Ada Palmer on Viking Metaphysics, Contingent Moments, and Censorship (Ep. 191)

Could one tiny decision have changed The Enlightenment forever?

Ada Palmer is a Renaissance historian at the University of Chicago who studies radical free thought and censorship, composes music, consults on anime and manga, and is the author of the acclaimed Terra Ignota sci-fi series, among many other things.

Tyler sat down with Ada to discuss why living in the Renaissance was worse than living during the Middle Ages, how art protected Florence, why she’s reluctant to travel back in time, which method of doing history is currently the most underrated, whose biography she’ll write, how we know what old Norse music was like, why women scholars helped us understand Viking metaphysics, why Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist is an interesting work, what people misunderstand about the inquisition(s), why science fiction doesn’t have higher social and literary status, which hive she would belong to in Terra Ignota, what the new novel she’s writing is about, and more.

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Recorded June 28th, 2023.

Read the full transcript

TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m chatting with Ada Palmer. Ada Palmer is a difficult person to introduce, and in part, I wanted to do this episode so I can introduce her better. But let me tell you what I have now. She’s the author of an acclaimed four-volume series of science fiction novels known as Terra Ignota. The first and most famous volume is Too Like the Lightning, but that’s really just the beginning of what she’s about.

She is a tenured historian at the University of Chicago in the history department. She studies the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, radical free thought, the history of censorship, information revolutions. Oh, and by the way, her science fiction series was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Series in 2022. She composes music, as well, and participates in performing it. She has a Viking mythology cycle called Sundown Whispers of Ragnarok.

She studies anime and manga, especially Osamu Tezuka, post–World War II manga, and feminist manga. She consults for anime and manga publishers, blogs at, and she can be supported at Patreon just by googling Ada Palmer Patreon. There’s actually much more, but that’s the start for now. Ada, welcome.

ADA PALMER: Thanks so much for having me. I’ve been looking forward.

On living in the Renaissance

COWEN: Why was living in the Renaissance worse than living during the Middle Ages? This is now Western and Central Europe.

PALMER: And also Southern Europe. The one-word answer is “progress,” counterintuitively, because as Europe’s economy regenerated after the Black Death and merchants started traveling farther, people started circulating from town to town more. That meant that diseases circulated more quickly, and so the number of deadly diseases that people were exposed to, especially between the ages of 2 and about 12, skyrocketed. So, the death rate for kids between 2 and 12 went way [up].

Similarly, there were advances in military technology and in the sizes of cities. There wasn’t quite industrialization, but there was a concentration around things like the wool industry. Increased population in cities and more advanced military tech means you can have larger, deadlier wars, in which larger populations of people are concentrated in one place and get struck by an army at the same time, while the army is more effective at breaking in through the outside of the city.

There’d also been a long and slow process throughout the Middle Ages of what we could call the slow centralization of power. This wasn’t yet the absolutist centralized monarchies of the 18th century and Louis XIV, but they were much better at extracting taxes from their periphery than before. Richer kings can afford larger armies and fight more and larger wars. So, I like to describe it as, “The Renaissance is just the Middle Ages, only slightly bigger and more so.” So, all of the same causes of violence and all of the same causes of death that were happening in the Middle Ages were able to happen on a larger scale once we hit 1400.

COWEN: But isn’t living in the countryside really boring? And urbanization was occurring because people preferred, or many people preferred, a Renaissance kind of lifestyle with all its risks to a more medieval kind of existence that they could have had if they had stayed in the countryside?

PALMER: Yeah, and there were huge reasons for people to flood into the cities. We see cities that get emptied by plague repopulated with enormous speed. When Naples was emptied by a resurgence of the Black Death, Yersinia pestis, in 1494 through 1496 — this was a city of nearly 200,000 — it became completely empty, and within 20 years, it was over 250,000 again. So, people were flooding in for opportunities for economic advancement. You traded shorter life expectancies for all sorts of other things, including better pay and different types of work.

One of the things that’s fun to remember in the Renaissance is that the actual pay for a day laborer was pretty high. In Renaissance Florence, which is my specialty, one of the things people never expect is that most sorts of day laborers — which is the bottom of the economic totem pole in the city — earned enough to live on working three days a week and spent the other several days of the week enjoying themselves and looking at art. This is not what we expect, but it was actually true.

COWEN: But isn’t that a sign that living in the Renaissance — at least some parts of it — was better than living in the Middle Ages because it’s what people chose?

PALMER: The question is, what do we mean by better? Do we measure better by life expectancy? Do we measure better by how you’re spending your days? Do we measure better by two of your three brothers have died, but you wear comfortable clothing; or only one of your three brothers has died, but you’re wearing itchy clothing because it’s been manufactured only with local materials without being able to import things like alum fixatives and expensive dyes and high-quality olive oil from far away in order to make higher-quality cloth?

This is why, when people talk about the Renaissance as a golden age, what I’d like to say is, well, golden age can mean a lot of different things. Do we judge a golden age based on the quality of how beautiful the cities are, how great the art is that is being produced, how many consumer goods somebody is living with in a daily life, the quality of your clothing?

Or do we measure it by life expectancy? Do we measure it by fear? Do we measure it by how many times you have relatives who are on death’s door from being exposed to the plague and living from it? We’ve all experienced during post-2020 those moments when a friend would say, “Oh, no, I got exposed,” and we have that little palpitation of anxiety waiting for the result of a COVID test. We have letters from Machiavelli and his brother back and forth, “Oh, no, I got exposed to somebody who had the Black Death. Now we have to wait two days to see whether I got it.” Those factors of fear.

So, the answer is, the Renaissance is a really complicated and sort of high-extremes-and-low-troughs place to live, in which a lot of the things that had been true in the Middle Ages became more extreme in both positive and negative ways.

COWEN: There’s so much wonderful art from the Florentine Renaissance, as you quite well know. If you had to try to explain that with as few dimensions as possible in the explanation, why did that happen when and where it did?

PALMER: Two reasons, and I’m going to give the post-Renaissance one first. Because Florence came to be a center of the Renaissance and, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, came to be a center of the Grand Tour and a place that everyone always had to go visit during the formation of an upper-class education, for the populations that are reading Sherlock Holmes live when it comes out, Florence has always been greatly respected and therefore protected.

