I spent my career teaching and writing at the intersection of pre-modern European history, literature studies, critical theory, gender theory, vernacular culture, vernacular theology, “popular” literature, religious studies, and intellectual history, informed by the Foucauldian project of “genealogy” as a method of searching not so much for truth per se as for why people in a given time and place hold certain things to be true -- i.e., for the conditions of possibility and of emergence of what is considered to be true, real, and meaningful (h/t to my colleague Christopher Bracken in the Department of English and Film Studies, https://www.ualberta.ca/arts/about/people-collection/christopher-bracken). I did not need to be in a History department to pursue that kind of work, but I was. Sometimes it helped, and sometimes it did not. My favourite student rating on the (stupid) site “Rate My Professor” was a piece of (perhaps) inadvertent praise: “Great prof but terrible readings. If you want to learn about the intersections of history, philosophy, anthropology, and sociology then Dr. Gow is the prof for you. However, if you prefer a more traditional approach to historical analysis then maybe take one of his lower level classes before one of his seminars. Overall though, it was a great class.”
As regards the classroom: I loved teaching but objected to teaching courses that obeyed the traditional medieval/early modern split around 1500, since much of my scholarly project was devoted to understanding the medium-to-long-term continuities between what was conventionally called the Middle Ages and what 'followed' them. That split maps (and reinforces) a triumphalist agenda or narrative that distinguishes a devalued "before" from the glorious "after" of the Renaissance and/or Reformation -- a fundamentally ideological move that should now be left behind, but is too deeply entrenched merely to be ignored. My other major frustration had to do not with the theo-political architecture of the discipline of History, but with the fiscal architecture of my home department and its very large first-year survey courses, run without tutorial sections -- which were the apparently irreversible and irremediable result of a chain of decisions taken decades ago by deans and chairs. The result was that we regularly ended up with immense marking loads if we wanted to provide a serious, writing-intensive introductory experience to first-year students. Eventually, I arranged not to have to teach such courses, partly also because my health was no longer up to the task. I don't feel especially proud of that, but I took on administrative and editorial roles that compensated the department for my absence and brought in outside money to have those courses taught by people like my own Ph.D. students. Ultimately, I decided to retire early because of chronic illness, because I could not face, with my depleted resources, the prospect of teaching large classes with either minimal or nonexistent help from TAs (depending on enrolments) -- since I reject evaluation based on multiple-choice testing as inappropriate to serious university education in the humanities (colleagues who teach in a very different, predominantly "social sciences" mode claim good results using multiple choice tests, and I wish them well).
From summer of 1993 until the end of 2018, I taught and engaged in scholarship (administrators call it “research”) in the Department of History (later History and Classics). My resistance to the nationally (and nationally-chronologically) constituted categories of perception and analysis dominant in the discipline of History is rooted in my period of study (when such distinctions were fluid and largely irrelevant), in my family’s transnational experience, and in my sense that nationalism is one of the most dangerous and contagious intellectual diseases of the last two hundred years. My courses and my scholarship did not always mesh well with the expectations of the institution and its evaluation regimes. However, I am grateful for the substantial autonomy I had to pursue my own academic interests. I found real intellectual fellowship and collaborators among colleagues around the world as well as in my own department, and in English, Religious Studies, and Anthropology. I was fortunate to have access to internal funding for travel and equipment at UofA, and to receive one large grant from the SSHRC; otherwise, I relied largely on German and French granting agencies, which are more attuned to humanities scholarship and its needs than our national “research” funding council is. Having sat on the old Standard Research Grant Committee as it transitioned to the Insight Grant Committee, I feel well qualified to make such assertions. Regarding funding, my advice to younger colleagues is that they should of course heed well-meant advice to apply to SSHRC to some degree, but should retain their intellectual independence and seek out their own opportunities and resources as well.
My first book was a history of an imaginary people, an ethnography of a literary-ideological construct that was a kind of "hostile ethnography". I traced and analyzed the medieval German legend of the Red Jews, an imaginary conflation of the Ten Tribes of Israel with Gog and Magog, the apocalyptic destroyers featured in the books of Ezekiel and Revelation. I demonstrated how authors of religious and other texts evinced ethnic hostility (something like anti-Semitism) at a time when European Christians are generally considered to have been capable only of anti-Judaism in a religious vein, and not of Jew-hatred more generally. The point is that pre-modern Germans were quite capable of both, and that such ideas mixed freely with and fed off each other. This arguably had consequences in the further history of German-Jewish relations. I also uncovered predecessors of contemporary (American) Evangelical imaginaries regarding the role of Jews in the "End Time" (e.g., the "Jewish Antichrist") in medieval and Reformation-era sources; medieval apocalypticism was profoundly steeped in negative ideas about Jews and Judaism -- and so is Evangelical apocalypticism (if one discounts "conversion" as a positive choice for Jews). I think John Darby might have been influenced by similar pre-modern texts figuring the Antichrist as a Jew -- since that thoroughly medieval/late-antique idea had largely disappeared from early modern theology (I have no idea which texts, nor where he might have found them, except perhaps in Trinity College Dublin's library). Again, ethnic and religious hostilities seem to have been and still to be inextricably bound together in this discursive field.
