various publishers (who both rejected and accepted his work) told him the same things they tell us today. Reynier and Knoll were hardly meant for each other, but they married anyway. Even though divorce was possible for them, they endured as a couple for 35 years, for better or worse, not unlike couples often do today. My empathy for them did not develop until very late in the research and writing phase of this project, and it took me by surprise.

NIU TODAY: What will readers gain from your work?
ASF: I hope that they will learn something about the Atlantic World when reading the book. More specifically (and to quote myself), I hope they will see how that world provided space where adventuresome couples like Reynier and Knoll could explore, hide and experience unusual and revealing encounters with European, Native American and African peoples. They should be able to see that there was an underside of empire operating at this time, in which religious radicals fought against church authority and each other to find and spread the truth, where spiritual, medical, and linguistic encounters occurred among Atlantic peoples that many authorities could not understand or control, and where wives disobeyed husbands to seek their own truth. And they will hopefully see that there was tension or a struggle between opportunity in the Americas and the inability or difficulty of individuals to affect real change in that new world of opportunity. I also hope that readers will experience some of the empathy I did when reading about this couple, and from this gain some insight into the deep historical roots of attitudes about marriage and work, the different ways men and women experience the same historical events, and how couples in the past endured hardships and each other in their quests to find truth and opportunity in their lives.