Whenever Florence has been in danger from something, those dangers have pulled back. Even during World War II, for example, both Axis and Allies were under strict orders never to damage the artistic legacy in Florence, even as they were allowed to bomb the heck out of Milan and its historic center, Genoa and its historic center, Naples and its historic center.

So, one of the reasons Florence seems to have so much more art than everywhere else is that more of it has survived, which is a decision made by the later centuries by valuing Florence in a unique way, Venice being its rival in that degree of affection.

As for why the art got there in the first place, the short answer is that it’s a defense mechanism. Remember, Renaissance Italy is a bunch of little, tiny city-states, each of them its own country. They all hate their neighbors and are facing constant small-scale warfare, like the wars between Florence and Pisa or between Florence and Siena.

Meanwhile, outside of Italy, there are these large, ambitious, centralized powers, the Kingdom of France, the Kingdom of Aragon, the Ottoman Empire, the what we call Holy Roman Empire — they would just say Empire — to the north that wants to conquer things because it brings in income and it results in acclaim for the monarch.

Remember those very telling lines in Henry IV, Part 2, where young Henry V is advised by his father, “Busy minds with foreign wars. Achieve peace at home by sending our ambitious noblemen to other places to fight wars.” Italy was the place you went to fight wars.

Italy was the economic center of medieval and Renaissance Europe. We talk about Big Tech, Big Pharma, and Big Oil, right? But in the Renaissance, it was Big Wool, Big Olive Oil, and Big Finance is an eternal thing. But Italy was the center for banking. It was the center for cloth production, which was the economic equivalent of the auto industry — giant industry. And it was also the center for the export of olive oil, which was not only a foodstuff at the time, but an industrial product necessary for a lot of production, and it was what you burned for light, a lot of the time, in oil lamps.

So, these tiny Italian city-states were richer than the large kingdoms outside of them but had smaller populations. They struggled to raise armies because they didn’t have enough people. They had to hire foreign armies to defend them, and yet they were full of the richest families on Earth, who literally had mountains of gold piled in their basements. If you’re a king and you want to conquer something, do you want to go for anything else or do you want to go for a small, friendless Italian city-state with piles of gold in the basement?

COWEN: But how does art protect them? How does that explain wonderful art in Florence?

PALMER: Imagine for a moment that you are the French ambassador, and you’re on your way to Rome to meet with the pope because the French king always needs this. Now, if you’re an ambassador, you’re, at minimum, the son of a count because only aristocracy can be ambassadors. On your way south, you’re stopping off in different cities, including Florence.

Now, you already have a terrible opinion of Florence because Florence is a pit of merchants, scum, and villainy. Florence, in order to prevent noblemen from taking over the republic, literally executed everyone in this city who had a drop of royal blood or noble blood. So, it’s just commoners. There’s not a single person in this city who is of sufficient right to be worthy to talk to you. In addition, Florence has such a terrible reputation for sodomy, homosexuality, and perversion that the verb to Florentine is literally the word for anal sex in five different European countries, including in France.

So, you’re on your way to this city, and it’s full of merchant scum and they’re all perverts and there isn’t even anyone there who’s worthy to host you on the way. You’re going to stay with your dad’s banker because he’s the only Florentine whose address you’ve got. You show up in the city, and you reach the city, and suddenly, wait a minute, it’s full of these gorgeous ancient Roman bronzes. Wait a minute, they can’t be ancient Roman bronzes. They look like they’re new, but that technology doesn’t exist. That technology was lost centuries ago.

Then you go to the banker’s house, and he greets you humbly at the door saying, “I’m sorry, my house is unworthy to host your excellency,” and he invites you inside, and you look around the courtyard, and it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before, with these round circular arches that let enormous amounts of light shine in on the gardens and the statues. You’ve never seen this before. Wait, you have seen this before. It looks like the ruins of the Roman villa in the backyard of your father’s castle where you grew up, but that doesn’t exist anymore. Those arts were lost.

In the middle of the courtyard, there’s a gorgeous statue, an ancient Roman statue of Bacchus or Dionysius, and next to it, there’s a brand-new statue that’s obviously new because it hasn’t even turned green yet. The bronze is still ruddy. But that technology, you know, doesn’t exist.

In the corner, there are some men dressed in strange robes speaking a language you’ve never heard, and you say, “What language are they speaking?” The banker says, “Oh, they’re speaking Ancient Greek. They’re Plato scholars.” And you say, “But Ancient Greek is lost, and Plato is lost. How do you have this?” “Oh, we have lots of Ancient Greek here. Look, here’s my grandson, Lorenzo. He’s just written a sonnet in Ancient Greek about the three parts of the soul.” And then, here’s a little boy reciting a sonnet to you about the nature of the soul in Ancient Greek.

You’re like, “Where am I? All of this stuff is impossible.” And that’s the moment that your host, Cosimo de’ Medici, turns to you and says, “Would France like to make an alliance with Florence?”

You could say no, right? You could say, “No, we’re going to come here, we’re going to bring our army. We’re going to mop the floor with you because you’re helpless compared to our giant forces, and we’re going to burn this down and take the gold, and all of this will be gone, and we’ll be rich.”

Or you could say, “Yes. Let’s make an alliance. Send me a bronzesmith and an architect and a Greek tutor and a Plato scholar, and we’re going to bring them to the court in France, and the king is going to do his court like this. Then, when the envoys from England show up, they’re going to feel like uncultured country bumpkins, just like I feel now.” That’s how it’s a defense mechanism, because they are helpless on the military game, but they are so ahead on the culture game that you don’t want to hurt them. You want to befriend them so that you can have the art.

On going back in time

COWEN: Let’s say you have the choice to be sent back in time to any historical era. You’re given whatever languages you need and a guarantee of health.

PALMER: [laughs] Please don’t send me back in time. Back is terrible. Send me forward.

COWEN: No, no, forward might be terrible too. Your health is guaranteed. Where do you choose to go for one year?

PALMER: Can I go back to last year? No, seriously.

COWEN: You can.

PALMER: The farther back in time you go, the worse it is. It’s funny, I had a conversation like this at the Renaissance Society of America Conference a few years ago. I was sitting down at a table of four historians and six art historians, and we asked the question, “If you could go back to our period, our period that we know best — if you could go back in time, would you?” All the art historians said yes, and all the historians said no because we study the violent side and the nasty side. As much as I respect and love the historical figures, I know all of their general comportment and their attitudes toward outsiders, their xenophobia, their attitudes toward women. It would be a really miserable experience to be there.

