Tag Archives: justification


Just a short note to let you know that I have a new post up at Cliopatria discussing objectivity, peasants, ghosts and memory apropos of an article of Simon Doubleday’s I was reading on my way up to Leeds. Some of the themes are old ones here and some are new material. You may like to have a look

Tenth Medieval is Two

If I schedule this post correctly, since I’m not necessarily going to be near a computer at the right point, when this goes up A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe will be two years old. First post was on 14th December 2006.

It did more or less nothing for the first year, though Professor Steve Muhlberger and the ever-vigilant Professor Richard Scott Nokes both did me great favours of linking. Both continue to point traffic my way and I do appreciate it, but especially over the last six months, what they send me is less and less of my total page-views because they really have grown. One or two very well-publicised posts have brought a certain number in to stay, and a few just keep drawing searches and the numbers slowly climb. Each month has been better than the last for most of this year in terms of figures, so I must be doing something right.

Tenth Medieval past to present

Tenth Medieval past to present

Actual academics have found this, not just the actual academics on my blogroll who are safe because they are aware of why people might blog seriously, but also people I know, was taught by even, and hope to work with in the future. I have become correspondingly less trivial about content, and have also been finding that writing regularly is good for one’s ability to write at any time, but can easily suck time away from what one should actually be doing, though I have long had this problem with the Internet generally.

And I’ve met some cool people, either online or in some cases in real life, been invited across the Atlantic, and been able to feel connected to scholarship in new and exciting places while struggling to make the old-media dent that still eludes me. I’ve learnt a lot about teaching, and how much some people need to know, want to know, and sometimes both.

So this is no time to be stopping, but I did just want to say thankyou, to everyone who feels themselves included in the above musings and everyone reading this, for making it worth making it happen.

A conference across the sea

I am slightly torn with this entry, between doing it briefly without saying anything too controversial to what appears to be a newly-expanded readership, because many of you may be the people about whom I’d be writing, and between doing it justice. Since my attempts to keep my posts short never really work, I think I can guess which side will win…

Anyway, this post is about the Haskins Society Conference just gone, where I just went. You may not know what the Haskins Society for Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, Angevin and Viking History is, but their full title there given (and punctuated as per UK English I notice, which is odd) and the explanation on their webpages may answer your question:

The Society was organized in May 1982, mostly at the instigation of graduate students from UCSB. Permission was gained from George Haskins of the University of Pennsylvania Law School to name the society in honor of his father, Charles Homer Haskins (1870-1937), a great force in the development of medieval studies in America, whose Renaissance of the Twelfth Century reshaped our conception of high medieval civilization and whose Norman Institutions contributed fundamentally to our understanding of medieval Normandy.

So there you have it, and as you can tell from the index to their journal, the work that gets presented to them is often of a pretty high order. Quite what I was doing there, given that I don’t deal in any of their immediate spheres of interest beyond a general one in kingship and nobility, is an interesting question, and we could get Aristotelian on it, but the efficient cause was that Matt Gabriele of Modern Medieval asked me to participate in a panel he was chairing, and this was the point at which I realised this whole blog idea might have been good for something after all, and I accepted without counting the cost.

I could just about afford it. The conference fee itself is not too bad, steeper than Leeds (which is pretty steep) but without Leeds’s budget-airline-like hidden charges. The accommodation however, even at a discount rate, was far beyond what was really needed. Leeds is too big to do anything much beyond student rooms, Haskins can squeeze into hotels, but hotels in Washington DC two days after the US public had elected someone whom many seem to hope will be Superman,1 were never going to be cheap, and the cost of the accommodation far exceeded the conference fee whereas Leeds is always the other way about. The food, also, was not exactly budget, though it was easy enough to stomp off somewhere and ensure, at least, that you only paid ten dollars for a huge and nutritious meal rather than twenty for a medium-sized gourmet one (though the hotel food itself was rather poor). The coffee is generally far better in the US than in the UK, at least. Anyway, I’m not going out much till pay-day, and I’m unlikely to go to Haskins again until I can make someone else pay for it, alas; it’s just not viable from the UK for me. Also, if first impressions are to mean much, it was raining when I arrived just as it had been in England when I left, and pretty much the first store-front I saw offered me this failure of intended expression:

"I do not think it means what you think it means"

'I do not think it means what you think it means'

But was it worth doing? Well, ultimately I guess we still have to find out, but I thought it was a very positive experience. It was fascinating to put faces to many names: I used to be able to guess people’s appearances from their writing a bit, but this went wrong in 2003 or so and now everyone I meet in the field comes as a surprise. On the other hand, the first person I recognised was an IHR regular and so were many others; it was very much, in that respect, like the party at which, to your delight, two previously separate groups of friends finally mix and all get on splendidly. In general it was a sociable and friendly conference, and Alan Thacker observed to me how noticeable it was that literature types and hard-history types had all found ground on which they could talk to each other productively. So I would say go if you’re likely to be interested, but only if you have somewhere cheap to stay (next year is at Boston College, which might be cheaper) and eat.

