An unexpected honor for University of Iowa professor

France's Ministry of Education knights him for contributions to French culture and education

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IOWA CITY — It’s not every day you get a letter from the French government naming you a knight.

Raymond Mentzer, the University of Iowa’s Daniel J Krumm Family Chair in Reformation Studies and a religious studies professor, received a letter from France’s Minister of Education in January notifying him that this June, he would be decorated as a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques — a knight in the Order of the Academic Palms — at the prestigious research institution, École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris.

“I’m delighted,” Mentzer said. “I value the opinion of all my scholarly colleagues, but these are people who are French and have, in essence, said ‘we deeply appreciate the work you’ve done in understanding the French past and community.’ And that’s a very nice compliment.”

Mentzer, 71, is the university’s fifth to receive the honor, according to a UI news release. Others are Downing Thomas, associate provost and dean of international programs, who was appointed in 2005; Bryan Watkins in 2004; Jacques Bougeacq in 1999; and Rick Altman in 1984.

The Order of Academic Palms was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808 to honor French university professors for their accomplishments in teaching, scholarship and research. In 1866, the award was extended to non-educators, and in 1955, it was extended to non-French nationals.

Mentzer’s long time friend and professor retired from the Paris institution, Bernard Roussel, nominated Mentzer to be recognized for his 45-year career spent studying French religious history — particularly the protestant reformation.

For decades, Mentzer has pored over nearly illegible manuscripts that date to the 16th and 17th centuries — a time of religious divide, war and reformation in France.

“The handwriting is impossible,” he said. “I’m now comfortable with reading it, but 16th century handwriting in particular is devilishly difficult. It took me roughly 10 years to read it with any kind of facility.”

These previously undeciphered manuscripts revealed a new perspective on the era.

“Scholars have long viewed these sorts of momentous religious transformations through the lens of the elite — people who knew how to read and write and would typically leave a paper trail,” Mentzer explained. “But what we haven’t been able to appreciate quite as much was how this played at the very basic level.”

The manuscripts showed the lives of average people — how they reacted to changes in the church and dealt with issues in marriage, devotional practice, social relationships, violence and the law, among others.

“These records provide a terrific insight into every day life of these people who were not living within that literate culture that would allow them to write down their ideas, their anxieties and thoughts,” Mentzer said. “We’ve never been able to get into that and now we have, or at least I think I’ve found this way of finding out how ordinary people understood the religious changes, or sometimes misunderstood expectations of belief and behavior. ... It’s very revealing of how people are on the one hand accepting and on the other a little anxious.

“We ourselves live in an age of great anxiety about religious position, and I’m not saying it’s a direct parallel, but it does help us to understand who people are and how they try to safeguard their own lives,” he added.

In addition to his research, Mentzer also teaches religious studies at the UI, including courses on medieval and modern religion and culture, early modern Catholicism, the protestant reformation, religion and violence in the 16th and 17th centuries and paleography (the study of ancient writing and deciphering of historical manuscripts).

He said he hopes to impress on students the “powerful force” of religion, both in terms of the past and present.

“People have perceived certain benefits from their religious commitment, their daily devotion and their beliefs. But there are some dangers in all of this, too,” he said. “It has potential for discrimination, for violence in some cases. ... There was a lot of blood shed in the 16th century, and even in our lifetime, it has the potential for being very lethal if misunderstood.”

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