On Beach Reads & Complexity: 5 Questions with Historian Dr. Royden Loewen

Newly retired, up until recently Royden Loewen was professor of history and Chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg. His first university press books included Family, Church and Market: A Mennonite Community in the Old and New Worlds, and From the Inside Out: The Rural World of Mennonite Diarists, while more recently they have included Village Among Nations: Canadian Mennonites in a Transnational World and Horse-and-Buggy Genius: Listening to Mennonites Contest the Modern World. He continues writing and actively researching.

1. What initially spurred on your interest in Mennonite history? 

I initially wanted to be an architect but in grade 11 forgot to sign up for physics, so I had to take grade 11 Canadian history. That was the beginning; I learned that I really enjoyed the historical imagination. Then, in first year university history, was the one course in which I received an A in; I really loved Prof. George Epp’s western civilization course, and seemingly I just couldn’t crack political science or geography, two courses I had looked forward to taking; so history was it. And I became interested in Mennonite history by happenstance. I had taught for two years at Fisher River First Nation in the Interlake region, learning a great deal about that community’s indigenous history, and insisting that students there be exposed to their own story, when Betty Plett, a veteran schoolteacher from my home community of Blumenort north of Steinbach asked me to help write a short history of our community for her grade six class. That pamphlet became the Blumenort book (Blumenort: A Community in Transition, a 626-page volume), and turned into my MA thesis. That book came from my heart – I wanted to tell my people’s story to them. I love creating narratives and gain satisfaction from what narrative can do for people; history as a narrative gives places meaning.

2. What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned about Mennonites? 

The ordinary! Everyday culture. The way people make sense of life. My PhD was on the Kleine Gemeinde Mennonites in Manitoba and Nebraska and became Family, Church and Market, a comparative settler history. But what I remember discovering that seemed exciting was that family was crucially important in the everyday. It’s there at the ground level of life and intersects with faith in very interesting ways. It’s also there in surprising ways; for example, within the intricate social fabric of the Mennonite villages you find the phenomenon of matrilocality, that is the process by which women direct their men to settle in particular villages. For example, in Blumenort there were all these men that didn’t have typical Blumenort
Mennonite last names – Juhnke, Radinzel, Broeski: so why did these men all live in Blumenort? Well, it turns out they had all married a daughter of schoolteacher Cornelius Friesen women: sisters. The women evidently had decided where they would live. Then upon closer examination it turned out that about half of the women in the village had close relatives in the village when their husbands did not, and in most cases these women hailed from more well-to-do homes. And the root of this agency seems to have been rooted in the Mennonites’ uniquely egalitarian inheritance. Again, a focus on the everyday takes you to what E.K. Francis referred to as bilateral-partible inheritance, a system that goes back to medieval times. Elaborate inheritance bylaws that go back hundreds of years stipulate very clearly that sons and daughters inherit equally, and so do widows and widowers, each accorded only one half of the farm upon the death of a spouse. Then we have the Waisenamt, translated as the “orphans bureau” but not really about orphans at all in the classical sense; rather it was about the rights of children who have lost one of their two parents, no matter it was the mother or father. In short, the Waisenamt was meant to regulate the complicated inheritance system, focused on egalitarianism. There is complexity written into the everyday culture of Mennonites.

3. What can modern Mennonites learn from horse-and-buggy Mennonites? 

They can learn to critically evaluate their priorities, which from a horse-and-buggy perspective is pretty oriented toward consumption. There is much more in Horse and Buggy Genius.

4. What’s one aspect of Mennonite history that could use more research/has thus far remained unexplored? 

I don’t know; sibling rivalry is probably a very major force in shaping human behaviour and is a place where you definitely test your Anabaptist values. But people don’t typically write about sibling rivalry. It’s like putting your dirty laundry on the line for all to see. Second, probably, environmental history. Mennonites have always had such a close connection to the land, it should be explored much more. It’s something I’ve focused on in my more recent works, especially in the ‘Seven Points on Earth’ project that has occupied me for the past seven years.

5. What (historical) Mennonite, living or dead, would you most like to hang out with? 

My wife; she’s half Russlander so she’s cultured.
I’d like to meet my great-grandparents, and find out who they were as people, their characters, what made them laugh and cry, how they explained life, what stories they told to make sense of the chaos of the everyday. Or even my great-great-grandparents. I’d have a lot of questions.
But if you mean historic, perhaps Menno Simons. I’ve read his complete works, on the beach in Mazatlan, actually. I think he was a very intelligent, gifted, very passionate, fearless person. I’d like to hang out with him for a bit, but not for long; he does have a bit of an indomitable side to him.