Now, let’s imagine that we can set me up so that not only is my health guaranteed, but they’re going to believe I’m local. They’re not going to think that I’m a foreigner. I’m going to have a fake family, and I’m going to have a perfect accent, and I’m going to have letters of introduction because if you’re a foreigner, you’re sunk.

COWEN: You’re a nun.

PALMER: Oh, a nun.

COWEN: Right? You’ve read Diderot on nuns, so you’re a nun.

PALMER: Yes, yes. Dominican would be best for many periods. It depends on the goal. If it’s “I want to live and be okay,” I want to be as close to the present as possible. If it’s “I love these people, and I want to meet them and get to know about them,” I either want to go to a dinner party at Diderot’s house, or I want to talk to Machiavelli late in his life about the importance of his work after he’s written The Prince.

If I want to do the most good — because I’m actually changing history — then I need to go back to preclassical Egypt and teach Imhotep the germ theory of disease and handwashing practices because he is the earliest medical authority who has the correct background to be able to understand the germ theory of disease and the correct degree of authority to be able to teach it to people. If you want to actually increase the number of people who have lived by billions, you want to teach handwashing to Imhotep.

COWEN: Is history just a kind of clutter? And is clutter underrated?

PALMER: Clutter is definitely underrated. I think the problem with “Is history just a kind of clutter” is the just, because what is clutter, if not a record of the human beings who have been in a place and used it and lived it and all of the delightful experiences? I don’t know how often you’ve been decluttering a room and picked up an object and thought, “Oh, yeah, that wonderful day I spent with a friend” or “that frustrating day that then got better in a particular way” or even “that frustrating day that didn’t get better, but now I have the perspective from which to digest my frustrations.”

COWEN: I’m not sure I do declutter rooms. Maybe that’s my problem.

PALMER: There’s that wonderful saying, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” When we look at the past and have reminders of it and go through its layers to understand and have empathy with the past, whether it’s empathy with yourself of 10 years ago when you made a decision that you later regretted, or empathy with somebody 200 years ago when they made a decision that you struggle to understand, empathy is vital to our ability to work with each other, to forgive the past, to understand how it really was trying to do its best when it set up the world we have, and how our efforts to do our best in setting up the future are in no way ethically superior to the efforts of our predecessors.

We know more, which is great. We can do more, which is great. That’s been true of every generation for a long time. We have to understand and look at the reasons that people in the past made their mistakes in order to be able to not do similar ones, and we need to go through the clutter to learn all that.

On methods of doing history

COWEN: Which method of doing history is currently the most under-practiced and underrated? So, you might’ve said a while ago, well, material culture. Maybe that’s not true anymore, but it once was.

PALMER: Weirdly, right now, I would say that one of the ones that’s most undervalued is biography, unfortunately, partly because biography was a very fashionable genre in the 19th century and very early 20th century, and so as a reaction against it, it’s been pushed away. But also because biography is one of few arenas of history in which you can make a living actually writing biographies and people will buy them in Barnes & Noble, recreationally, to read. They’re one of the things you can live on.

That means that, especially in the middle of the 20th century, they were and still are disproportionately written by women because more women don’t manage to make a living within the academic world than men. So, biography has come to be an almost gendered practice of history, associated with those women who got pushed out of the academy and are trying to support themselves as scholars independently. That has meant that there’s been a move away from respecting biography as a practice.

But one of the really powerful things biography does is cut across moments when we draw a line, right? We talk a lot about when does the Renaissance end and the Baroque period begin? When does the Middle Ages end and another thing begin? Then you do a biography of somebody like Titian who lives into his 90s, and you realize there was no line. He lived through three different places where we would draw a line. We often forget that people who lived through one thing are still alive for the next unless we approach them beginning to end through the art of biography.

COWEN: Whose biography will you write?

PALMER: I’m thinking of doing a choose-your-own-adventure biography of Machiavelli, in which you get to different moments in his life when he made an important decision, and then I speculate what would’ve happened if he’d done something different to show how wildly improbable it was that we got The Prince and how different humanity might have ended up if we hadn’t. That one would be fun.

I’ve also thought about a choose-your-own-adventure biography of Voltaire because there’s that amazing moment when he’s barely in his early 20s, and his father almost decides to arrange him to be banished to South America. Imagine the world where, instead of Voltaire being in France, Voltaire is in South America — both how different France would be and how different South America would be.

I love bringing people to think about those contingent moments when a tiny decision, made by somebody often unfamous — and Voltaire’s father is not famous the way Voltaire is — nonetheless shapes enormous amounts of what comes after. Those moments are what remind us that we are also powerful, and that every single one of us shapes history, not just the people whose names are in newspaper headlines.

COWEN: How do we know what old Norse music was like?

PALMER: We have a couple of recorded songs written, and we also have written descriptions in sagas, and we have archeological finds, including flutes. We have references to drums, but drums almost never survive. Drums and harps are very difficult to preserve over time because the tension on the object weakens the structure, makes them decay quickly. But we know, for example, what notes and how many notes a Viking flute could make, and we have various other written descriptions.

COWEN: What is it that women scholars understand better about Viking metaphysics?

PALMER: [laughs] It’s not mainly that women scholars understand it, but it was the entry of women scholars into the field that helped us understand it. For a long time in Viking studies, nobody wanted to touch metaphysics with a 10-foot pole. This was because during World War II, Hitler’s minister of culture was somebody who had done his dissertation on Viking metaphysics, and you couldn’t work on Viking metaphysics without citing him. So, it made it sort of a poisoned field for a while.

However, when, in the late ’60s and ’70s, the advances of feminism meant that more women were entering academia, but still often being sidelined within academia and pushed into corners of research that others didn’t want to touch, a number of them started looking at topics that people hadn’t looked at in a long time, including that one, especially because Viking metaphysics revolves around weaving.

Now, weaving is a feminine-coded, feminine-gendered subject, both in the Viking period and in the period when history took its formation in the 20th and 21st centuries. Lots of weaving-related equipment had been found in tombs and excavated here and there and then set aside, as this is women’s work and not of interest except to women.