That leads onto the next question, are you likely to be interested? Well, let me give you the program, with one-sentence remarks that should hopefully keep me from alienating any new friends and contacts.

Friday, November 7

Featured speaker: the C. Warren Hollister Memorial Lecture

Paul Hyams, “Reconciling Brain and Backbone: is medieval history still defensible?”
An interesting and anecdotal plea for us to avoid avoiding the past’s analogies with the present, but instead to use them as a way to get the news out that people going through tough times can learn from the fact that other people went through similarly tough times before.

The Legend of Charlemagne and the Negotiation of Power

  • Jonathan Jarrett (who he?), “Legends in their own Lifetime? The late Carolingians and Catalonia”. Apparently the area that would become Catalonia remained attached to the idea of the Carolingians enough to occasionally obey them even up till 986, which is all very well, and (I thought) stylishly demonstrated, but why was this guy saying it here right after the keynote, eh?
  • Wendy Marie Hoofnagle, “A New Look at the New Forest: the rôle of Charlemagne in the Exercise of Royal Power”, arguing that William the Conqueror’s laws about the royal forests of England emulated Carolingian legislation like the Capitulare de villis
  • Anthony Adams, “The Memory of Karolus Magnus and the Question of Power and Privilege in Late Medieval England”, treating Charlemagne as the rather degenerate figure he becomes in later romances where the hero usually mocks him rather than respect him

Women and Lordship

  • Lois Huneycutt, “Adeliza of Louvain, Queen of England, Countess of Arundel, and the Flemish Connection”
  • Heather Tanner, “Cyphers or Lords? The inheriting countesses of Boulogne and Ponthieu (1173-1260)”
  • RaGena DeAragon, “Two Countesses of Leicester: Petronilla de Granmesnil and Loretta da Braose”
  • A very coherent session in which several high medieval noblewomen got their 15 minutes of fame, but I was most struck by the last paper which compared two successive countesses of the same honour who could hardly have been more different, one joining her husband in rebellion and the second spending most of her adult life as a widowed anchoress.

Historical Narrative and the Problem of Authorship

  • Thomas Bredehoft, “Wulfstan the Homilist and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”, arguing that more annals than have previously been reckoned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle can be attributed to the pen of Archbishop Wulfstan of York, with knock-on implications for the history of the ‘D’ manuscript
  • Nicholas Paul, “Les livres, les gestes e les estoires: the authorship, function and proliferation of dynastic historical narratives in the twelfth century”, looking at the sudden and brief flurry of genealogical historiography among the nobility of the West in that period, special mention for being the second person that day to talk about the Catalan dynasty myth

Saturday November 12th

Men and Masculinities at the Courts of the Anglo-Norman Kings

  • Kirsten Fenton, “Men and Masculinities in William of Malmesbury’s Presentation of the Anglo-Norman Kings”
  • Simon Yarrow, “Men and Masculinities in the Writings of Orderic Vitalis”
  • William Aird, “‘The Wild Bull and the Old Sheep’: images of masculinity and conflict at the courts of William Rufus”
  • Again, a session so coherent that any of the speakers could probably have written both the others’ papers, but all leaning towards the idea of a conservative church literature decrying men of the latest fashion they found to be long-haired and sexually ambiguous so as to get the girls. For some reason this possibility confused some of the audience, who therefore we know do not work on goths…

Personal Names and Cultural Identity

  • Francesca Tinti, “Names, Miracles and Witnesses in early Anglo-Latin hagiographies” pointing out that Bede drops a lot of his sources from the Anonymous Life of Cuthbert when writing his own and substitutes his own chain of authorities, and discussing that’s effects
  • Regan Eby, “Personal Names and Identity in Eleventh-Century Brittany”, showing that families did not divide between French and Breton identities in the border zones of Brittany but in fact used both name-stocks for their children equally
  • Chris Lewis, “Cultural Identity and the Changing Personal Names of the English in the Twelfth Century”, arguing that English names persist a long time but that some Norman names become so common as to effectively be identifiers of English origins by this time

Featured Speaker

Mark Gardiner, “Can we quantify the area of assarted land in twelfth-century England?”, complicating the idea of land clearance by reminding us that uncleared land is often still under quite heavy use for grazing and forest pasture, which eventually clears land itself, as well as other solid observations.

Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Works of Bede

  • Alan Thacker, “Bede and his Martyrology, arguing that the venerable author was doing something different, a kind of collection of little-known saints, than what the prevailing trend of such writing wanted
  • Sally Shockro, “Bede and the Rewriting of Sanctity”, analysing the use of Biblical material between the Anonymous and Bede’s Lives of St Cuthbert and feeling Bede’s to be much cleverer
  • Lin Ferrand, “Atmospheric Phenomena in Bede’s De nature rerum“, checking Bede’s record of weather to show that he was not above modifying Isidore of Seville’s text when what went for Seville really didn’t at Jarrow, but that he didn’t always bother

New Perspectives on the Bayeux Tapestry

  • Elizabeth Pastan, “Questioning the role of Odo of Bayeux”, seeking to remove Bishop Odo from a position of compositional control to that of general patron, unbending many circular arguments
  • Stephen White, “Harold’s Oath on the Bayeaux Tapestry”, discussing the context of Harold’s oath in those other oaths between lords that we don’t call feudalism, and again deflating some rather distended assumptions about Odo’s and Bayeux’s involvement


Deborah Everhart led a workshop entitled, “A Workshop on Learner-Centred Medieval Studies Course Design”. This was useful to me in generating ideas for teaching but didn’t necessarily contain much that was new to those already in the classroom. Here it seems worth diverting to notice that there was in general a lot of talk about teaching, and a lot of comparison of strategies, situations and solutions. You wouldn’t get this at a UK conference, or at least I haven’t noticed it: in the UK teaching is seen as a danger to one’s RAE score first and foremost alas, and this is a fault of the RAE really, as quite a lot of us like teaching I think. The actual session was not as much use to me as it might have been, I guess, as my teaching training covered a lot of the same ideas, but if you see my notes:


… you can see that I was at least thinking as a result of it, even if not actually paying it much attention. And yes, they did give us notepaper, which would be one expense to cut, and yes, my longhand really is that bad. Anyway. To someone with more teaching experience I understand that the workshop was even less worthwhile, but Ms Everhart has a pitch to make of course and there was genuine good intent here as well.

Sunday November 8

The Thought and Practice of Religious Life

  • Bruce Venarde, “Robert of Arbrissel and the Mainstream”, in which the man who probably knows this mysterious preacher better than any living tried to explain that although his tactics were unorthodox, his general reformist and theological strategy was genuinely quite the opposite
  • Erin Jordan, “Monks, Nuns and Anniversary Masses: the importance of gender for thirteenth-century Cistercian abbeys in Northern France”, which showed to the speaker’s apparent surprise as much as our own that despite supposedly being less spiritually ‘effective’ because of the inordinability of women (something which was questioned in part in comments for the period before the twelfth century), Cistercian nunneries in her area and period attracted as many requests for commemorative masses as did their male equivalents
  • Maureen Walsh, “‘All Will Be Well’: universal salvation in the theology of Julian of Norwich”, an account of the resolution of confusion between Julian’s own Church-taught view that we’re all damned to Hell and the Word she received that we would all be ‘well’ and how she stayed inside orthodoxy while saying that the Church had it wrong

Now, at this point, I stepped out to try and get to the museum at Dumbarton Oaks rather than have spent my entire time in Washington at a conference venue. It looks like a lovely place to visit, and because it contains the other portion of Philip Grierson’s coin collection, I feel I have some small connection with it. Unfortunately, although I had a quick look at the Museum website to work out where it was, I didn’t read closely enough, and it was shut when I got there.

The <em>outside</em> of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum

The outside of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum

So I did some shopping, had a wander and came back for the concluding round table discussion, which to my delight involved someone talking about Randolph Starn’s idea of history as genealogy, meaning I was able to get my oar in as keen readers might expect. I was quite keen on making it clear to people that I could think in a discussion, and I may have let this get in the way of actually contributing much. I hope not though.

