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.
“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.”
No more need be said.
Jonathan, thanks for the link, but I won’t claim to have gotten as close to the truth as some of my readers might have preferred, or as close as you do in your work. Because my little Charlemagne book is written for the educated layperson–specifically, for the reader who may be coming to medieval history for the first time–it’s full of dramatic speculation. That said, I respect the scholars whose work made my book possible, so I’ve also packed the narrative with more than its fair share of “maybes,” “probablys” and “we can imagine thats.”
Your musings about “usefulness” go to the reason I wrote the book in the first place. Although there’s so much terrific recent scholarship on the period, the public’s understanding of Charlemagne, at least in the States, stalled somewhere around 1955. I thought a work of “pop history” might remind readers who Charlemagne was and perhaps introduce them to some of the conclusions of recent scholars, if only through atmospheric asides documented in my endnotes.
True, the work of medievalists doesn’t feed the hungry or clothe the naked. But beyond the benefits of your work as teachers, tutors, translators, editors, and researchers within the profession itself, your scholarship also informs little books like mine, books read by people who regret dozing through history courses when they were younger and who will never read an issue of Speculum or English Historical Review. Saying that what I’ve done is “more useful” than what you do is kind, but it surely isn’t true. All the novels, movies, pop histories, reenactments, and documentaries couldn’t exist without the scholarly search for historical truth, even if some of those spinoffs don’t reflect the integrity of the sources that inspired them.
I’m a big fan of the sort of outreach you cite, but I wonder if your pessimism about the viability of medievalism in the marketplace isn’t a particularly British outlook. I’ve found that American audiences are curious to learn a little something about Charlemagne and his times–but maybe that’s because the medieval past isn’t omnipresent here?
In any event, don’t be too discouraged. Blogging is, after all, a sort of solution, a form of outreach in and of itself.
Jeff, I think more people are likely to be cheered by a history of Charlemagne they can understand than are by my doctoral thesis, or even my actual published work such as it be, which is what I was getting at with arguments of use. I have no intention of allowing anyone to contrast their level of scholarship with mine on this blog, in either direction :-)
Mind you, it’s been an astonishingly good few years for biographies of Charlemagne lately, hasn’t it?
Interesting post, Jonathan. I showed my students the film “Memento” by Chris Nolan and then asked them this very question (or set of questions) in class the other day. I was proud to hear most of them defend the importance of history and its relevance to our lives.
Glad to hear it! Although the ones already in the classroom are to an extent the choir for our preaching; they already thought it was worth paying for…
Why do history? Because it repeats.
How many ways is the current situation in the Middle East/Afganistan/Pakistan like Europe after the fall of Rome? From colony/province to tribal units to kingdoms (merging, morphing and finally some stability) to mature representative government, same pattern. State formation. Interaction of church and state. It took Europe 1200 years to go from Imperial province to relatively stable representative governments, we are expecting the Middle East to go from the collapse of the Colonial Powers to representative government in less than 100 years. I’m not saying that it should take them anywhere near as long as it took Europe, but if we want them to speed up the process, then we better learn more about how our own process worked.
Reason number 2: heritage which brings in a good little chunk of the British economy.
Reason number 2 I entirely agree with, although again, I’m not sure whether putting history out to market like that leaves much room for research rather than interesting labels. I mean, Dan Brown can do that as well.
Reason number 1 bothers me. It implies that the only history that’s any good is history which can explain our society as it now is. Firstly this leaves some interesting stuff out in the cold: the Viking landings in America, for example, the one place where they made almost no cultural dent we can detect except maybe a headstone. Secondly, it encourages teleology: not just the explanation of the present by the past, but worse, and much more temptingly, the explanation of the past by analogy with the present, buried somewhere within which is the Whig idea of history as progress. I think that sets us looking for particular things instead of the true course of events, in which, as Alice Rio says, ‘the possibility of a discontinuous evolution is worth considering’. And thirdly it leaves us in a very sticky position when, like Professor Gabriele, we find that we need to emphasise that things are both different and similar; such motives pressure us to find the similarities that make our research `useful’, and elide the differences that mean our conclusions can’t be applied.
I mean, that’s the real issue: applied history. That’s back to social science again and I don’t think we can do that, or that we should. I used to say that to use history was to misuse it, and certainly I think there’s a lot more use to be got out of oversimplified bad history than there is out of the elegant, careful and precise work that we enjoy and try to produce ourselves.
I see that Professor Gabriele has already cited his post that I link to there in a post of his own about this one, which explains where the sudden deluge of traffic is coming from: a hat tip to you sir, thanks.
As I say in my post, I love this stuff… :-)
First of all, I absolutely do NOT believe in history as progress. If anything my example shows that history is cyclic. Empires rise and fall, be it the Roman Empire or the British Empire. History is littered with the reinvention of the wheel, so to speak. A careful history shows us what we have lost as much as what we have gained.