Women started looking at it and were like, wait a minute, this isn’t a weaving shuttle; this is a staff of sorcery, as described in the sagas that very clearly described these staffs of sorcery that look like weaving shuttles because Viking metaphysics is dominated by ideas of threads of fate, the Norns spinning fate, weaving fate, etc. And it was women who were first willing to look at that stuff in detail.

COWEN: Why is Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist an interesting work?

PALMER: Lots of reasons. Jacques le Fataliste is, among other things, an exercise in getting you to realize that there is less in the author-reader contract than you think. When you pick up a book, especially something that promises to be a novel, you have certain expectations that there will be an arc, that factors will be introduced. They will develop towards some sort of climax or crisis or suspense. There will be a climax; there will be a denouement. Characters will be introduced; those characters will affect the protagonists’ paths through it. They will have a complete character development arc from beginning to end. All of these other expectations.

Diderot’s Jacques le Fatalist reminds us that there’s only one contract between the author and the reader, truly, which is, when you finish each sentence, you will want to read the subsequent sentence. So long as the author keeps that promise, the text succeeds in getting you to enjoy the path from one end to the other.

Diderot is therefore absolutely infuriating and does brilliant, ridiculous things, like a point at which the two characters go to bed. And he says, “While we’re waiting for them to wake up, I’m going to tell you a completely unrelated story,” and starts telling you a completely unrelated story. And you say, “Diderot, you’re the one who’s putting them to sleep. You can wake them up at any moment. Why are you doing this?”

He’s playing around with the structure of a novel, all of which is a complicated attempt to portray an atheistic cosmos because in the 18th century, one dominant way of thinking about Providence and of an intelligent designer, whether one thinks of that in a deist or a Christian or other monotheistic context, is as the author of the world — the author of the Great Scroll, as Diderot often puts it — who sends players out into the world to enact their deeds, to journey through the world.

This is very much what Voltaire depicts in Candide, which is full of contrived and improbable reunions and encounters that clearly serve to teach us a moral lesson, the heavy hand of the author palpable as the background of Providence. This is a very common way of thinking in Diderot’s 18th century.

But Diderot thought, wait a minute. When you look around the world, you meet lots of random people, and they don’t have character arcs, and they don’t show up again later, and there’s no particular moral lesson you got from chatting with that person who was sitting next to you in the wagon — or, in our case, on the airplane. It just sort of happened, and sometimes things get interrupted, and you never find out what happened at the end. Or you might see a funeral go by and never find out whose funeral that was. Doesn’t that feel to you like chaos?

He’s trying to write a book that feels as if it is taking place in a world that has no author, if most book take place in a world with an author.

COWEN: Isn’t the narrative arc of Jacques the notion that the more people keep on talking, the more it is they end up talking about sex?

PALMER: Only in the middle. It moves rapidly away from that. I know that that’s the interpretation that Will and Ariel Durant take in their examination of what they call the Age of Voltaire. Diderot does zoom in on sexuality a little bit in the middle, especially in the long story they listen to at the inn. But he begins with these “Who are they? What are they made of? Well, they’re made of atoms, and the atoms are currently these people, but they’re going to fade away again.” That theme comes back more persistently than the sexuality.

Diderot has other work that’s about sexuality. He has a lot of discussions of sexuality in Rameau’s Nephew. He, of course, famously went to the Bastille for writing The Nun, which is a pornographic lesbian novel about nuns. But Jacques the Fatalist — while it has sexuality in it, he’s more interested in sexuality as a thing which is very, very natural and yet very, very taboo.

The 18th century is very interested in this question of, are we to guide ourselves by laws of nature that we deduce from observing nature the way John Locke and Thomas Hobbes recommended? If so, doesn’t nature tell us that sex and sexual reproduction is one of the biggest parts of life? Why is it silenced by our culture? Is our culture irrational in its behavior toward this? The sex is a tool for getting at questions of what is natural or unnatural rather than the end, if that makes sense.

COWEN: Diderot’s fascination with sex as a social phenomenon and yours — how does that tie the two of you together as thinkers?

PALMER: I think both of us are very interested in not just sexuality, but also gender and how an enormous amount that is artificial, an enormous amount that is culturally contingent or culturally invented, an enormous amount that’s even performative surround performances of sexuality and performances of gender.

In Terra Ignota, for example, there are people who are living in a largely genderless future in which only gender-neutral language is used. And people are not intended to publicly acknowledge gender, nonetheless are sexually excited by gender because of its taboo-ness — not because I’m presenting gender as something that is biologically ingrained or innate, but because our society has spent literal thousands of years developing complex ways to perform gender in not only language, but in clothing, in physicality and comportment, in patterns of inflection, in how we walk, which are performed differently in different societies.

The adoption of genderless language isn’t, by itself, going to mean that people abandon this ancient vocabulary of performance. It’s fascinating to look at the redeployment in transformation over time of so sophisticated a cultural construction as gender, and I think both Diderot and I are interested in that, inasmuch as it gets to the edges of what is biology versus what is culture and how 90 percent of it is culture.

COWEN: De Sade — where does that come from? What are the influences on de Sade as a writer?

PALMER: Thomas Aquinas. No, lots and lots of things, but he’s very interested in the large philosophical milieu in the period. Remember that the 18th century is a moment when the clandestine bookshop is a major, major thing. And if anyone enjoys and is interested in the history of censorship and clandestine publishing, I can’t recommend enough the work of Robert Darnton, a brilliant, brilliant historian of clandestine literature.

But the same underground bookshops sell all underground materials, which means an underground bookshop sells pornography, and it also sells Voltaire and Rousseau, and it also sells diatribes criticizing the king, and it also sells radical Jansenist theological pamphlets about whether the Holy Spirit derives from the Father and Son equally or from the Father alone.

The same kinds of people frequent these shops, and the same kinds of people buy things. So, think about how, when you go into a Barnes & Noble, the science fiction and fantasy section is one section, even though science fiction and fantasy are different things. But they have a lot of overlap, both in the overlap of readership and in overlap in books that have both science fiction and fantasy elements. It was perfectly natural, in the same way, for clandestine bookshops to generate these works that are pornography and radical philosophy at the same time. They’re printed by the same printers, sold to the same audiences, and circulate in the same places.

