Brian P. Levack
Photography by Brian Birzer
Education: B.A. History ’65, Fordham University; and Ph.D. History ’70, Yale University
Hometown: New York, New York
Brian P. Levack is the John E. Green Regents Professor Emeritus in History at UT Austin, where he has taught for nearly 50 years while earning distinguished teaching awards. During his eight years as a department chair, he built one of the top history programs in the country. Levack’s research focuses on the legal, political and religious history of early modern Britain. His books include The Civil Lawyers in England, 1603-1641; The Formation of the British State: England, Scotland, and the Union; The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe; Witch-hunting in Scotland: Law, Politics, and Religion; and The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West.
What does the study of the past tell us about the present and the future?
A lot of people think that the past repeats itself, and that simply isn’t true. History does not repeat itself, but it instructs. It provides context and therefore the background to understanding where we have come from, and that helps to determine where we might be headed. I don’t think history really teaches us lessons. Maybe the only lesson you learn is that history is ironic in the sense that things do not turn out the way they were planned.
“History does not repeat itself, but it instructs. It provides context and therefore the background to understanding where we have come from, and that helps to determine where we might be headed.”Brian P. Levack
What qualities make someone a good teacher?
First, an enthusiasm for one’s subject, which is absolutely essential to conveying to the students that this is something that is important. An ability to express things in language that students can immediately respond to. Respect for students. Organization. When you go in there, the students need to know where we’re coming from, what we’re going to be doing.
Who has been the biggest influence in your life?
Two men in particular. The first was my father, an historian, who gave me a love of history. The second was Jack Hexter, my graduate school mentor, who taught me the importance of clarity, conciseness and rigorous argumentation in historical writing.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
The co-authoring of a textbook on Western civilization. It’s called The West: Encounters and Transformations. It’s an attempt to address the problem of Western civ texts that ignore the rest of the world. It was much more intellectually demanding than I ever thought. It took so much effort and so many years, but we got through it, and it’s in its fifth edition now.
You’ve written several books on the history of witchcraft and demonic possession. What first piqued your interest in these topics?
I started out as a legal historian, and I had a particular interest in criminal law. In my first year of teaching, I was asked to review a book on witchcraft prosecutions, and I agreed, even though I didn’t know anything about the subject. About the same time, I had a graduate student who wanted to write a paper on James VI of Scotland, who had written a treatise on witchcraft in 1597. I became so fascinated by the subject that two years later I decided to give a course on the subject, which I co-taught with that former student, Richard Kieckhefer.
What is it about the occult that so fascinates Western culture?
I guess it is an interest in and a curiosity about the functioning of the universe in nonrational terms. It’s possible that there is just a dissatisfaction with the rational scientific world view that doesn’t seem to respond to people’s needs. They can see it in religion, they can see it in mysticism, they can see it in the occult, but I think it’s the same impulse.
What are some of your most surprising discoveries from your book research?
The surprisingly large number of accused witches who not only maintained their innocence while being tortured, but who also criticized the authorities who prosecuted them. The resilience of these victims, especially those who came from the lower ranks of society, is remarkable. Even more remarkable is the fact that a significant number of these accused witches were acquitted.
What books are you currently reading?
Napoleon: A Life by Adam Zamoyski. There have been over a thousand books written about Napoleon, and this is the best I’ve read. Napoleon is complex, and there’s a lot of Trump in him. And I’ve just started David Blight’s book Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Douglass is one of the most inspirational figures in American history. One of the things that’s been wonderful about retirement is I can read whatever I damn please.