And then by the great kindness and automobile of Another Damned Medievalist, it was to the airport, and home eventually, as on the way there a few seats in various directions from the plane’s entire complement of squalling infants, but, such is life. It was enough like a very bad night’s sleep that I managed to balance out the jetlag quite quickly, but I am still trying to go to bed at three a. m. even now. Oh hang on, that’s normal. When do you think I write these things, after all? Evidently not when I’m awake… Still, that’s a report for you, and if I’ve mentioned you, hullo, it was interesting to meet you… I have come home with a renewed sense of confidence in my own work and ability, which I’m managing to retain despite life assailing it with criticisms and dying rock drummers, and that is worth quite a lot of money.

1. I should maybe make myself clear on this. I think the election of Mr Obama is a grand thing for the reputation of the USA, but from an outside perspective, this enlightened and probably very noble man is still going to push my government into buying a hugely expensive and completely unnecessary upgrade to our nuclear deterrent, now, isn’t he? So I’m not quite as invested in him as my readership may largely be, yet.

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.

Pitching to a future market

I got a dose of dejà vu from an article that I’d been having trouble getting round to, William Chester Jordan, “Saving Medieval History; Or, the New Crusade”, in John van Engen (ed.), The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 259-272. He spends half the article saying that interdisciplinarity actually helps more than it hinders, that anthropologists and social scientists also find inspiration in the work of medieval historians (he cites Clifford Geertz, which is good enough for most people, but I could think of others) even as we do from them, and that new subjects and new ways of thinking should be embraced as long as they try and make themselves comprehensible, which I would entirely endorse even if it’s a battle that really doesn’t need to be fought seventeen years later.

Gratuitous Robin of Sherwood fan-service illustration

Gratuitous Robin of Sherwood fan-service illustration

But the second half of the article’s where the dejà vu hit, because he spends a few pages pointing out that there’s a huge huge market for medieval stuff in the USA’s population at large, revealed by novels, films and cartoons with a medieval setting, and that really people are interested in our subject and we don’t need to worry about that. And at this point of course I bethought me of the recent blog forum post at Modern Medieval led by Jeff Sypeck which said more or less the same thing and challenged us to get out there and talk to it. I mean, this could be a comment in that thread:

… we ordinarily think of our audience as the university—other scholars and ‘motivated’ college students…. But these ‘motivated’ and ‘traditional’ college students (dwindling in number as some think) have not come to their interest in the Middle Ages from reading scholarly books…. Interested students come from a wider ‘popular culture’ eager to drink in something about the Middle Ages. Though routinely ignored by professional medievalists, the public this culture serves needs our attention. And if they get it, that can only translate into stronger enrolments (and all the moral value that some people think comes from studying the Middle Ages). How do I know that the deep well of interest is out there? I checked. (p. 266)

And from there he goes on to inventory ‘medievalising’ films and books he’d picked up in a recent trawl by his children. And as I say, Jeff Sypeck is telling us to get out there and talk to this public. Jordan however has a different attack, which is to ask why this popular interest doesn’t make it through to us as students in self-evidently important numbers such as would stop people asking whether history was really worth teaching. And his answer is that terrible textbooks put them off. Get to the schools, he says:

One vibrant accurate paragraph on castle-building of the chivalric orders in the Middle Ages in one of the books used in the California or Texas system would do more to sharpen children’s interest in the Middle Ages than much of the verbiage in bland, boring, flat social studies books does now. (p. 268)

And he goes on to discuss film-making, classroom videos and so on. There is much in all this—some of us of course are well ahead of this curve—, and I think it merits discussion, especially the books. How do we get those books to exist? Are they even the best way or should we all be imitating JLJ and making web videos? And so on. There are a lot of people out there better qualified to deal with this question, not least because of being in the USA, whereas there are things other than media which bring my students to the period. (Where did I get into a blog conversation about this? I can’t find it now.) But I thought it was worth starting this hare, if anyone wants to chase it.

If Modern Medieval were a Deadjournal…

… then I’d just have found its mission statement :-)

I shall place the blame for the plight of the humanities in another place [than decreasing enrolments, poor job prospects and idle students]. I shall place it on some humanists, if they should so be called. I shall bewail their preoccupation with the obscure and curse their avoidance of things that are important and therefore interesting. I shall point with scorn to their contempt for intelligibility, for communication to lay audiences, and for their lack of interest in synthesis, and pity therefore their general dessication.

Though the writer, who was Barnaby C. Keeney in 1955’s Speculum does go on, ” I shall deplore their scholarly avoidance of judgements of value and ethics”, which might be less MM-palatable. He goes on to say rather more about that, and the whole thing is worth reading if you can spare a few minutes. All the same: it’s nice to know you have bilious precedent isn’t it?