De Sade uses his extreme pornography to get at questions of morality, ethics, and artificiality. What are the ethics of hurting each other? Why do we feel that way about hurting each other? What are so-called natural impulses, as John Locke and Hobbes were very dominant at the time, or Descartes, who is differently dominant at the time in rivalry with them? They make claims about the natural human impulses or the natural character of a human being. What does extreme sexuality show us about how that character might be broader than it is?

I mean it when I say Thomas Aquinas, right? One of Thomas Aquinas’s traditional proofs of the existence of God is that everything he sees around him in nature — this also is one that Aristotle uses, but Aquinas articulates it in the most famous way for de Sade’s period — that when we look around us, it’s clear that everything is designed to work.

Forest animals have forest camouflage. Desert animals have desert camouflage. Woodpeckers that eat grubs have a beak shaped correctly to be able to get grubs. Clearly, therefore, an intelligence designed everything to fit where it needs to fit so that carnivores have carnivore teeth and herbivores have herbivore teeth.

“Yes,” says Thomas Hobbes, quoting all this, and says, “And furthermore, the penis is round and the anus is round. So, clearly, God designed the penis to fit into the anus and not into the vagina, which is a long, thin shape.” He’s playing with the question of why we believe these century-old, or in that case, millennium-old arguments about what is and isn’t natural, and inviting us to reexamine questions like, well, what that a woodpecker needs does it have? What that a woodpecker needs does it not have? Because it doesn’t have fingers with which to disentangle its legs from a thread if it gets tangled up.

In that way, Sade is using pornography to open the questions that Darwin will later answer.

COWEN: If Descartes had truly let loose, what would we have received?

PALMER: Oh, if he hadn’t been scared off by the Galileo condemnation?

COWEN: Right.

PALMER: I think we would’ve received a much more deist version of what ends up being a very Catholic set of ideas about ontology and physics. Descartes was in the middle of publishing one of his big treatises when he heard news of the Galileo trial’s conclusion and of the Galileo condemnation, and he actually withdrew that text from his publisher and then spent several years revising it to be more carefully orthodox.

I think it would’ve been much more deist — still theist, but much more deist, “we can’t know things with certainty except what we deduce from nature” kind of text, greater in alignment therefore with what we see in our Enlightenment figures like Voltaire and Rousseau. For that reason, I think that if Descartes, who becomes dominant in France a bit before the rise of Voltaire and Rousseau, had been more expressly deist, we would have seen less association between deism and Newtonian physics.

But we get deism associated with Newtonian physics during the Enlightenment because it’s the same people who are deists who are sympathetic to importing Bacon’s scientific method and Newtonian physics into France. A simplified version of that answer therefore, being the impact of Descartes’ treatise being more deist, would have been an Enlightenment in which France didn’t split into the France being more interested in logic and this new imported, perceived-as-foreign-and-British thing being more interested in empiricism and the scientific method, and the two would’ve been seen as more compatible with each other.

Probably, we would’ve therefore seen even more scientific laboratories develop in France in that period, as opposed to the centers of material of experimental science settling in England, Scotland, and Italy.

COWEN: Was there an Irish Enlightenment?

PALMER: Yes, definitely, but to a lesser extent simply because Ireland was being so smashed and damaged by the warfare and so on with England, especially recovering from wars of the 17th century, as well as what was happening in the 18th. Whenever a polity is in extremis, it has a bit less of a robust opportunity to raise the intellectuals that are necessary to have a leading position.

COWEN: But you have Berkeley, you have Swift. A bit later, you have Burke. That’s pretty impressive for what’s a fairly small country.

PALMER: It is. I would say that a part of that is, those are excellent figures, and they were embraced by and are famous in the anglophone scientific tradition. But there are certainly two dozen equally innovative and important people from Spain or Italy in the same moment — if not more — who aren’t famous in the anglophone histories of science because we center the nationalistically celebrated British Isles area more, if that makes sense.

COWEN: Sure. Who actually made the censorship decisions during the French Enlightenment?

PALMER: Fresh-out-of-college English majors.


COWEN: It’s the bureaucracy, it’s the ruler, it’s the clergy? What’s the actual mechanism? Whose decision is it?

PALMER: There are two levels because France and the king of France, by the Enlightenment, is sufficiently powerful that even though this is a Catholic country, and technically, the last word in censorship is the Inquisition and the pope, France manages to get Italy to agree for France to have this be delegated to a bureaucracy under the king.

And that bureaucracy is obliged to enforce any rule that the pope and the central Roman Inquisition make. But it hires its own staff, and they are genuinely more concerned with questions like whether things are criticizing the king than they are with questions of theology. Many of them — this is a first job out of college for a lit major, and many of them — this is well documented in the work of Robert Darnton — many of them are themselves aspiring authors and aspiring professors.

We have letters from French censors back and forth. “Oh, Jacques, I got your book to censor. Don’t worry. I’ll do a really good job.” They therefore are actually very sympathetic to the radical ideas that are circulating because they are fresh-out-of-college intelligentsia who are also excited by these new ideas, and they tend to let through a lot of things.

Often, later, Rome will examine the materials if the materials become famous and will ban them then. This is why, for example, Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie is approved by the French censors but banned by the pope as of volume 7, I think it is, the letter H. At that point, Rome catches up with France and says, “You must ban this thing. We command it.” Under this command, the copies that are public in Paris are confiscated. Paris is required to hold a public burning of the Encyclopédie. They marched the copy up to the spot. They then set it aside and don’t burn it, instead burn Jansenist treatises about the nature of the Trinity, which is what France actually is afraid of at the time.

So, there are a lot of layers and permeability. And while the pope had ultimate authority in some ways to say “No, you may not have this,” that is only several years slower than the short-term bureaucracy, which is run by lit majors, overseen by people who answer to the king, much more concerned about political and local questions than about abstract scientific or theological ones.

And also happy to let people smuggle things through, which is why, even after the banning of the Encyclopédie, if you’re in Geneva and you’re printing something really bad, like de Sade or Jansenist treatises about the nature of the Trinity, you smuggle them into France by wrapping them in copies of the Encyclopédie because if you’re intercepted at the border, and they open up the secret trunk under your wagon, say, “Oh, it’s just the Encyclopédie. Pay me a small bribe, and I’ll let it through.” You pay a small bribe, and they let it through, the banned book providing cover for an even more banned book.

