This happens a fair bit, but I have just seen it happen again: someone is asking, from the inside, what the point in being a historian is. I mean, that’s what the post is really about, but because we all really know that—viz, that it floats our personal intellectual boats to find stuff out that was once known and is now recoverable only by an exercise of skill that makes us feel smug as well as enlightened—the question is more how to justify doing that to the general public, especially when the question of HE funding and their tax bill comes to the fore. In other words, how do we answer the question, what have the historians ever done for us?
Well, I have heard various answers and liked none of them. The first one is that which we all fear: that actually, in a market-dominated age, you can’t justify the study of the past, especially the medieval past. Modern history might have something to teach you about the world now but the Middle Ages are pretty much about how it got that way, if that, and things were just too different then for it be relevant. At least so “they” say.
Against this there are two defences. The first and better is that the study of history teaches a critical faculty, allows one to assess the possibility that the sources are lying or misinformed, and if you’re lucky also provides you with informative and interesting parallels to your own experience while you’re at it. But this doesn’t answer the question of why medieval history: in fact, the more sources the better, really, so modern history would be more justifiable with this than medieval.
Also, it doesn’t work so well for higher education as it does for history in schools. By the time they leave school our pupils would ideally already have the critical faculty, in the same way as university maths departments protest when a new intake lack basic arithmetical skills. I always felt, when I was an undergraduate, that I’d learnt all that really needed learning in English Literature when I was at school, because now I had enough skills and mental tools to take apart a text myself to the limits of what could be known about it. I suppose I should have taken note of the fact that I never believed the same about texts in history, but then there’s the increased (supposedly) interface with the actual lived past to account for. English Lit. is about getting to the heart of a text; history is about getting to its heart and going through to the world beyond, which presumes that the real world is reflected in the text in a way with which a literary text would not be concerned. I don’t know how safe a presumption that is, in fact, but certainly few of us would favour a source we thought to be fictional over one we thought to be sincere, yes? So even if the edges of this division are fuzzy, finding clearly defined space is easy enough.
Anyway. At that rate, the only point in historical research would be the progressive problematisation of our source material. If we ever achieved understanding and orthodoxy we’d cancel out the gain from criticism. So although I cling to it as a hope of something I may achieve in the classroom, I don’t think it explains why Joe Taxpayer should feel he’s doing something useful when he learns that the British Academy give me research money. (You never know, it’s happened before.)
So the alternative defence is that it leads to a greater understanding of what it means to be human. That is, it’s like literature, the study of the people of the past opens a window on the human condition. Or, better, because then you can claim to be a social science, it’s like anthropology, the customs and practices of the study group of past populations, as obtained through the particular practice that is historical study, contribute to a grand picture of what humans are and do in society. Only, even anthropologists don’t believe that’s what they’re doing any more do they? There was no Ursociety to be reflected in modern survival populations, and thus neither in past ones. And such anthropologists as I know and talk to have trouble crediting historians with anything like the scientific aims that some claim to have.
Well, fair enough I say. We’re not scientists, at least I’m not. I use science, I have methods that owe a lot to science, I build and fill databases fer losh sakes and so on, but any definition of science that allows what I do to count—with no control groups, no ways to conclusively test theories except whether they fit the (statistically insignificant) data well enough to get away with it—is no kind of science I want to be part of. A bit Groucho Marx but you get my point: this is an arts subject. And what’s the point of art? To make people feel better. There is no other. It can all be put to a purpose, but it doesn’t inherently have one and often such a purpose will distort the purity of the art in question (although I freely admit, sometimes that distortion is an enhancement).
At which rate, is not the actual point is that combination of smugness and enlightenment I mentioned that we get when we come closer to what we think is a truth about how things were? You can explain it many ways—hearing a voice from the past, touching someone’s life long gone, or even finding something recognisable in an alien culture, but you know what I mean. The buzz. And we teach others how to get it.