Barnaby C. Keeney, “A Dead Horse Flogged Again”, address to the 30th Annual Dinner of the Medieval Academy of America in Speculum Vol. 30 (Cambridge MA 1955), pp. 606-611, cited by Judith M. Bennett, “Our Colleagues, Ourselves” in John van Engen (ed.), The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 245-257 at p. 247 ubi vidi.

In which Robert Darnton appears to have the answers

I mentioned that I had another post brewing featuring a further interview from Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke’s The New History, and that interview is with French Revolutionist Robert Darnton. I once studied this stuff, as an undergraduate, and I didn’t know the name, which is odd because I recognise a lot of what he seems to have said from lectures; Tim Blanning and he must work in parallel brains. All the same, I’m not going to go hunting his work right now: I did mention a to-read pile half a mile high, as you’ll recall, and I finished that book chapter today and generally Clio is keeping me busy right now.

Robert Darnton

But there are a couple of really heartening perspectives in the interview. Pallares-Burke tailored her questions to her subjects, and edited out the least interesting answers I assume, but there are some running themes that come up in most of the interviews: the importance of women’s history, the balance between empirical work and theory, and so on. Sometimes the interviewees have answers, sometimes they gloomily disclaim the possibility of answering them, but Darnton frequently comes over as just having the answers to everything and making them seem obvious.

The first of these is where he is asked why he has such a passion for history, and his answer really is for me “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed”:

I find something deeply satisfying about the study of the past, and I don’t know quite what it is. I feel it most when I work in the archives. As the tenor of a life begins to emerge from the manuscripts and I see a story unfold from one document to another, I have the sensation of making contact with the human condition as it was experienced by someone in another world, centuries away from mine. It may be an illusion, and I may get it wrong. I may sound like a romantic. But the archives, in all their concreteness, provide a corrective to romantic interpretations. They keep the historian honest. Unlike literary scholars and philosophers, we must marshal evidence in order to sustain our arguments, and we cannot pull it out of our heads. We extract it from boxes in the archives.

And he goes on with a short defence of the existence of actual facts, but already he’s got my vote there: that is exactly what I do it for, and if I’d paid attention to this when I first read it you’d all have been saved my waffling for several screens trying to say the same thing only worse. You get a glance of someone else’s life for a short space of time: and you know that it was real, that this character you find or envision really did have a life and that you may with some luck and judgement be imagining them correctly, because there was a reality that you might be able to approach. Real people. It is the point.

The latter, and less inspiring perhaps but still very neat, is where Pallares-Burke poses him the query that she has put to several of the other historians interviewed: when you go to the archives, do you go with no idea of what to look for, and just report on what you find, or do you go with a theory and a set of questions? The one risks finding nothing because of lack of focus, the other risks finding what you looked for and no more. And, well, yes, true to an extent but surely there’s some better conception because look, we do in fact get some history work done. It takes Darnton to add sense and a third way:

I love to do research because you never know what you’ll find when you open an new dossier and start reading… I think that intellectually it’s also invigorating, even though in my manner of describing it it may sound as if the historian’s task is digging a ditch. The reason for its being invigorating is that you go to the archives with conceptions, patterns and hypotheses, having, so to speak, a picture of what the past was like. And then, you find some strange letter that doesn’t correspond to the picture at all. So what is happening is a dialogue between your preconceptions and your general way of envisaging a field, on the one hand, and on the other hand, this raw material that you dig out and that often does not fit into the picture. So, the picture changes and you go back and forth between the specific empirical research and the more general conceptualization.

Again, he is right. Those Casserres parchments I blogged about earlier were my latest case of this: I went expecting to find a vicecomital takeover of a small church and a raft of donations and found instead what seems to be the wholesale adoption of a substantial mother church’s archive by making what French diplomatists would call “copies figurés”, copies meant to look like originals, and getting people to sign the new copies but putting them all onto as few parchments as possible… And I’m still going back and forth between what monastic archives are supposed to do and what this one seems to have done as a result. He has it right, I tell you.

Darnton seems to interview a lot: I found two more, both focusing on the impact of the Internet and Google (and Google Books, in one case), whilst looking for an image of him just now; so if you would like to know more, and since those subjects are hot concerns of both mine and others, you may find these links interesting.

