Interview with a Researcher: Josef Köstlbauer

Posted December 6, 2023 in General

This interview marks the second in a new series where we meet with a user of the Moravian Archives to discuss their unique experience working with our collections in Bethlehem. In September 2023, we sat down with Dr. Josef Köstlbauer to discuss his most recent publications, among other topics. Those who enjoy this interview will also likely enjoy reading Dr. Köstlbauer’s contribution in the most recent issue of the Journal of Moravian History (available for purchase here).

Tom McCullough (TM): Thank you for joining us, Josef. Can you tell us more about yourself?

Josef Köstlbauer (JK): My name is Josef Köstlbauer. I am a historian, and right now I am based at the Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies in Bonn, Germany, at the University of Bonn. This is a kind of interdisciplinary cluster funded by the German state. All the people there are researching various aspects of dependency, strongly asymmetrical relationships, throughout history and across the globe. I am one of the handful of historians concerned with the Early Modern Period and the more, let’s say, “traditional” slavery history of the Atlantic world and Indian Ocean world during the European Early Modern Period. For the last five years, I have been doing a lot of research on enslaved peoples living in Moravian congregations in Europe and in Bethlehem [Pennsylvania] and generally on slavery and the Moravian Church; slaves who belonged to the Moravian Church, along with enslaved individuals who were brought into Moravian communities. The underlying interest is in showing how early modern Germany—that is, from the 1500s to the early 19th century—was also part of this colonial world, was at the periphery of colonial empires, and therefore was also part and parcel of the economic and cultural processes that had to do with enslavement of non-European people. Moravians were part of this periphery, and it is especially possible to focus on them given the great archives in Herrnhut and Bethlehem. This is one of the challenges of researching enslavement in Early Modern Germany; that you have very fragmentary sources, and, whenever you have an archive like the Moravian Archives, it is truly a gift and a way into gaining perspective into how Germans at the time, or German-speaking people, participated in contemporary enslavement practices and processes.

TM: Thank you. That is a great segway into this question: how long have you been coming to the Moravian Archives, and when did you first learn of the Archives?

JK: Moravian archives, as a whole, were introduced to me through an article I was reading, written by Paul Peucker, called “Aus aller Nationen” (full title: Paul Peucker, “Aus allen Nationen: Nichteuropäer in den deutschen Brüdergemeinden des 18. Jahrhunderts,” Unitas Fratrum 59/60 (2007), about non-Europeans brought into the European congregation settlements. Paul’s article discussed not only enslaved people, but also Inuit peoples, referred to as “Greenlanders,” visiting Herrnhaag and Herrnhut and then going on to Bethlehem, and a couple of other persons, some of whom are depicted on the famous First Fruits paintings by Johann Valentin Haidt (see PC 19 from the Moravian Archives, Bethlehem, below, at right).

I first traveled to the Unity Archives in Herrnhut, which was the most obvious choice. Of course, I was also interested in meeting the author of the article (Paul Peucker), who had since become the director of the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem; as such, I knew there was a large archives there. Not long thereafter I stumbled upon a call for papers for the Conference on Moravian History and Music in 2018, and I thought that this would be a great chance to visit Bethlehem and the Archives, and meet scholars who were working on Moravian history and working on slavery and Moravian history. If you are based in Germany, you rarely stumble upon colleagues who are working in these fields. I always felt a bit isolated. The idea that I would meet a group of people, all assembled in one place, who would understand my research interests was what motivated me to apply in the first place. During the 2018 Conference, I did indeed come to the Archives for the first time, where I think I spent a week or more after the conference, and it was really a fruitful experience.

TM: Was there any moment working in the various Moravian archives that you experienced a eureka moment that changed the course of your research, your thesis, or confirmed something you already suspected?