Why study the Viking landings in North America/Canada? Because it is part of Canadian history and Norse heritage. Because its is part of the history of seafaring, because it is one of the examples of how peoples reached North America. There is a big debate going on among archaeologists now about Native Americans reaching North America by ways _other than_ across the land bridge in Alaska.
It is also part of historian’s job to correct the misuse of history. If you don’t work with public interest and heritage groups, you leave history vulnerable to people who are not shy about misusing it.
Very nice post.
To your comment #7: I think it’s important to make the distinction between using history and making usable history. Historians doing the former through their original scholarship is definitely dangerous. But not doing the latter is reprehensible. At the least, history should be useful to other historians who are trying to answer broader questions than the ones tackled in a particular, esoteric work.
I share much of your vision of the ways that history is valuable to society, but I don’t think that “pub rants” and Dan Brown documentaries should be an afterthought. When the public needs to know something from us, they should be able to go to our work, not have to track us down in person. A significant portion of our intellectual output should be aimed at making the esoteric knowledge we’ve created physically and intellectually available to whomever wants it. The lower the cost of accessing historical knowledge, the greater the demand for it.
To Jeff in comment #2: I’d say that American public understanding of history (full stop) stalled somewhere around 1955. That’s why I am always bringing up the issue of what historians are good for. A better understanding of history suffusing modern culture would have great benefits, particularly in terms of more meaningful political discourse. But historians have mainly been talking amongst themselves for decades now, to the detriment of public discourse.
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I think one of the key things that history does is point out not just historical similarities but differences as well, and I think why that is so vital is that it makes us think hard about our current world. It is by studying other very different societies that you can appreciate that at one key point the US constitution was wrong: there are an awful lot of ‘truths’ that aren’t ‘self-evident’ (like democracy, equality before the law etc). People can think and have thought differently about such things from ‘us’ and it is a good mental/human/civic exercise to realise this.
Of course, there are all kinds of societies we could study to get this kind of realisation: we could do this via anthropology of current cultures, or via the history of another but very alien civilization, like Ancient China. But Europe, particularly Medieval Europe, is particularly useful because for the majority of us in the West, it is our cultural roots we are looking at. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, but that’s just the Chinese/African etc people’. You look at what our ancestors believed/did and what we do and believe now and you can start to see why we are where we are now and how we got from here to there.
(I think if this comparing of differences is done well it needn’t be teological/Whiggish: a good teacher can point out that it isn’t simply a matter of ‘progress’ all the time).
There are also some medieval ideas which are particularly good for thinking about change in these ways. For example, for a historian of gender like myself, it’s revealing to point out that in the Middle Ages, people ‘knew’ that women were more lustful than men, whereas now we ‘know’ the opposite. On a more local scale, there’s nothing like looking at the early Middle Ages to remind you that ‘England’ and ‘France’ aren’t ‘natural enemies’. Similarly, any discussion about ethnic identity or the formation of the nation state can be helped by using the early Middle Ages to show these concepts aren’t obvious. Yet on the other hand the Middle Ages has the roots of everything from the church’s control of marriage to parliament and the university, institutions and practices which still affect us today. It’s this combination of difference and similarities/roots that seems to me to making thinking about the Middle Ages so useful a mental tool. (This is aside from the fact that Vikings, knights, castles etc are simply more fun to study than the causes of the Crimean War).
Blimey: you’re busy for a day or two educating the young and academics turn up and deluge your blog in erudition :-)
Michelle, I think a cyclic view of history still implies a known direction of travel, even if it’s two-way. What when things go sideways and don’t lead anywhere? This is what I meant with the example of the Viking landings in America. No lasting consequences at all, but as you point out, endlessly interesting. Not for any reason to do with significance and effect on modern society though! Greenland does just as well for seafaring examples: the saga doesn’t say Leif built special new long-range longships does it? I may be wrong about that, but I thought he just bought someone else’s boat. The same with Dan Brown: what has the Holy Grail ever done for us? (Er: apart from allegedly containing the blood of Our Saviour and so on obviously. Actually, does that help us, or did it just reduce the Calvary cleaning bill? My theology lacks. Along, apparently, with my respect. Anyway.) Interest and significance, despite what those who insist education should be vocational, don’t map onto each other.
Sage, you correct and enhance my points, thankyou. This is of course roughly what you, I and others are trying to do with our blogs. I’m still quietly pleased by the close match between the contents of my aside on the Crusades and the search terms that lead people to it. However, I’d pick up your second point and say that it is the devil of peer review that we only talk to each other; until there is a definite recognition in employability terms of the attempt to reach beyond academia, rather than a slight contempt of it or indifference to it, our careers demand that we place the audience of peers before the audience of people.