Robert Darnton, interviews with Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke, Oxford, July 1996 & May & June 1999, ed. Pallares-Burke as “Robert Darnton” in eadem, The New History: confessions and conversations (Cambridge 2002), pp. 158-183, quotes from pp. 162 & 170-171.

What kind of post-modern are you?

No, not some journal poll, but a question raised in the interview in her The New History that Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke included with her husband, Professor Peter Burke. He comes across, perhaps unsurprisingly, as a very clear-headed and sympathetic model of academic detachment; perhaps to drag more out of him, her questions by contrast seem oddly negative and nihilist. So, as well as saying things I can relate to about how one’s books are attempts to repair the previous one (I know I haven’t finished one yet, but it’s only discipline that’s stopping me writing the beginning of the one that will hold some of the stuff I won’t be able to say in the first) and that one really needs to get out of Oxbridge fairly frequently if one wishes to work there without becoming terribly isolated, some of his questions address what are becoming this blog’s perennial questions about how much theory helps or hinders and what use the whole historical enquiry shebang are. While I stay busy with actual writing and learning how little I know about real numismatics despite working in the middle of it for two years, you can therefore ponder the thoughts of someone wiser than me about this, our profession.

Peter Burke

Firstly, Dr Pallares-Burke asks him if he thinks that post-modernist approaches have robbed us of any chance of getting at the truth. He is subtle in response, distinguishing between a deliberate and self-conscious philosophical approach (as ‘post-modernism’) and a vaguer embedded cultural assumption (as ‘post-modernity’). Unsurprisingly, he sees the conscious version as more helpful, but characterises both as being about a readiness to believe that social structures, assumptions and beliefs are ‘soft’ and changeable, that accepted dogmas may change, and that the individual retains agency in the wider world, as opposed to older views that put us all in the grip of deterministic social forces. His actual answer to the question is that our new perspectives make it less likely that we will attempt to impose our vision on a swathe of history but also makes us less likely to do the work of relating what was then to what is now, a task of interpretation that he sees as the core of the historian’s task. It’s quite interesting to find a self-avowed practitioner of the ‘new history’ that the book’s title distinguishes saying that, in retrospect, it’s been unhelpful because of opening the possible range of questions so wide that historians now lose touch with each other. In particular, I could see the force of a suggestion that interdisciplinarity is a very necessary thing, but drives in many directions, and that if what we wind up with is a range of historians who speak more to members of other fields than to historians, all we have done is create more incompatible specialisms. That is, interdisciplinary scholars need to keep enough touch with some central idea of history that they can still usefully inform each other, not just their more traditional colleagues.

Secondly, there’s a bit that may as well be quoted in extenso:

“‘What is the use of history?’ Marc Bloch wrote a whole book trying to answer this simple question, put in all its simplicity by a child, because, as he said, it dealt with the important issue of the ‘legitimacy of history’. How would you deal with this question?

“If you’d like a short answer to this huge question, I would simply say that the use of the study of the past lies in helping us to orient ourselves in the world in which we live. A longer answer would involve making distinctions between uses (more or less practical), and also between pasts (more or less remote).

“Since the world is in constant change, it is impossible to understand it without trying to locate what is happening in broader trends over time, whether they are economic, cultural, or whatever. This is the essential justification for the study of the recent past. But the recent past is not intelligible by itself. I sometimes think that we ought to teach history backwards, starting with current events….

“Another use of history is to tell people about their ‘roots’, the culture from which they and their families came. At a time when more and more people feel uprooted in a world which is changing faster and faster, and when many people have been physically uprooted… this psychological function of the study of the past is an important one. It explains the increasing interest in local history in the last few years.

“But to study our own past alone is dangerous. It encourages insularity and a sense of superiority over others…. So it is crucial to combine the study of ‘us’ with the study of others, more or less remote….”1

This makes me ask myself several questions. I am very much interested in the early medieval history of the country from which I come, my first piece of sustained research was on Anglo-Saxon London and my second was on Scotland, where I have ancestry and family. I moved to looking at Catalonia principally because, as Magistra says below of literature, it has the sort of sources that answer the questions I want to ask. And my knowledge of England does help with my study of Catalonia, if only in contrasting the very different way the two societies used charters. All the same, I don’t think I do this to anchor my identity; if anything I do it to dissolve it, to suggest that my modern nationality and heritage (and, I suppose, privilege—it may all be guilt-driven, in the end) are no more important than what some small landowner did with a short-lived terracing project on the side of a Pyrenee eleven hundred years ago. The selection of my ‘other’ has been driven by a desire to find unploughed historiographical ground and an interest in mixing zones and liminal territories, and it may well have pushed me further than is good for me from the mainstream. But despite all of this introspection, I have given very similar answers to the `what use is history’ question in the past, even if I no longer do, and it gives me to wonder that I no longer seem to believe it. It may well be truer for others than it is for me.

