Saturday, November 3, 2007

medieval historiography

Yesterday I attended a talk/mini-conference on Medieval history and historiography. Fascinating stuff, pretty far outside my area of competence (not ready to speak of expertise at all yet). Gabrielle Spiegel and Rachel Fulton, respectively of Johns Hopkins and Chicago were the speakers. There was then a roundtable discussion, and later wine and sushi (also beer and cheese). I'll just say once at the outset, both these talks were immensely impressive and stimulating. Not that I haven't got some objections, especially to Fulton's talk, which I think she designed specifically to get them.

Spiegel’s talk was a lightning summary of what she considered to be the most exciting papers from a recent U Penn conference (soon to be published as a book) called “Representing Medieval History.” It was a little hard to follow, because she spoke quickly and densely. Some highlights, then, from her highlights, with no pretense to total coverage.

Historians today are interested in medieval practices of memorialization and legitimatization. They have examined and rejected the idea that genre conventions are central. Indeed, it seems that genre is important in large measure for it to be transcended as a mode of legitimization, as a way to give authority to whatever text—window, chronicle, statue.

Spiegel spoke especially about the new work on liturgical practices and their relation to the medieval historical imagination. The suggestion is that liturgy—ritualized, cyclical, saturated with symbolism—was a crucial mode of historical understanding. That is, events are linear and literal, but also cyclical and symbolic. Linked to this is the continued assertion that the today-necessary distinctions between documents (evidence) of the past, representations of events/people, and commentary on all these things, were simply not operative for medieval historians. The work on liturgy Spiegel summarized for the audience argued that, and this is a close paraphrase, liturgy was the default mode of medieval historiography. Pointing to particular kinds of chronicles (about which she wrote a book), Spiegel made the counter-assertion that medieval historians were perfectly able to default into genealogical forms—modeled on biblical ones, for instance.

Fulton’s talk was more theoretical and self-consciously provocative. The larger point seemed to be that we remain, somehow, largely trapped within what she prefers to call a Roman-Christian tradition of thought. She cites Marshal Sahlins to the effect that theological categories under-gird social science models in ways that are only just now being recognized. I wish she’d said the name of the article where Sahlins talks about this. This argument has to do, for her, with the apparently unrecognized ways in which early christian practice of worship is continuous with pagan Roman practices of worship. Indeed, the word ‘worship’ is one she we need in order to see this, so as to orient ourselves away from ‘religion’ and ‘belief.’ These are categories built by the Christians themselves in order to be distinguished (since they were so much the same) from the Roman precursors.

Now, what I do know about these centuries suggests strongly to me that there is great continuity between late antiquity and the early medieval period. Indeed, the years between 400 and 800 seem to me fascinating. Byzantine history should step in here, because these are years in which the Byzantines flourished—but for a variety of reasons, this hasn’t happened. I’ve read exactly one book of Byzantine history (John Julius Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium). It seems to me intuitive that our historiographical prejudice in favor of the north—France, England, Germany—was bequeathed to us as a profession by history-as-national-history, and is why we don’t do this. Of course, along with Byzantium we ought to get the various Muslim states after the 9th century. Africa should not be a foreign country to European historians, but it is.

Fulton seems aware of all this, yet she’s not managed to get very far outside of it. I think the way out of the categories that she has identified as problematic is going to be a geographical/disciplinary reorientation, rather than a redoubling of reflexivity. There was some discussion in the round-table period of the ‘technical’ problems associated with what seems like an obvious disciplinary reorientation: in order to do a ‘responsible’ intellectual history of the period, one must be a classicist (Latin and several kinds of Greek), and also do Arabic and probably other languages. Geographically, the focus must be the Mediteranean, which has always been obvious, but which is none the less not recognized as a subspecialty in the way that, say, ‘France’ very much is. The national bequest again.

Fulton also talked about periodization. She is especially concerned with the ‘objectification’ of the middle ages—that is, their creation as a discrete unit of time. I must say that this concern, and the concern about periodization in general, seems a bit overblown to me. It isn’t that there aren’t real problems, or that, as one commentator put it, some questions seem valid only in certain time periods—that’s all true. It’s just that these are standard problems. They are worked out. Periods are set apart by technical difficulties as much as geographical areas are. Not all scholars are energetic enough to jump the barriers set up by the profession—but some are, and the 19th century specialist who has the energy to take seriously the medieval period will presumably be rewarded for bringing methodological innovation or conceptual breadth across the barriers to his or her own period. That, anyway, is my utopian idea of how these things work.

During the round-table, an opinion was developed or arrived at (that’s a very passive way to say it, but I think it’s more or less what happened) about the way to mitigate the limitations of periodization that arise not just out of professional but also (and I thought this was a good point) out of narrative necessity: multiple temporalities. This is a fancy way of saying: thematize. I think it’s a sensible idea.

I’ve just started looking at J. W. Burrow’s survey The Crisis of Reason: European Thought, 1848-1914. This seems to be his approach. I may return to his book specifically, because it’s useful for me. For the moment: six chapters, each of which roughly covers the whole period of the book, but from the point of view of a different, we might say, conceptual knot. So, the history of science has a periodization that does not match up with the periodization in the history of philosophy. They clash and contrast in interesting ways. A history of ‘high’ politics will interact in productive ways with a history of social structures. This is an old idea—and, one might point out, pretty transparently a model of how the world itself is thought to work.

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