My publications since 2000 on the 'Protestant paradigm' regarding vernacular Bible translations and editions in the later Middle Ages contributed to a new field of research and debate, with a research cluster at the University of Groningen and a number of conferences and conference panels devoted to the topic. This project addressed late medieval vernacular Bibles, their readership, their dissemination and their cultural effects -- which includes contributing to the conditions under which the Protestant Reformation 'caught fire' so quickly: e.g., Luther's Bible translation was a hit because burghers had been reading vernacular Bibles and biblical texts for so long, not because they had been denied access to the Bible. The wide distribution and availability of German and other vernacular Bible translations in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with 22 printed full Bible translations into German/Low German/Netherlandish appearing before Luther’s famous Bible translation, has been known to scholars since at least the early eighteenth century, when various works on German Bibles before the Reformation began to appear. However, the existence of such translations did not guarantee that scholars, especially church historians and historians of the Reformation took such Bible translations seriously. My findings also demonstrate how central modes of history-writing participate in myth-making -- sometimes even under the guise of source analysis.
In 2003, my former student Dr. Lara Apps and I co-published Male Witches in Early Modern Europe (Manchester UP), which was based in part on her M.A. thesis. Since 2005, my former student Dr. Robert Desjardins (Ph.D. 2008) and I, along with François Pageau and a number of other graduate students, have been working on the witch trials at Arras in 1459-60 -- possibly the very first mass witch-trials that took the classic form under which we know them, a snowball phenomenon driven by torture and sponsored by the authorities -- after coming across a hitherto unknown manuscript of a treatise written to justify the trials in their gruesome aftermath. This princely manuscript had been lurking in the UofA library system's Bruce Peel Special Collections since it was donated to the university by Dr. John Lunn in 1989, but its existence was unknown to scholarship -- a 1999 edition of the text relied on manuscripts held at Paris, Brussels and Oxford, but the UofA manuscript is probably the oldest and the best of them. This text anticipates the much better known Witches' Hammer (Malleus Maleficarum) by a quarter century, and already contains all the elements that the later text would so famously disseminate. Our critical edition of the UofA ms., collated against the other known manuscripts and the 1475 incunabulum printed by Colard Mansion, is in preparation. Our translation of the text, the first into English, and of another treatise written at the same time and in the same place, in collaboration with my Ph.D. student François Pageau and my former student Dr. Robert Desjardins, appeared with Penn State University Press in 2016: http://www.psupress.org/books/titles/978-0-271-07128-2.html. The Bruce Peel Special Collections Library and Archives produced and hosts a digital exhibition on this manuscript: https://omeka.library.ualberta.ca/exhibits/show/tinctor/imagining. We have also published an article about the manuscript itself: Robert B. Desjardins, François V. Pageau and Andrew Colin Gow, "The Travels of a Fifteenth-Century Demonological Manuscript: The University of Alberta’s Copy of Jean Taincture’s Invectives contre la secte de vauderie", in Florilegium 33, 93-122: https://doi.org/10.3138/flor.33.005. We have nearly finished and hope to publish in 2020 with the collaboration of Dr. Jessica Roussanov our complete translation of the voluminous Middle French records of the appeal of the Arras convictions to the Parlement (royal court) of Paris spanning the years 1461 to 1467, with brief postludes up to the final resolution of the appeals in 1491, together with translations of the many late-medieval chronicle entries and other sources relating to these trials from the dawn of the European witch-craze.
Demonology and witch-hunting: for more about my recent research, please see this one-minute presentation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_dezXYIMew
My latest research topic concerns what I call "Christianiform secularism". My research questions start with various claims made by secular societies and their exponents about the differences between the religious and the political, the private and the public, the past and the present (as roughly aligned pairs). Working with the shared characteristics of a range of related phenomena, from Renaissance- and Reformation-era claims about the immediate “medieval” past, through (debatable) claims to secularity in our own public institutions, attempts to cast Islam and Muslims as 'medieval' (and thus in need of either 'reform' or 'secularization', or both), to questions of how western societies regulate morality according to essentially pre-modern Christian norms while claiming to be both religiously neutral and secular, I hope to show that these issues and topics are, in fact, related to each other, and that understanding the organic-ish process by which each of them grew helps to make sense of the others. The first result of this research program was not a publication of my own, but a special issue co-edited with my M.A. student Nakita Valerio of the University of Alberta's History and Classics graduate student journal, Past Imperfect, collecting refereed and revised versions of research papers by graduate and senior undergraduate students who took my research seminar on secularism in Fall Term of 2016. See Past Imperfect vol. 22 No. 1 (2019): https://journals.library.ualberta.ca/pi/index.php/pi/issue/view/1941
RETIREMENT: I retired at the end of December 2018. I am still supervising my remaining Ph.D. students, but I am not accepting any more.