As for his first justification, that history needs background and the background needs background, ad infinitum, that I baulk at much more readily. Only a modernist can get away with this; it is teleological. Anything old that has not had modern social phenomena that can be claimed as its offspring loses its ‘use’ in this sort of argument, and studying it therefore leads to scrabbling attempts to make it ‘relevant’ that should be alien to anyone trying to be objective. Sometimes, things are interesting even if they didn’t lead to anything else. This is the problem that Randolph Starn was trying to get round with the genealogical approach I described a while ago, and as I said there, sometimes things just don’t fit into linear schemes. One could just about fit such societies into Professor Burke’s idea by considering the distant past as an ‘other’ to give us perspective, and certainly I think that’s something I get from studying it, but just as Professor Burke gives no impression of really wanting to look at the early medieval roots of his study areas, I don’t really want to take my studies forward to the sixteenth century to see what they go on to mean: I feel quite strongly that they had meaning at the time, if we can but get at what it was, and that that’s enough. The question remains, that he addresses and I don’t, is: as I am not then but now, what do I think is the point of moving this stuff, via my interpretation, from then to now? I’m not sure I have an intellectual answer that is more than “LOOK WHAT I FOUND!”, and I may need to think about that some more.

Those are the bits I have the strong reactions to. As to interdisciplinarity, I think I’m actually situated about right, trying to be able to understand the basics of work in most fields enough to ask for meaningful clarification from an expert, and understand it, whether that be literature, liturgy, archaeology (most usually), anthropology or even physics. I still want to do what I think of as just ‘history’, though some would say I am hard social and some would call me soft political, and I don’t mind. But because all this stuff is happening too, I like to be able to understand what its practitioners are saying without leaving my own work for weeks at a time (which is why apparently deliberate intellectualisation and obfuscation annoys me). As for post-modernity and post-modernism, I don’t even care where I am on the spectrum; labelling my approach has no interest to me at all, especially with labels that I suspect are not useful to describe it. But maybe you the reader see something there you like?

1. Peter Burke, interview with M. L. Pallares-Burke, Cambridge, May and June 1999, ed. Pallares-Burke as “Peter Burke” in eadem, The New History, pp. 129-157.

History as human experience: Natalie Zemon Davis

Professor Natalie Zemon Davis

As mentioned in comments to the last post about the interviews in Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke’s The New History, one of the others is with Natalie Zemon Davis. It’s clear from the interview that she and Dr Pallares-Burke got on, and she presents an insistently personal attachment to her subjects and field. She has an impressively active radical personal history, as well as a fairly impressive bibliography, and comes over as feeling strongly about justice and injustice as well as about history. Several things she said also chimed with this blog’s regular preoccupations, so I thought I’d make sure that was registered.1

Pallares-Burke’s introduction says that, “Her message to historians and the general public is that the study of the past can be seen as a lesson in hope, because it shows that, however domineering society may be, there are always alternatives open for people to make their own history. ‘No matter how static and despairing the present looks, the past reminds us that change can occur.'”2 For all that it chimes with my own concentration on historical figures as agents of change, that seems almost naïve to me, and it must be said that Professor Davis doesn’t actually say it in the interview. What she does say is actually more interesting, and it comes out in a question where she is asked about studying groups from outside or inside. She gives the example of reading Nazi literature in order to better understand the Holocaust, and argues that you have to avoid taking a judgmental perspective, such as we were discussing here a short while ago, even when dealing with the sources that sit least well with your own morals, partly because of their obvious explanatory value, but partly because they open your mind to the range of human possibility. This seems to be what she thinks is the real purpose of history, as a window or a mirror for the breadth of what being a human being can mean, a real literature of human experience. I can certainly see that point, and it does justify the incredibly deep work that she’s done on communities in Lyons, for example, but there must be quite a lot of work that it fails to justify because we already knew humans did this. So it may work for her but it leaves general history and survey works struggling rather, doesn’t it?