On censorship

COWEN: What do you take to have been the actual goals of the Spanish Inquisition?

PALMER: The Spanish Inquisition is a very separate thing from the other inquisitions that I work on in other regions. And I like to avoid using the word inquisition ever in the singular because it creates the illusion that there was an actual unified . . . Or it doesn’t create, it perpetrates the intentional illusion that there was a central, unified decision-making.

The Catholic Church wanted to seem more unified than it was, but in periods when it took six months or more for a message to get to Rome from one of the Spanish colonies in the New World, for example, these are local authorities making local decisions in the name of Rome and Rome struggling to catch up. To the degree that Rome even printed a manual to guide inquisitors on how to respond if people came to them talking about books that have been banned in Spain that they’ve never heard of being banned elsewhere, and how to sort of fake it and pretend that “Yes, Rome totally knew that you banned this. Yes, it was a very good idea to ban it.”

So, the Inquisition is a blunt instrument and usually a tool of local power. It isn’t a government. We often think of the Inquisition as the government, but it’s more a nongovernment body that reaches internationally. Think about UNICEF or Doctors Without Borders, and it has the infrastructure to go from place to place. Now, think about that operating locally and having agents that are good at crossing borders, but depend on the local government for collaboration and economic support.

In the case of the Inquisition, it doesn’t own its own prisons. It doesn’t have its own police. It has to borrow them locally. So, what does the local authority want to persecute? That’s what the Inquisition will end up persecuting. In Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spain and that of their successors, they were incredibly anxious about the imagined treacherous fifth column of descendants of converted Jews and converted Muslims. So, they lavished money on their Inquisition to encourage their Inquisition to advance the mass persecution of what they perceived as a local threat to their crown.

This had nothing to do with the practices of the Inquisition that were going on at the same time in Italy or in France, or in even Spanish-controlled territories or Portuguese-controlled territories. So, for example, in Goa on the west coast of India, in the 17th century, the orders given by the Inquisition were to destroy all texts in indigenous languages and try to wipe out indigenous languages and indigenous knowledge.

At the same time, the Inquisition in what is now Mexico City was ferociously devoting itself to developing indigenous dictionaries and translating materials into indigenous languages because it decided that the best way to proselytize was through translation. These are the decisions being made by local authorities to try to seek power.

Zooming out, however, the biggest pattern in all of them is that the most common form of censorship is self-censorship. But the majority of self-censorship is intentionally cultivated by an outside power. The Inquisition more broadly, especially the Roman Inquisition, spends a lot more of its time trying to scare people into not writing books than it does trying to destroy books that are actually there.

If you think about the goal being to silence Galileo, the way to silence Galileo is not to make Galileo world-famous by having a giant splashy trial of Galileo. The way to make Galileo silent is to quietly poison Galileo, right? This is Renaissance Italy. We are very good at quietly poisoning people. This is a solved problem. If you want to silence a man, you silence him. You do not put him on a big show trial.

But what they want to do is silence Descartes and dozens of others who saw what happened to Galileo, were scared and therefore never wrote the treatises that they otherwise would have. Censorship intends to cause and stimulate self-censorship.

That’s a pattern we see broadly, whether in the Inquisition, whether in the Middle Ages before there was an inquisition, or whether today in China with the extremely intentionally unpredictable enforcement of when they arrest a blogger, for example, which they do with very little pattern, to make it harder to predict whether you are in danger, to make people more scared that they might be in danger — to, again, encourage self-censorship.

COWEN: Why is it politically dangerous to censor pornography?

PALMER: It’s politically dangerous to censor pornography because censorship is a very blunt instrument, and we must always imagine how a tool we set up to censor something will be used in the future by bad actors we disagree with. If you create a tool capable of censoring something, it will still exist and still be there later when people want to censor something different.

Pornography is usually where major battles over censorship are fought these days because people don’t want to defend it. It’s icky and gross, and a lot of people don’t want it, or do want it but don’t want to publicly say so, don’t want to be associated with it. So, a lot of people are willing to say, “Okay, fine, censor this.”

But then you create the apparatus to censor this, and the next stage is someone saying, “Oh, well, this other book — clearly this is basically the same as pornography because it depicts a same-sex couple. Let’s censor that using the same infrastructure you’ve just created.” Almost all censorship isn’t carried out by creating a new institution to do it, but by repurposing an old institution that’s already there. And new things will be censored using old tools so that when talkies came in, people were very anxious that there could suddenly be bad words in movies.

All over the place — New Zealand, Australia, the US — new methods were set up for censoring movies to make sure bad words weren’t used. Well, those are the same methods that were then used to censor discussions of communism during the Red Scare and that were used to persecute free-thinking and socialist authors — the same apparatus that got created for the censorship of a bad word. Once we make it, it exists and it’s very hard to dismantle it. So, don’t let the fact that we don’t care about pornography enable people to create tools they will use to censor other things in the future.

COWEN: Do you agree with the common claim — which seems supported by some poll evidence — that American women are less supportive of free speech than American men?

PALMER: I’m not familiar with that question, although I am familiar with the fact that internationally, when we look at things like the movements for women getting the vote in some of the theocratic Arab countries, when women got the vote, they disproportionately voted for the very religious and conservative parties. So, I think that there is a slight preponderance of women who end up supporting religious fringe movements. But there’s also a whole lot of other ways in which women tend liberal, especially within the US. So, I think that’s a very complex question that I haven’t thought about, and I should.

COWEN: If we think about why so few of the great books discuss menstruation, is that censorship? Or do we understand that some other way?

PALMER: It’s taboo, which is in some ways a kind of censorship. It’s people being uncomfortable discussing a topic.

I always make a point of bringing up menstruation when it’s relevant in my classroom. When I’m describing to students what it was like experiencing the fall of the Roman Empire and that suddenly, there’s no one keeping peace on the roads, and there are bandits on the streets. And it means that you can’t get imported high-quality, non-itchy wool, and you can’t get good olive oil. You can only get local olive oil, and you can’t get fish sauce. I always mention you can’t get sponges, the sea sponges which are what women would use as maxi pads in the period, and now you can’t get maxi pads, and you just have to shove a bunch of rags up there.

