Kamil, Neil D. 1954-
Kamil, Neil D. 1954-
Born 1954. Education: Johns Hopkins University, Ph.D., 1989.
Office—University of Texas, 1 University Station, B7000, Austin, TX 78712. E-mail—[email protected]
University of Texas, Austin, associate professor of history.
Fortress of the Soul: Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Huguenots' New World, 1517-1751, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 2005.
Neil D. Kamil is a university professor whose teaching and research revolve around the history and culture of the Atlantic rim during the Age of Exploration of the fifteenth through early nineteenth centuries. His first book, Fortress of the Soul: Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Huguenots' New World, 1517-1751, demonstrates the broad influence on material culture (such as furniture and housewares) exerted by Huguenot artisans in Colonial America, exploring how many ordinary Huguenots (French Protestants, also known as French Calvinists) coped with religious persecution.
In increasingly anti-Protestant, sixteenth-century France, Huguenots fell into two camps. Most advocated military action against their oppressors and violent reform of the Roman Catholic Church—a stance that ultimately led to eight religious civil wars over the course of thirty years. In contrast to this militaristic stance, potter and natural philosopher Bernard Palissy argued that Huguenots should practice their religion secretly and develop such extraordinary portable skills as craftsmen that they would be indispensable and developing what he called "artisanal security." The upheaval of the religious civil wars drove most Huguenots to England, Holland, and ultimately the New World. Although most historians have argued that Huguenot immigrants to the New World quickly assimilated into the dominant English culture, Kamil persuasively shows that Huguenots retained their special cultural character, exerting vast influence on art and craft on both sides of the Atlantic. The core of Kamil's argument is that the artisanal motifs used by Huguenot craftsman, who dominated the material culture of early America, went beyond simple commercial endeavors and decorative flourishes. These were actually expressions of the secret religious and philosophical belief systems the Huguenots inherited from Palissy and kept "hidden in plain sight."
Unfortunately, historians familiar with the subject were somewhat concerned by Kamil's methods and analysis in Fortress of the Soul. Philip Benedict wrote in the American Historical Review, for instance, that Kamil "does not successfully establish that a common, well-articulated outlook consistently informed the texts and artifacts he examines. His readings of individual paintings, prints, and pieces of furniture often seem forced and unconvincing…. And while the book ranges across an incredibly broad range of topics, its treatment of the topic I know best, Old World Huguenot culture, contains enough small misunderstandings to sap my faith in the author's mastery of the rest of the topics he examines as well." Church History critic Jon Butler shared some of these concerns, but concluded: "These criticisms aside, Fortress of the Soul challenges the stress on assimilation in post-Revocation Huguenot history. Kamil opens up a world of intriguing possibilities in thinking about varied refugee patterns even within a larger pattern of assimilation." On H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online, Owen Stanwood echoed some of Benedict's concerns, but he concluded that the book's "method and approach are so innovative that it deserves to be read and pondered by any historian interested in early modern religion and culture."
Despite some criticisms, the book met with a great deal of praise, too. Bertrand Van Ruymbeke maintained in the Renaissance Quarterly that "the book is ambitious, [and] reflects profound erudition," further arguing that "Fortress of the Soul is an important contribution to the study of the French Protestant diaspora in the Atlantic world and to our understanding of Huguenot artisans' training, inspiration, and styles, as well as how these were transplanted to America." Stanwood felt likewise, hoping that Kamil's methods and style spread throughout the field: "The book provides a template for a new kind of Atlantic history—particularly relevant for those who study the seventeenth century—that perceives transoceanic links in terms of confession [belief system] rather than nationality."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Historical Review, February 1, 2007, Philip Benedict, review of Fortress of the Soul: Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Huguenots' New World, 1517-1751, p. 162.
Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, December 1, 2005, S.A. Syme, review of Fortress of the Soul, p. 726.
Church History, September 1, 2006, Jon Butler, review of Fortress of the Soul, p. 673.
Journal of American History, March 1, 2006, Carla Gardina Pestana, review of Fortress of the Soul, p. 1410.
Journal of Interdisciplinary History, September 22, 2007, Paula Wheeler Carlo, review of Fortress of the Soul, p. 279.
Reference & Research Book News, May 1, 2005, review of Fortress of the Soul, p. 73.
Renaissance Quarterly, March 22, 2006, Bertrand Van Ruymbeke, review of Fortress of the Soul, p. 185.
Studies in the Decorative Arts, Volume XIV, number 1, 2006-07, review of Fortress of the Soul.
Winterthur Portfolio, June 22, 2007, John L. Brooke, review of Fortress of the Soul.
H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online,http://www.h-net.org/ (March 1, 2006), Owen Stanwood, review of Fortress of the Soul.
University of Texas at Austin Web site,http://www.utexas.edu/ (May 20, 2008), faculty profile.