On 16 March a rather unusual sort of seminar took place in University College London, as the concluding episode for this term in a series that I’m sorry I haven’t been able to go to more of, the UCL Medieval Interdisciplinary Seminar. This time the disciplines intersecting were history and anthropology, because David d’Avray and Eamon Duffy were presenting in tandem to the title, “Mary Douglas among the Medievalists”. Because I have at least a leisure interest in how these two humanities meet, I made sure I made it along.
Both of the presenters had known Dame Mary Douglas, of whom I had but dimly heard, so I went mainly to find out more about this Anthropological Name and what she might have to tell me. I think I wound up learning more about myself than about the subject, which was, well, unusual. This was in part because the assumption, and fair enough, seemed to be that people coming to a seminar about Mary Douglas already knew about her work. The format was therefore that Professor Duffy spoke first about his memories of her and what he had got from reading her work, and then Professor d’Avray did likewise. If you have encountered these people you may guess that their style differed considerably. Professor Duffy told us of his upbringing in very-Catholic Ireland and his increasing involvement in theology at a time when, in a mirror of the other social revolutions of the sixties, and in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, Catholic thought was going through a considerable change, roughly from organised piety to personal piety, but as a result away also from heavy emphasis on community attendance and ritual and tradition. This, as Professor Duffy described very eloquently, left him less and less emotionally satisified with what he was certain was theologically correct, and it was only when he read Douglas’s Purity and Danger: an Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo that he realised what it was that he was missing, the ritualised structure of tradition and guidance that what Douglas called `high-grid’ societies erect to defend their own functions and identities. This, of course, had considerable implications for how he looked at the medieval religion he was increasingly interested in. So from reading, and eventually exchanging texts and ideas with, Douglas, he got a much clearer idea of how to express what religion in the Middle Ages (late Middle Ages, for Professor Duffy) might have meant to its participants and what function it performed in medieval society’s reproduction.
Professor d’Avray’s portion of the paper was less personal and less flowing (or, he might have said, gushing). It had, he told us, taken him a long time to find anything in Douglas’s work that he could really appreciate, which he put down partly to him being a follower of Weber and she of Durckheim and it being nigh-on impossible for these two schools of thought to converse. (He also observed, repeatedly, that despite those two being contemporary and occupied with very similar problems they never cited or referred to each other.) It was, he said, only now that he was teaching the fifth-century papacy and doing things like arguing with Jack Goody about the purpose of codifying rules of Christian marriage that the high-grid idea was suddenly serving a purpose in making all the ritual and rules by which that period of Christian development can seem so characterised explicable, as a kind of self-asserted structure of importance set up by a fragile social organisation to make itself more sturdy and regulated.
Reflecting on this I can’t help but feel that there must have been a lot more to Douglas’s work than this one idea of high-grid societies tending towards high symbolism, however much we can see medieval analogies for that. This was the one that the two commentators had got furthest with, and they were both agreed that Purity and Danger had been the book that clicked for them, but it’s hardly all she wrote. I consulted my anthropologist of resort on this and she reckoned that Douglas’s work is now something that first-year undergraduates get set, because it’s big on ideas and enthrallment but the actual discipline of study and the modern approaches to evidence and how anthropologists get it have moved on some way. There had however been a question (part of a spontaneous five-minute-plus response by Kate Cooper which the seminar organiser had to cut off), which I might now throw to the readership, about whether it necessarily matters, when you’re raiding other disciplines for ideas, if they’re current or not, as long as they help you think. I think it matters if they have been classed as wrong (as, for example, the nineteenth-century stuff about national characteristics, which is easy to think with but really no actual help understanding) but if it’s just old that need not necessarily be a bar if it’s new somewhere else. After all, I was just delighting in how old a certain critical idea was, wasn’t I?
And indeed that idea came up again. Professor Duffy finished by wondering if historians could ever escape their background and formation, and whether indeed one should struggle to do so or write unashamedly involved and personal history by way of playing to one’s own ability to understand and express. Professor d’Avray was less inclined to regard this as worrisome because, as he pointed out, our formations don’t prevent us changing our minds, and people with similar formations can come to very opposite views. (This was driven home to me by a very hostile comment about Irish Catholicism from the floor, a comment so hostile that Professor Duffy sought the commentator out immediately afterwards, and the first question he asked, understandably, was “Did you grow up in Ireland?”, expecting therefore that this involvement, though opposite to his own, could only come from long immersion.)
The fact that Professor Duffy and Douglas had almost precisely opposite Christian formations, he as a deep-culture Irish Catholic, and she as a cucumber-sandwiches-and-tea Anglican, and both came to appreciate both sides’s qualities, positive or negative, in much the same way, also suggests as much.
Because there had been little enough about anthropology in this seminar and lots about personal formation and religion, I was left wondering how I could better explain myself in these lights. Maybe I shouldn’t spend a lot of time on this, but it did strike me that I have more or less avoided working on religious expression: I work on an area where there’s almost no sources for it except religious donations, which can be read in an almost entirely worldly way, but why did I choose that? and so on. It cannot be entirely coincidental that my own religious impression, which was fairly insipid Church of England at school undermined by atheism at home, was very easy to shake off without necessitating either some substitute mysticism or an embittered hatred of indoctrination. It’s not that I don’t think religion was important in the Middle Ages, it self-evidently was and I quite enjoy knowing more about Christianity than many practising Christians, but I don’t feel it necessary to include the spiritual in much of what I do. Perhaps I should. On the other hand, when I do think of the term `God-fearing’ I ineluctably also think of one of Professor Duffy’s examples, the Hell sermon in James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, which I studied at school. I still cordially loathe Joyce but that bit has guts and won’t leave my head, and to exemplify what deep-seated religion could mean to a mind it has often served me as `a thing to think with‘. It seems therefore that perhaps I would not be immune to the effects of reading some of Dame Mary’s explanations of what that was actually about…