JK: The first time in the Unity Archives had no special eureka moment. Whenever you visit an archive for the first time, especially if it’s a huge archive, you can feel a bit lost and floundering. You have to understand how the archive is organized and what types of records are available. Of course, Olaf Nippe [assistant archives director] was very helpful in me forming a vision and getting an idea of the holdings that might be most interesting to me. Even in the rich holdings of the Moravian Archives, the records on enslaved persons and the records that might discuss enslavement and how it was perceived, are somewhat fragmented. In other words, there are all sorts of different places one must search. This was a steep learning curve but very interesting, of course. I was busy taking pictures for several days and then organizing my pictures. Actually, it turns out there was a true eureka moment: I asked for the records on the case of Samuel Johannes, who was an enslaved person from southern India, called a “Black Malabar” in the records. In doing so, I realized that these records might be extremely helpful for me. In the archives in Bethlehem, looking out the reading room window at Locust Street, I also had a eureka moment while looking for traces of a woman named Magdalena Mingo, who had lived in the German congregational settlements during the 1740s. She had a very interesting biography: she came from St. Thomas; her father was an enslaved man, and her mother was a white Danish woman, which, in itself, is a rarely documented constellation that was probably not all that rare in reality, but, of course, a very stigmatized relationship. Her father Domingo Gesoe later on became an important member of the congregation on St. Thomas, and his daughter lived in the German congregational settlements and was later sent from Herrnhaag to Bethlehem. There in Bethlehem, she married Samuel Johannes, this man from southern India whom I mentioned before. I was very curious to learn more about her and about her life in Bethlehem, especially after the death of her husband in 1763, because she sort of disappears from the records. Paul Peucker pointed me to a record where she and her husband were petitioning the Elders Conference for permission to travel to St. Thomas, which I found very interesting. They wanted to go away and return to her homeland. She eventually went to the Widows’ Choir in Nazareth after the death of her husband, and I was able to find out that she left the Widows’ Choir. So Magdalena Mingo was someone who broke away from the Moravian congregation, apparently unhappy with her assigned position. This seems daring considering that even though she was not enslaved herself, she came from a slaving society in the West Indies and had all this background and baggage in her biography. The next eureka moment is not due to me but to Scott Gordon, who found out that Magdalena later lived in Philadelphia with her son. Another eureka moment was reading a letter of complaint written in the name of Magdalena Moor, an enslaved woman brought to Bethlehem but later freed by her master Charles Brockden, a Philadelphia Quaker. In the letter she complained about money that was due to her after the death of her husband, who was enslaved by the congregation. This letter is particularly insightful in evidencing the liminal position of Magdalena and her husband, especially in their later age and the problems they faced in Bethlehem at the time, as well as their efforts to maintain their position in the community and claim what they believed was due to them. At least in this case, Magdalena was able to get the money owed her and husband, and it’s an inside look that a historian does not often get.

TM: Those are really nice discoveries that you made at the Moravian Archives. At the most recent Conference on Moravian History and Music, you discussed that petition from Magdalena. You mentioned attending the conference in 2018, as well. Obviously you’ve written many conference papers; have you shared your research in other formats?