Magistra, I think I like your points most of all because they specifically apply to the Middle Ages. I may well have to repeat them widely :-) However, your first paragraph causes me worry: it’s all very well impugning the US Constitutional Fathers, but you’re perilously close to damning Jane Austen! And she’s had more history published than either of us. So go careful :-)
You wrote: “a cyclic view of history still implies a known direction of travel, even if its two way.”
First of all, time does travel in one direction, my friend. :-)
I suppose by two way, you mean forwards and backwards? I don’t tend to think of forwards or backwards at all, just as change. I don’t know about the sideways bit. Every age has its fuzzy edges. I tend to think there are very few sideways movements though. I don’t recall…was Christopher Columbus inspired by either Leif Ericsson or St Brendan the Voyager, or both? I thought it was Vinland maps that led Columbas to believe he wouldn’t fall off the edge of the world.
What has the Grail ever done for us? Hmm… as someone who occasionally writes about theology that is a loaded question. Given that the Grail is the cup used at the last supper, I would say that it relates to every celebration of the Eucharist. On a more secular note, it also brings in a lot of cash to the British economy particularly down around Glastonbury way.
I suppose I should add that I’m not a professional historian or a professional medieavlist… just a medievalist by interest.
Hello. Stumbled on the blog a few weeks ago, and I really enjoy it. As an American Grad student of Medieval Studies, I would just like to add something. I don’t like generalizations, but I know a few others who feel this way. I study the Middle Ages for a couple of reasons. 1. I think it is fascinating noting how little humanity has changed in the past 1300 years. 2. It is not, technically MY history. Before the semantic axes are thrown, let me explain. What real connection do we Americans have with seventh-century Mercia, other than some abstract notion that we COULD have had a Mercian as an ancestor. For you guys, seventh-century Anglo-Saxon history is part of your history. Just as some of us here can step outside of our door onto a Civil War battle site (obviously ours, not yours) You, Jonathon, have only a walk or short tube ride to ponder Aethelbert’s founding of St. Paul’s at the site. It is late here, and I just finished a paper, so I feel I am rambling, but I guess my point is that for me, the M-As are not the same ole same ole. I don’t know. I’m going to bed. Thanks
Michelle, I hadn’t thought of the Columbus point, which might be rather a nice one. Touché :-)
When I actually use the phrase `cycles in history’ myself I suppose that I don’t think of it as forwards then backwards, actually, but as a graph arcing up and down across the x-axis that is time. Which may go to show merely that I spent too much time with scientists in my formative years, but would also force me to withdraw the suggestion that your vision of the process was the back and forward of the piston rather than the round-and-round of the crank. My apologies.
Michael, thankyou for the kind words, and I hope you got your sleep. I think even in ye olde Europe we get our disassociation from the Middle Ages too, and I think that has something to do with the success of fantasy as a genre here and elsewhere; equally, I think that fantasy as a genre has probably powered a lot of people into studying the Middle Ages. I grant you that connection is easier to find, but given that I do pass through St Paul’s every now and then I can assure you that though Christopher Wren’s building is a marvellous thing, it doesn’t really clarify your understanding of Æthelberht’s policy or choice to stand there. It took me some time to work out that of course in his day you’d have had the river practically at the bottom of the churchyard, for example; it’s actually easier to get that in a book than to piece it together by mentally removing the dozens of city blocks that now stand between the Thames and old Paulesbyri. There are better places for it, like Hadrian’s Wall for example, where the connection is more palpable, and the best case of it I’ve ever had is standing at Sueno’s Stone in
PictlandScotland, where the Picts seem to have left a twenty-foot stone cartoon of them beating the Vikings standing at the roadside. Now, trust me, that is pretty alien to look at. This may only be because it’s alarmingly close to being a nine-by-four-by-one monolith, of course :-) And the modern glass-and-steel casing doesn’t really reduce that sense of otherness and separation. Now I’ve met people who do think they have a genuine connection to the Picts in their ancestry, but I think that personally I would take that with as much of a pinch of salt as someone from your area claiming mercian heritage. It’s been as many years between the Middle Ages and us and it has between them and you, after all, and the population in Britain has changed dramatically in that time as well. A lot of us have as much ability or justification in making that connection as you do. It’s just a bit easier to do so when we’re nearer to the remains.
I agree with your point about fantasy literature. Personally, I blame Barbara Tuchman and her book “A Distant Mirror” for my predicament, but I must acknowledge a heavy dose of Tolkien.While the St. Paul’s analogy might not have been the best one, I think you took my meaning. To get back a bit, it seems that here, we are at some disadvantages to a certain degree. You certainly are “nearer to the remains,” but we aren’t. Not complaining, mind you, we still get our work done. But, I have often cursed geography when I need to find a piece, or see a manuscript that will answer a question,or even visit a site, just to “get the feel,” and realize that even had I the funds, it would still be an eight hour flight, hotels, pub-food, and a very depleted bank account to achieve this. BTW, have you ever made the trip to Kalamazoo?