It’s always delightful to see the stunned look on the face of most of the boys in the class and the delighted look on the face of many of the girls in the class. Yeah, people in the past menstruated, too. This is a real, legitimate thing. But I would say it is a taboo, and a taboo is a kind of censorship because censorship isn’t exclusively state actors or organized actors. There’s a lot of bottom-up, grassroots censorship as well, and taboos are part of that.

COWEN: Why do we think of velvet as the cloth of the Renaissance?

PALMER: I think more of brocade as the cloth of the Renaissance. But certainly, there were major technological advances in velvet production and a number of other very high-end fabric production in the Renaissance. It’s actually quite clear from recent examinations of sketches of machines — like those of Brunelleschi — that they pretty much did figure out how to make industrial mass-production looms. They could have switched over to making cheap cloth at enormous volume the way we did in the 19th century, but that wasn’t what the Renaissance did or wanted. The Renaissance wanted super high-end cloth.

When you compare the actual costs of fabric, buying a suit of very nice clothing made out of good-quality Florentine brocade with velvet trim cost as much as buying a luxury sports car, and you have one outfit or two outfits. You have your Sunday outfit and your regular one, and you wear them all year, and then you get the next year’s fashions.

A huge part of the purpose of it is to display social status by showing the high-end things. So, we associate with Renaissance affluence and the Renaissance’s biggest industry — the one that’s the equivalent of the auto industry — the development of these extremely high-end luxury things that you then show off on your person every day.

COWEN: What is it about Renaissance annotations of Lucretius that’s more interesting than Lucretius himself? What do they add?

PALMER: [laughs] They tell us what the moment of first contact was like between people in the Renaissance, who had vague and often over-the-top mythologized ideas of what Ancient Rome was like, and then the real ideas of Epicureanism preserved from antiquity.

In the Middle Ages, they had very little knowledge of Epicureanism, though they knew that it was something. It was mentioned by medieval authorities like Lactantius. It was discussed in bits of Cicero that they had, but they didn’t actually have Epicureanism. They just knew there had to have been this philosophical movement that said that happiness was the highest good and that the world was made of atoms.

So, they have high and exciting expectations of this work, and then they finally get ahold of it, and as they make comments in the margin, we see their moment of first contact. We see which pieces in a long and complicated text stood out to them and which pieces didn’t. We see how they respond when a claim like that there is no afterlife is made, and they write things in the margin like opinio non Christiana, which is written in two of the copies that I’ve looked at.

We also see which parts of a very long book that covers lots of topics they find exciting. It lets us see what it was like for that world to encounter a different world. It’s sort of like alien first contact, and there it is, preserved live for us in the margins of a book.

COWEN: Have you ever thought of annotating a classic out-of-copyright book and selling the finished product as your annotations of the book?

PALMER: [laughs] No, although I have a copy of Lucretius into which I’ve not only put my own annotations, but I have also transcribed the annotations from 36 Renaissance copies, color coded in different shades of ink. So, it is probably the most heavily annotated Lucretius that has ever existed, and it preserves the annotations not only of me, but of two dozen Renaissance figures who annotated, including Machiavelli. When you page through it, you can see a portrait of the whole period’s encounter with Lucretius. So, that’s a very fun and unique object.

COWEN: I hope you can put it into an LLM and have it in the public domain.

PALMER: I would love to.

COWEN: Why doesn’t science fiction have higher social and literary status? It’s so rich with ideas, right?

PALMER: So, just working on an essay about this. A big part of it is that science fiction, as the modern genre that it is, came into crystallization to be a specific type of literature, as opposed to an author writes novels and two of them happen to have a spaceship in them, but the other ones don’t. Or Dickens’s Christmas Carol is technically fantasy, but nobody thought of Dickens’s Christmas Carol as fantasy when Dickens was alive because fantasy didn’t exist as a genre.

When science fiction originates and crystallizes as a genre and gets a name, it is in the 1920s and ’30s with the advent of pulp printing, which is the moment when we invent these very large-scale machines that can print at mass volume on a much larger, cheaper sheet of paper. These are not printers that are printing two or four pages on one small sheet of high-quality paper. They are printing 12 or 24 pages on cheap, disposable magazine newsprint. Those were used to print magazines. But in the US only and not Europe, they were also used to print cheap paperbacks, which then went into racks that were sold in grocery stores and newspapers.

Bookstores did not like to stock those paperbacks. Bookstores, especially in the US, exclusively preferred to stock hardcovers because they made more money on selling a hardcover than they did on a paperback. So, these pulp paperbacks, as we now call them, were of a different social status because they weren’t sold in bookstores, which existed in elite locations, like affluent cities or near universities. They were sold at hardware stores in little magazine racks, where they competed with Hershey’s candy bars rather than competing with fellow books for the allowance money of a kid.

Since that was the birth of science fiction, and the earliest people who identified and were identified as science fiction writers and readers were producing for that market, it was born for a low-status commodity — a very democratizing commodity since, of course, those books were available to people in huge swaths of the USA, for example, where there were no bookstores, where towns had no bookstore, but they sure had a rack with 144 cheap paperbacks next to the grocery checkout. So they were enormously —

COWEN: But, say, Hammett and Chandler have been elevated to the canon, right? With time, in some ways.

PALMER: Right. They were enormously —

COWEN: Science fiction hasn’t seen the same evolution.

PALMER: Well, and neither has fantasy, and neither has horror, and neither have Westerns, all of which were genres that crystallized in that point. Although fantasy recrystallizes in the late 1970s after the paperback publication of Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien never wanted to allow to be out in paperback because it was low status.

COWEN: In Terra Ignota, which hive would you belong to?

PALMER: Utopia, which is the hive dedicated to exploration of the stars and the conquest of death.

COWEN: I think Humanist for me.

In Ursula Le Guin, if you read the major novels —

PALMER: It should be a hard choice. It’s best if it’s a hard choice.

COWEN: — at least in the fiction, there seems to be this suggestion that the only way you can get rid of war is to really narrow or abolish or limit distinctions between men and women. That’s in The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed. Do you agree?

PALMER: I don’t agree, except inasmuch as there are a lot of behavior patterns that we now culturally code female — which are artificially culturally coded female, but nonetheless, which we culturally code female — which studies show are very good at crisis avoidance, consensus building, conflict management. All of these studies that show that women in political office handle crises better than men in political office in a lot of different ways.