JK: There are a couple of book contributions and articles that have been published already. Others are in the pipeline right now, five articles and book chapters this year; so it’s a busy year, not something I planned for! The first text was published in a volume titled Globalized Peripheries that was edited by Jutta Wimmler and Klaus Weber (, of the Viadrina University in Frankfurt. And the title Globalized Peripheries already points to the main topic of the volume: how central Europe was entangled with the Atlantic world during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I used the Moravians and their involvement with enslavement as an example to show how the structures of colonial slavery reached back across the Atlantic, even to places like Herrnhut in Upper Lusatia, which appears to be very far away from the Atlantic world. At the time, Herrnhut was the country of manors and serfs and peasants. Even there, however, people from the West Indies would arrive and live for several years. It’s important for me to show that this is not a Moravian speciality—I mean, the Moravians are special in many ways; they are not a mainstream community, of course—but their involvement with slavery, and how both enslaved and non-enslaved people were used to represent the mission and this eschatological vision of a world united under Christ is very typical for Baroque culture, and it shows how Moravians used these cultural practices and techniques. For Zinzendorf, especially, as an aristocrat, it was natural to use these strategies of representation. My chapter in the volume is titled “Ambiguous Passages: Non-Europeans Brought to Europe by the Moravian Brethren during the Eighteenth Century.” In 2021 I published a volume of essays, together with Rebekka von Mallinckrodt, who headed a huge research project funded by the European Research Council at the University of Bremen, and Sarah Lentz, also from the University of Bremen. It’s titled Beyond Exceptionalism. Traces of Slavery and the Slave Trade in Early Modern Germany, 1650–1850 (access it here!). It’s really the latest and one of the few works on the history of slavery and the slave trade in the Early Modern German Empire. Here, I worked again on this topic of representation. The chapter is called “‘I Have No Shortage of Moors,’” which is excerpted from a quote by Zinzendorf. It continues, “Mission, Representation, and the Elusive Semantics of Slavery in Eighteenth-Century Moravian Sources.” And very soon, an article will be published that’s called “Subjugation by Labelling: Analysing the Semantics of Subservience in a Fugitive Slave Case from Eighteenth-Century Germany” (article now freely available here: And that is about the case of Samuel Johannes, “the Black Malabar,” and this court file in the Unity Archives in Herrnhut, which has to do with Samuel Johannes running away from Herrnhut, wanting to go to Berlin. Erdmuthe Dorothea von Zinzendorf, wife of Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, was residing in Herrnhut at that time an initiated a search for Samuel Johannes and claimed him as her slave. This is one of the few fugitive slave cases that we know of in Early Modern Germany. I reviewed all of these documents and tried to analyze how the relationship between Samuel Johannes and the Countess (Erdmuthe Dorothea) was characterized, the different labels that were used, and the different semantic constructions that were used to make clear that this man from East India was subservient to the Countess. And slavery was just one of the terms used in the documents. I found it very interesting, because it gives an idea of how slavery was perceived by Germans at the time, and how—at the time—relations of subservience were constructed. Because it’s not so much about legal condition and status but more about describing the specific relationship between master and servant. There’s a lot of biographical information in there that makes it very interesting beyond Moravian history; it’s of interest for anyone looking at the cultural history of slavery and servitude and bondage.

TM: That’s really interesting. If I recall correctly, were you also investigating serfdom in Upper Lusatia at one point in time?

JK: Yes, I’m actually still working on this. It’s one of my follow-up projects. Serf, or Leibeigene, is one of the terms that crops up in describing Samuel Johannes. Actually I can show that—at the time—it was often used by Germans synonymously with slave (Sklave). Both serf and slave were used to characterize conditions of far-reaching subservience. They were not used to imply servus in the Roman low sense, although they did use parts of Roman law at the time with regards to enslavement. A Leibeigene, a serf, could have all kinds of different relationships with different sets of obligations and loyalties and so on. It’s kind of an umbrella term that makes it quite unwieldy; that is, it is not a clear and obvious category that can be used by historians. At the same time, analyzing such categories, dissecting them and connecting them to microhistorical studies, where we can show what they mean in very specific cases, is what makes them very interesting and fruitful for historians. Parts of this research went into the “Subjugation by Labelling” article I mentioned previously, which will be published in an Austrian history journal (Österreichische Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaften) very soon, if not already in print. There is a possibility that it will also be re-published in a volume on “Race, Land, and Slavery” that Jamie Paxton and Heikki Lempa [from Moravian University] are planning.

TM: Congratulations!

JK: One addendum to make is that both edited volumes, Beyond Exceptionalism and Globalized Peripheries, are Open Access and freely available to anyone who finds them online, if you would like to share links.

  • Beyond Exceptionalism (full work) available here
  • Globalized Peripheries (Köstlbauer’s chapter) available here

TM: Thank you! That’s a great idea. Given what you’ve found already researching the Moravians, is there anything you wish that others knew about Moravian history?

