Bedos-Rezak on The Field, and on sources (third and last)

In the last few paragraphs of her paper in van Engen’s Past and Future of Medieval Studies, Brigitte Bedos-Rezak turns to the actual point of the conference at which it was being presented: how was medieval studies doing and how would it cope with coming challenges? Her response is the briefest part of her paper, but as many of the other speakers in whose work I’m less interested got their own posts, it’s worth giving the perspective of someone whose ideas have been so fruitful for me already.

Her attempt to make her article relevant does smack a little of special pleading: it’s hard for me to escape the suspicion that she saw she had a captive audience of non-diplomatists and took the chance to deliver her soapbox piece and then justified it once she’d for once been able to get through the whole rant. I mean, I would have done that in her place. Maybe I’m just projecting. Anyway, her chosen justification is that in what almost all the speakers thought would be hard times a-comin’ for medieval studies, which given that this was 17 years ago now seems to have been pessimistic, source-critical disciplines would be the evolutionarily toughest, because they had the most to teach non-medievalists. She also stresses, though not in so many words, that this skill enables us to catch an easy ride on the po-mo gravy train, and here I could have a lot more sympathy. She is obviously closer to it than I am, and sees it as being able to participate in wider trends of scholarship; I’ll leave my stock rant already said.

Her main point is that because our sources are so scanty and difficult, we make our evidence explain itself much harder, and are much tougher on it, than modernists or social scientists who can deal in bulk data, and that they can learn from our basic critical thinking. She first speaks of “the ongoing, and felicitous, rapprochement with anthropologists” as evidence of this possibility, and that bit’s worth giving in her words:

The anthropology of living societies has inspired many medievalists to turn a renewed attention to law, demography, kinship, urbanization, rituals, taboos, elite, marginals, emblems, and totems (heraldry). Medievalists can in turn contribute specific insights into the principles that govern their relations to sources. Medieval historians have been accused of looking, not at the past, but at documents. Anthropologists have come to recognise that “doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of ‘construct a reading of’) a manuscript—foreign, full of ellipses, incoherences, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries.” That which they call their data are their own constructions of other people’s constructions. Understanding what is said by the occurrence and preservation of documents and artifacts and through their agency, the identification of structures of signification therein, the assessment of these structures’, and of the modalities of their documentation’s, social ground and import are all of primary concern for medievalists.

And she goes on to argue as I say that all our work is critical and that we have clutches of even more critical sub-disciplines like palæography and diplomatic that teach and use skills that all the humanities are going to find they need.

I like this idea that we’re the hard-core of the humanities, though my favoured anthropologist interlocutrix tells me that the work she cites as evidence of anthropologists having this realisation was dating even then and then in the meantime critical thinking had entered the discipline by other routes too. The quote in Bedos-Rezak’s quote above in fact comes from Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures, and Geertz is the medievalist’s favourite anthropologist partly because he tells stories and partly because, as we see here, he reads and uses medieval history. But he’s also pretty important in his field and was more so then and it’s a good one to have on your side. A reminder, however, that when we branch into other fields we do need someone on the inside as a guide. And perhaps Bedos-Rezak’s real purpose was to make her audience realise that they needed such help with charters, who knows? Anyway, it’s an argument we can all and many of us have used in a more general sense than that in which she deploys it, but here well-argued if difficultly-phrased, and I think she did just about succeed in making what she’d been saying relevant to the conference…

Another bit that stuck with me is shortly thereafter where she deals with the problem of sources being constructed, which was after all the cornerstone of her earlier argument. Now she has to make it possible for medieval studies to contribute to understanding despite this. This section I like because she takes the critical theorists’ arms up against them to an extent, and a fabulous phrase occurs in her defence:

… attention to sources is not simply a technique and a method. It is at the very center of historical interpretation, since any source is primarily about itself, a form that outlines the contour of an absence, a sign that projects in the present since no other plane of duration gathers the historian and her source into the same instant, a text concerned with appearances noted in the present but occurring in the past, and an event carried by a material arranged in a pattern that still makes sense today. Acceptance and analysis of the source’s self-reflective nature enables medievalists to grasp the specific process of meaning production implied by the discursive and existential mode of that source and permits the retrieval both of the ideological and evidential status of the text, and of the ideological and social standards from the past. Our recognition of past events is conditioned by the ideologies and assumptions of the scribes from the past, but it is still debatable whether what we retrieve is the medieval axis of reference and intelligibility. In fact the medieval conceptual and textualized categories (God, land, salvation, proof, authenticity) that we use as representations of that society, as explanation that make it intelligible to us, were in effect the very questions they had to explain through axiomatic truths. For the medievalist, all documents should be seen as at once true and false (a construct)…

I do find that bolded phrase (my emphasis) particularly effective, even enhanced by its difficult wording, at reminding us that what we’re attempting is not simple. But so many of its complications are bundled up in that paragraph, synthesized by her from many places of course but packed up very densely. It’s at once both a defence against the problem of situated knowledge in our sources, to wit that we can use the sources as evidence for thought-worlds and mentalities and thus partly reconstruct the society that created those and in which they could exist, and a pointer to a further problem, that what we think we understand about medieval society are not necessarily things that medieval writers themselves understood clearly enough to explain them to us even along this oblique plane of vision. This is more theory that I like, though I might wish for it to have been more clearly expressed. I find the visual image she uses to express this bundle brilliant, however; we’re squinting along a plane at something that doesn’t exist any more, but we’re that clever we can still get something good out of it that no-one else can reach… Our techniques turn a peep-hole into a sight.

B. Bedos-Rezak, “Diplomatic Sources and Medieval Documentary Practices. An Essay in Interpretative Methodology” in J. van Engen, The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 313-343, quotes from p. 332 & 333-334; for the Geertz cite, see Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York City 1973), p. 10.

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