This is not a biological thing, but this is that a number of behavior patterns, including types of teambuilding and non-zero-sum thinking, are culturally coded female, and women are encouraged to do it, whereas men are encouraged more to do aggressive problem-solving, haggling, and zero-sum thinking.

In my own classroom, I often run this papal election simulation, and there’s a survey that the students have to fill out to say, “What kind of participation in this political simulation would you enjoy?” It’s always very interesting to me that while there’s a huge range of genderedness about most of the questions, the question, “Would you enjoy having a face-to-face opponent where one or the other of you has to fall for the other to rise, and there is no possibility of compromise, you just have to go head on?” That question is almost exclusively said yes to by men, or men are enthusiastic about it. Women are more wary of it.

Whereas the question, “Would you enjoy being on or leading a team and being in charge of helping a group of people work together to achieve a collaborative goal?” is disproportionately answered yes by [women]. This is a culturation thing. This is something that we learn when we’re toddlers, that we learn when we’re in elementary school, as different behaviors are encouraged or discouraged among both men and women. I think that it’s not that we need to eliminate the differences between men and women; it’s that we need to get more of those female-coded problem-solving behaviors to be welcome in positions of power in one way or another.

COWEN: What is the current novel you’re writing?

PALMER: Vikings. Viking metaphysics. This one is finally easy to describe. I really love Vikings. This is a Viking myth and history book, and it looks at a number of questions. But a big one that it looks at is, if the Viking gods are real and only the Viking gods are real — this is the cosmos that we’re in, the Viking cosmos, but history is real history — why did they decide to let the worship of them die out and be displaced by other religions? Why would that be allowed to occur in a world in which they are the actual governing power?

The other thing that’s really fun with it is that there’s a lot of really great new, recent research on Viking myth. We’re getting to understand the metaphysics a lot better. We’re translating a lot of the older canon. We’re realizing that some of the works that were kicked out of the canon in the 19th century and believed to be spurious are not spurious, and that some of the ones we kept in are spurious that weren’t.

So, while there’s tons of science fiction and fantasy that already draws on Viking myth, there’s very little of it that draws on the very latest in Viking myth. And I’m excited to dive into a lot of that material, which I have access to just because I’m a scholar.

This is one of the big problems with paywalls, because all of this is in journals that are behind paywalls or the ridiculous Oxford annotated Poetic Edda. Three volumes, $300 a volume. No wonder nobody has this book. It’s great. It’s full of wonderful materials. I wish that I could give copies of it to every science fiction writer and fantasy writer that’s a friend of mine who likes this stuff so that they could use it in their things. But good grief, nobody can afford to spend a thousand dollars on the Oxford annotated Poetic Edda. I only have it because I did a bunch of favors for Oxford editors until they gave me store credit.

COWEN: I’m all for what you’re doing, and your podcaster would say that. But what do your colleagues think, if I may ask?

PALMER: Of the science fiction stuff? They think it’s great. They think it’s an important way of getting the science, the latest research and improved historiography out to where it disseminates to the public.

A good way to think about it is that dissemination works as a kind of pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid are a thousand PhD students doing dissertations, discovering awesome new stuff. The next level up from that are several hundred books by somewhat more experienced scholars who are drawing on not only their own dissertations, but their friends’ dissertations and what they’ve learned from going to conferences and debating this to make syntheses that draw on a bunch of that research.

Then above that are a couple of dozen popular history books that transform the latest in what historians are saying to each other into a form that then gets out and is accessed by the public. Then that in turn, influences — actually, it’s not a pyramid; it’s more of an hourglass — several hundred television series, video games, and novels, which are really where we form our ideas of history, right? Nobody gets their first glimpse of the Renaissance without already having run into the Renaissance in some form of fiction. We all encounter stories about this stuff before we encounter the scholarship.

So, my colleagues have nothing but the best to say about the process of getting it out there in a way that’s going to hopefully also mean that another generation of people who want to write more fiction will say, “Oh, wow. There’s a lot of new Viking stuff. Let’s look at the new Viking stuff and tell even better stories.”

COWEN: And what’s the science fiction anthology you’re editing and writing for?

PALMER: So, two different things. I’m doing a collection of essays co-authored with Jo Walton. The subtitle is Conversations on the Project of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Some of it is about the craft of writing, but some of it is about the history of the genre. There’s a history in there of the actual physical printing of science fiction books and how that influences what gets written.

But there are also zoomed-out essays about questions like what I call the protagonist problem, and how it is more and more rare these days for any book to have a structure other than centering upon a core protagonist. Or we have an essay in there about hopepunk. We have essays about how science fiction historically has served to combat censorship and to increase international empathy. So, it’s a collection of detailed reflections on the genre, its history, and just how powerful it is to influence the way we think as a society.

I’m also co-writing with her a novel about an exoplanet terraforming mission.

COWEN: Great. Last question. Let’s say you were organizing a two-to-three-day event, all expenses paid, and you get to choose three or four people — only living people. They would fly from anywhere in the world and come sit around and talk with you for these two or three days. Not people you currently know, but with whom would you choose to meet?

PALMER: Well, can I run my papal election simulation?

COWEN: You can do whatever you want, but who are the people? The pope?

PALMER: Well, if I can run my papal election simulation for them, then I want a bunch of the rising young congresspeople, some of the younger senators, and I also want people from the equivalent levels of power within European Union governments and a few other places, because absolutely nothing teaches you to think about power and how it works like that. And I would love to see legislation that’s been shaped by the way that event makes you rethink power.

Every time I run it, I have people write to me, even years later, saying, “I decided to run for office because I did this event. I decided to go home to Russia and work with the Democratic Resistance Movement because this event showed me that I really can make a difference.”

Especially, if I could bring in educational administrators, people who make decisions about what kind of education gets advanced from some of the powers that shape the world, I would love to help them see that we can teach people better to believe that they have power, and that if we get this into the way we teach people to think, we can save democracy by making people actually be confident in democracy. The first step to that is people being confident that what they do actually makes a difference.

COWEN: Ada Palmer, thank you very much.

PALMER: It’s been a pleasure.

Photo credit: Jason Smith