JK: When I started doing this research, of course I knew that the Moravians existed. In the eighteenth century it was a small community, but they were a very prominent one. Zinzendorf was very good at causing a stir, and he was well connected because of his family and noble background. I was, however, born in Austria and raised here, and it’s a Catholic country, and Moravians are not a big topic. Coming from a background where Moravian history is not common knowledge, they gave me new perspective. This might be different for those who have grown up in Germany, but I don’t think most Germans know a lot about Moravian history. Moravians are an interesting group in the Protestant world, and they show this creativity of Early Modern Protestantism, which is something that I think is fascinating for many people. As a historian, I think the Moravian Archives are so rich and full of topics that can be researched there. There are so many ties to religious history and cultural history, and not only from the eighteenth century but right up the twenty-first century. The Archives holds things that offer a lot of material for historians and researchers from disciplines outside history. They could be even more well known beyond this rather small circle of historians doing Moravian history, or church scholars interested in Moravian studies. In this way I wish more people, more colleagues, knew about these archives. Whenever I give a presentation or talk to colleagues about my research and the archives, I have an opportunity to get others interested in Moravian studies, or at least Moravian archival materials. For example, in Bonn, I know several researchers who are working on mission history but when I tell them about my findings they get very interested. Of course, it’s always useful when you have these central archives in Herrnhut and Bethlehem where you can find so many things already assembled, even though there are pitfalls to this. I found that going to the smaller Moravian archives can be very useful, as well, because there are still a couple of small congregational archives in Germany and beyond. But, at least to start with, it’s good to have these bigger archives. I don’t know if one can compare the Moravian Archives to the Vatican Archives, which is probably several magnitudes bigger. But, still, if you are doing research on the Jesuits, you go there, and you find lots of records already assembled there. If you are doing research on the Moravians, you go to Herrnhut or to Bethlehem and already have lots of materials to work with, which is ideal if you have limited time and funding.

TM: Awesome. Well, I think you’ve already shared so much with us in a short time. Is there anything you’d like to add before we sign off?

JK: Yeah. I would like to add that working in the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem and in Herrnhut is a rewarding experience, because I have always felt very welcome there. People are—you and Paul and Olaf and Claudia—everyone is extremely helpful and knowledgeable. You always have someone to talk to and ask for help. This is something that other researchers in Herrnhut and Bethlehem all say about their experiences. Upon visiting the archives for the second time, it already feels like coming home or visiting family. It’s always a good experience, and it’s nothing compared to the bureaucratic hurdles that many of us have to grapple with at larger archives. I really value that, and it’s a great achievement. You are doing a great job!

TM: Thank for the compliment to the Archives, Josef. One thing we really enjoy as archivists is people coming to use the collections and learning from them through what they consult. If we archivists are attentive to the researchers who visit and are experts in their given fields, we are able to better help the next visitors pursuing similar lines of research in the future.

JK: I really enjoy being there, but I am also very thankful for the huge effort at digitization that you are making. This really sets the Moravian Archives, Bethlehem apart, I think, because of this huge online collection that is growing and growing and growing. Especially for us in Europe, going to Bethlehem means a seven or an eight-hour flight, and then driving to Bethlehem from New Jersey or Philadelphia. And it’s expensive, of course. Herrnhut is also far away, especially by public transportation. But it’s still much cheaper to visit for us in Germany. Having the digitized resources from Bethlehem to fall back upon is very helpful. Looking at these masses of handwritten sources is really tiring on the eyes, and if you are scanning the diaries just for a name, page after page, hour after hour…it’s so great to be able to do this at home, where you are able to blow up the images for reading. And it really helps in planning an archival visit. It gives a whole new range of options, and I am happy that you do that, and I assume it must be a huge effort planning and financing.

TM: It’s a good time to tell you the latest news that the church registers, the Kirchenbücher, are digitized and available online now, too. I know you were interested in that in the past. You should be able to look for additional names of people there now.

JK: That’s great!

TM: It is always great to catch up with you, Josef!

JK: I really enjoyed this. These were great open-ended questions.

TM: Thank you for letting us interview you today. It’s nice to be able to share how researchers use the Archives.

JK: Thank you for inviting me!

Enjoyed this conversation? Be sure to check out our previous interview with Dr. Christina Petterson here!