We are starting to talk in circles ourselves, as I was responding to your two-way direction comment. I suppose I would also see the idea of ‘cycles of history’ as being like a sin or cos curve, if I were to graph it (not that I think that is feasible to do). The problem with seeing history as a graph is that there is no way to define the y-axis. Do you put population, economy, size of the kingdom, foreign contacts, or even more subjective things like literature and arts? Or do a real historian thing and simply use the number of surviving historical manuscripts. ;-) After that is what makes the Dark Ages dark. All a matter of perception, this is the same period that medievals themselves placed Arthur’s Golden Age.
Another issue here is that I don’t think there has ever been a period when there was a global high or low. While Europe was in its dark age just after the fall of Rome, what was going on in China or the Americas? The Maya and Aztecs are peaking during the ‘middle ages’. How different would it look even just from Byzantium?
‘Why do history’ comes down to the same reason as ‘why do literature’, because people are interested (for what ever reason). Some will have good reasons, some will have bad reasons, some will have frivolous reasons, some will have recreational reasons, some will have stupid reasons and that is the way it has always been. If you can’t interest other people in the primary goal of the research, then maybe time, talent and/or treasure shouldn’t be spent on it in my humble opinion. I think its often just a point of view. It seems to me that scholars who don’t care what the general public think of their work are not going to be very good at talking about their research to anyone outside their tiny niche….happy to be walled up in their ivory tower.
Given the genetic mixing that has gone on within Britain, there is probably a good reason to think that more likely than not, most people whose families have been in Britain say 7 generations or more all have a little Pict in them. At seven generations, they have 128 direct ancestors doubling every generation you go back. How likely is that one of them will have descended from Pictish territory? A thousand years would have 40 generations at 25 years each, so 2 to the 40th power ancestors in the generation that lived 1000 years ago. (But genetic diversity is cut by intermarriage between the lines, so that is a complication, but still lots of ancestors…) So Jonathan your chances of having at least one Pictish ancestor might not be as small as you might think.
Michelle, my chances are actually pretty good, in one sense, because my father’s mother was from a bit of Aberdeenshire where half the local graveyard appears to be occupied by people with her surname. How long a while they were there for is an unsolvable question, obviously, but there’s some chance. Of course the real question there is whether and when the people in that area counted as Picts ;-)
I agree about the problems of the y-axis; it tends towards economic analysis because everything else would be hard to quantify. (Though I don’t know: evidence survival would be one thing, but then what would that mean and how to allow for the ‘dark matter’ of the unlocated and lost?) On the other hand I think there probably were global highs and lows, because I think climate lies behind everything to an extent; better weather means more crops means more surplus means more people and more leisure to produce works of culture means… and so on.
Michael, what you say rings very true to me when contemplating trips to Catalonia. Why did I choose to work on somewhere so far away, eh? Oh yes: because there’s some evidence there :-)
I have not been to Kalamazoo, though I should consider it, because over here work on Catalonia in English is basically just me. Which is one reason why I chose it of course but there are a good few US scholars with whom I should be in better touch than I am. Whether they usually bother with Kalamazoo I don’t know, though. Some day! when there is both time and money. I’m aware that there is never really time but trust me, there can be more than there is right now.
As someone from the outside, who’s listened with a great deal of interest to your work, I think for me the interest is quite similar to the literary analogies you give in your post.
For me, essentially, history can command my imagination, and I find that valuable because we live in a society where a considerable proportion of identity rests on choice, and so upon the imagination, (for example, at least one option will eventually become counterfactual).
The search for truth within history works in two ways, for me, when considered for this end: it encourages sincere and challenging consideration; and it structures and grounds the work, as poetry might be ground by its meter, in a form nevertheless quite distinct from the groundings of art and literature. Medieval history is far more potent, here, than more recent history, which can sometimes appear to be simply tardy journalism.
Thirdly, and perhaps independently, developing a historical perspective is, I think, a valuable tool towards transcendence of the self, and that makes history, (and geography) themselves art-forms, and a crucial tool for practical living. Even (or especially?) if you’re stuck “low” on Maslow’s pyramid, an escape from the self makes people stronger, more sure-footed, less easily cowed, more independent, and more altruistic and calm, and to achieve such a thing we need a “priesthood” to fuel the “laity”. It is no small thing.
Hi Dan, nice to have the benefit of your input here. I can’t really add much to that beyond the inevitable, “ooh, I wish I’d put it like that”, except that I’m fairly sure I’m only a deacon so far, if that :-) but because I go on in this post about thinking we have the truth, I suppose I can’t entirely disclaim the preacher’s cowl.
All of this is going to be raised again by my comments on Maria Lucía Pallares-Burke’s interview with Natalie Zemon Davis, as well, it’s a theme that won’t go away.
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