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Summer Fellow: Millicent Caughey

In my first semester of sophomore year, I took a class with Thomas Robisheaux on all the religious and political changes occurring in Western Europe from 1450-1650 as a result of the Reformation. In the class I was struck most viscerally by the paintings, woodcuts, and comics from the period depicting mass killings, torture and the total decimation of entire towns. This violence, largely coming as a result of the Thirty Years War would go on to result in the deaths of around 20% of all Europeans at the time. My next semester, supervised by Joseph Ross at UNC, I wanted to investigate the peace process that came after the war. How was it that communities came to rebuild both their infrastructure and social ties? How was it that large areas of Europe were able to transform from bitterly divided among religious lines to broadly tolerant? And ultimately how did those changes go on to fundamentally alter how we understand the broader world order?

Today the story of the peace building process after the Thirty Years War is mostly told through the Treaty of Westphalia. And it’s a story that even collapses the role of the Treaty, focusing on the demarcation of authority between Princes with more secular power and church leaders with their religious power. Of course, the Thirty Years War like any other conflict was not solved by a document exclusively by elites. And as a result, the way those Treaty promises, of peace, of a respect of sovereignty were able to be lived out looked wildly different between communities.

For my project, I want to study what that peace building looked like. I want to go to some of the most important cities in the course of the conflict, notably Strasbourg in France and Berlin and Magdeburg in Germany, and see the ways that the changes that were made 370 years ago can still be seen today. In the architecture, in local governance, in memorials and urban planning. I want to understand how communities re-imagined their identity to make tolerance possible, and whether those strategies impacted success. I want to understand the fights that occurred after the signing of the Treaty, particularly regarding the battles in the national courts of the Holy Roman Empire. Ultimately, through extensive reading, going to museums and memorials, and just existing in these communities who have in large part been defined by the scars of this conflict the ways that peace building after religious conflict is possible.

Since arriving at college, I have been fascinated by religious conflict. I grew up in a country that is listed as the 11th least religious in the world, where even my so-called religious school was outwardly blasé on questions about God. In a world where millions if not billions would, and often do, fight and die for their faith, I was struck by how so much I had read growing up refused to treat those who fight for their God as rational people. As the most devout continue to hold, or challenge power in countries across the world, I want to understand the ways that we can both build more tolerant and free societies, but not denigrate religious institutions within those communities. To do this, understanding the ways communities historically have done this is essential.