Athanasius Kircher, S. J. (1601/2-80), was one of Europe's most inventive and versatile scholars in the baroque era. But Kircher is most famous - or infamous - for his quixotic attempt to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs and reconstruct the ancient traditions they encoded. Here Daniel Stolzenberg presents a new interpretation of Kircher's hieroglyphic studies, placing them in the context of seventeenth-century scholarship on paganism and Oriental languages. The spectacular flaws of his scholarship have fostered an image of Kircher as an eccentric anachronism, a throwback to the Renaissance hermetic tradition. Stolzenberg argues against this view, showing how Kircher embodied essential tensions of a pivotal phase in European intellectual history, when pre-Enlightenment scholars pioneered modern empirical methods of studying the past while still working within traditional frameworks, such as biblical history and beliefs about magic and esoteric wisdom.
Daniel Stolzenberg is associate professor of history at the University of California, Davis.