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Robert A. Schneider
Editor, American Historical Review

Last modified: Tuesday, April 27, 2010

AHR for April: Lutherís body, suicide in Africa, the state in South Asia

April 27, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Lyndal Roper takes a fresh look at Martin Luther in the April 2010 issue of the American Historical Review, focusing on the way depictions emphasizing Luther's "monumentality" and his own relationship to his body informed the theology of Lutheranism.

"This was a man whose body was fundamental to his personality," writes Roper, a fellow and tutor in history at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Unlike saints and other pious figures, whose thinness illustrated their aversion or indifference to the temptations of the flesh, Luther's stoutness was an unmistakable feature of his iconographic representations, she notes.

The American Historical Review

The stout Martin Luther (left) contrasts with the ascetic-looking Philip Melanchthon in this 1558 illustration by Lucas Cranach the Younger

The April 2010 issue of the American Historical Review also features an exploration of suicide in late colonial Africa and an AHR Forum on "The State in South Asian History." The journal's editorial offices are located at Indiana University Bloomington.

In "Martin Luther's Body: The 'Stout Doctor' and His Biographers," Roper explores the way Luther constantly referred to the body -- and specifically his body -- in his writings and pronouncements, especially in the famous Table Talk.

Rather than seeing his preoccupation with the body as a character defect or neurosis, she proposes that Luther "offered a religious worldview that did not separate soul and body but incorporated a robust, redoubtable, and often mucky physicality." Luther's physicality -- "his bulk, his digestion, his anality" -- was intrinsic to his theology, including his views of the devil, she writes. Portraits of "the stout doctor" during and shortly after his life helped establish the emerging identity of Lutheranism.

In "Suicide in Late Colonial Africa: The Evidence of Inquests from Nyasaland," Megan Vaughan writes that assertions that suicide was rare in colonial Africa relied on narrow statistical evidence and seem based on dubious assumptions. Her article locates the study of suicide in Africa within this colonial intellectual history but also attempts to go beyond it. Using records of inquests held on suicide cases in late colonial Nyasaland, Vaughan presents a study of the nature of suicide in that region and examines the role of the inquest in the history of suicide in Africa.

The AHR Forum on "The State in South Asian History" brings together three studies that provide different perspectives on politics in India and Sri Lanka:

  • In "Rule of Law, Rule of Life: Caste, Democracy and the Courts in India," David Gilmartin notes that while democracy links sovereignty to the idea of a unitary, sovereign people, it also calls forth cultural divisions and conflicting interests. His article examines electoral democracy in India after 1947 through the lens of this paradox.
  • In "Ethnicity, Indigeneity, and Migration in the Advent of British Rule to Sri Lanka," Sujit Sivasundaram examines the history of the divide between the Sinhalese and Tamils of Sri Lanka from a transnational perspective.
  • Mithi Mukherjee's "Transcending Identity: Gandhi, Nonviolence, and the Pursuit of a 'Different' Freedom in Modern India" is a historical exploration into the Gandhian discourse of 'renunciative freedom' and how it differs from the western conceptions of political freedom.

In a comment on the three forum essays, "'History Is Past Politics'? Archives, 'Tainted Evidence,' and the Return of the State," Todd Shepard endorses the return to state-centered history among scholars of colonial and post-colonial societies, but calls attention to the snare of archives as constructed by national states and political institutions.

The American Historical Review, published five times a year, is the official publication of the American Historical Association. More information and links to a digital version of the current issue are on the Web at