So where does that leave Joe, and is there a point for research in this construction? Well, yes. What distinguishes history from literature at that rate is that we think we’re accessing a truth. I realise that this is contentious, that some current theory would rather stress that because our knowledge is imperfect we shouldn’t fool ourselves we’re in with a chance of reaching any actual facts, if there are even such a thing. I continue to insist that that’s what we’re trying to do.
(And I think there are some facts, or at least things that we can treat as such. Only missing-years theorists would say that Charlemagne was not crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day 800, for example. We can argue endlessly about what those things all mean but we could agree on that much. At my end of the scale, when Sarra of Gurb is recorded in a charter selling land that neighboured on some belonging to an heir of hers, I don’t see any point questioning that she and her heir both existed, as she turns up in other documents, although I admit that without perfect evidence I don’t know for sure that she had any right to the land, or that the land transfer she makes in the charter was ever actually carried out.)
So we hunt the truth, and we feel good about finding it. Jeff Sypeck feels he’s achieved something getting closer to Charlemagne, I put together the surviving pieces of the career of an insignificant landowner called Adalbert of Taradell, and in him I have exhumed someone from of the records and stood him up, and even if it’s only a cardboard cutout that partly reflects one face of who he was, what he did and where he did it, and how he set up to face death, I think I’ve found some truth that we didn’t have before. We’re after the truth. It even makes it sound like a noble pursuit again, doesn’t it?
But, the big question. Our truth is not very useful. (Jeff’s is more useful than mine though.) Why should it matter to good ol’ Joe? Apart from, perhaps, the somewhat weak argument I use on my webpages, that people are per se interesting and this way we find extra ones, and (what I don’t say there) usually in the past the data is so limited that it’s easy to know all that is possible to know about them, which you can never manage with the living. What if Joe has enough people, and no time to read about more? What, apart from breeding competition for my own job (ha!) and lowering the market value of a degree, am I doing?
The only way we get round this is outreach. I once said that I had to go into medieval research, because otherwise I just ranted at people in pubs about stuff, and this way at least I kept it safely in tutorials or conferences. But the pub ranting is important. When Dan Brown writes a book, and it’s historically rubbish, we are expected to be able to say something about it; people do actually want to know. How many times have you, if you’re a medievalist, been asked for example, whether Arthur existed, how much truth lies behind the Robin Hood legends, whether King John was really as bad as that, what Magna Carta actually is, whether the Crusaders weren’t really just in it for the money, or equivalent non-English things? (Not counting “where was Carolingia anyway?” which I’ve had a few times too often.) I mean, people want to know. And because they want to know, they want us to know. But we have to be ready to tell them. We have to be available, not just to students and people paying, but to the people who maybe contributed a few pence in taxes to our education, or who just keep up my place of work‘s visitor numbers and thus help keep it going. Their payback is our knowledge. So we have to put it on the web, explain things at parties, the same questions over and over; it is how we give back for being allowed to spend our time doing something that, even though people like to know it, has no authentic use whatsoever. (And this also entails trying not to have to give the answer, “it’s not really my period”, however true that is. Is that how people should think of historians, people with fields so narrow you can’t find them in conversation? I hope not.)
It comes down to this. Knowing stuff is fun; pass it on. And I’m sure we most of us are. But sometimes, a post like the one I started by referencing tries to ask a bigger question, about a purpose in society or whatever. Well, OK, sure, we have at least one; but it’s the same one as novelists, artists, musicians and sculptors. We have access to stuff that people like to feed their brains with. Less, in some ways, than the authentically creative; but more, because we draw on so much past creativity and effort. We like to think it’s the truth, and perhaps it often is, but that’s just what we have to sell; a particularly rarefied form of entertainment and enlightenment. The thing I’m trying to say is that selling it puts us into the market, and we can’t make it there. To transcend the question of what history’s worth, we have to be all about giving it for free. Or so I think, anyway. Whether you agree or not, the bloggings will continue until morale improves.