The other thing that she said that did resonate, though, did so for wrong reasons. She was asked about how she’d adapted to criticism of her work, and replied that, among other things, it showed how much you had to repeat a point before it actually got through to readers. I’ve always felt that not getting your point across is a bit of a failing of writing by the author, but I’ve certainly had reviews where the reviewer says that I should have said something about such and such or made such and such a point, and I rather thought I had. My lesson from this is always, ‘well, that needs to be clearer I suppose’, but it was comfortingly galling, if that’s not paradoxical, to see someone else finding that their reviewers just hadn’t read the damn text closely enough…

Searching for the links for this post reveals, also, that the one I’m talking about is not the only interview Professor Davies has done, so if you want a flavour of the woman’s words yourself, you can hie yourself to medievalists.net where another one is up.

1. Natalie Zemon Davis, interview with María Lucía Pallares-Burke, London, November 1998, ed. Pallares-Burke as “Natalie Zemon Davis” in eadem, The New History: confessions and conversations (Cambridge 2002), pp. 50-79.

2. Pallares-Burke, “Natalie Zemon Davis”, p. 53.

Rock and roll and the use of history

I seem to have written quite a lot about what use history is since I started this blog, though partly because so have a lot of other people. I have, more specifically, taken the position that really history better not try to justify itself in practical terms, and that use of history tends to be misuse, and I have struggled to express the idea that really, it’s an arts subject and needs to justify itself simply in terms of making people feel better about something or themselves or existence, to add value and enjoyment to life. Thanks to a heads-up from Dr Virago, I am now able thankfully to point out that someone else has said this far better, and I recommend that you go and see. All the same, I did a little while ago come across another argument for pragmatism, from an unexpected quarter…

Lemmy reading in his dressing room at the Motörhead 25th Anniversary gig

People who only know Motörhead as a byword for greasy high-speed noise which would, famously, make your lawn die if it moved in next door, might be surprised how thoughtful dear old Lemmy can wax sometimes. And like an academic or two, he seems to go through several iterations of an idea, often over years, before hitting his ultimate formulation of it. The 2006 album Kiss of Death (SPV Records) seems to contain one of these:


Where are we to go from here in time?
Do you see the future, do you know
What can you expect from years to come
And what can you do now to make it so?

All of history is there for you
All the deeds done in the world are mad
If you don’t know what has gone before
You’ll just make the same mistake again and again and again

Soldier, soldier, see where we were
You have to know the story
Older, colder, life isn’t fair
Got to grab the sword of glory

If you can’t see what bloody fools we were
Then you were also born a bloody fool
Listen to the hundred million dead
They didn’t know it, but they died for you

All you know is that you’re young and tough
Don’t you think those millions thought the same?
If you don’t know where it all went wrong
You’ll just make the same mistake again and again and again

Soldier, soldier, see where we were
You have to know the story
Older, colder, life isn’t fair
Got to grab the sword of glory

Read the books, learn to save your life
How can you find the knowledge if you don’t?
All the brave men died before their time
You’ll either be a hero, or you won’t

Don’t you realise the only way
Is see why all those brave men died in vain
If all that slaughter doesn’t make you sad
You’ll just make the same mistake again and again and again

Soldier, soldier, see where we were
You have to know the story
Older, colder, life isn’t fair
Got to grab the sword of glory

(repeat till fade)

Let the next people who want to mock him for collecting Nazi memorabilia remember that he does this. But seriously. In 2005 I went to Nottingham for a conference and a bunch of squaddies (I suppose the US equivalent might be GIs?) took the seats near me after a stop. I was a bit concerned because they were obviously excited and I didn’t think they’d take kindly to the long-‘aired inter-bloody-lectual sitting in the corner with a book, but actually when the conversation did start they were all kind of awestruck that I’d been to University and so on. They couldn’t have done that, they said, and maybe it was never a practical option I guess. But they were going to Iraq.1 They were all seventeen except one who was a ringleader by virtue of being nineteen and having joined the year before the others. I’ve often wondered if they all came back. And though he wrote it too late, I can’t help wondering if Lemmy’s song might have changed that. That’d be a use for history all right.

1. There were a pair of US tourists in the seats behind us, and the ringleader of the group, who was a loud Geordie, kept throwing contemptous remarks about Americans over his shoulder at them. This bothered me, because I don’t like the US government’s policies much but don’t usually tar the population at large with the brush. But I was reminded that he might have a different perspective when they all got off the train, and he shouted as a parting shot, “f*cking Americans, making me go to war!” (translated from the Geordie, which was more like “fookin’ Mairkans, mekkin’ mae gore tore worwer!”). I felt bad for the tourists still, but I couldn’t help but understand where he was coming from. I hope he made it back.