IMC reflections (3): Envy and community

While I always find the International Medieval Congress fascinating, it’s also a gruelling event. Partly, that’s just the intellectual and physical pace – a lot of ideas to take in, combined with insufficient sleep. But it’s also hard emotionally – I rarely get through the congress (and I’ve been a number of times) without having at least one emotional crisis, arising from some mixture of depression and envy. There are times when I start to wonder whether there isn’t something intrinsic to history (or at least the academic study of the humanities) that tends to provoke these kinds of reflections. Somebody quoted to me the claim that the collective noun for historians was ‘a malice of historians’; I’ve certainly heard a fair amount of bitchiness at seminars over the years. Yet I don’t think that historians are intrinsically any nastier than other professions and I know some extremely nice ones. I think much of the problem arises from the nature of historians’ careers.

There are some obvious issues: it’s very competitive to get an academic job in the humanities and many academics and would-be academics feel underpaid and undervalued. But there are other professions like this. I think more of a problem is how the prizes (whether in terms of jobs or just prestige) get handed out. If you’re an accountant who gets promoted, most other accountants won’t really have a clear idea of how good an accountant you are; at most some of your close colleagues. If (as in most humanities departments in the UK) you are judged mainly on your research, there will be a number of academics all over the world able to read your material and decide whether or not they think you’re any good.

Yet humanities academics aren’t the only people who can be judged ‘publicly’ in these ways: so can many other professions, such as barristers, actors and scientists. It’s not just the public judging in this way: it’s the fact that the process is semi-objective. If you’re an actor or a pop musician or an artist who doesn’t get the breaks, you can argue that it’s just because your work isn’t to someone’s tastes: there are few objective criteria to judge ability in these fields. If you’re a scientist or a sportsperson or a barrister, on the other hand, there are some objective criteria of performance you can agree on: it’s relatively easy to justify rankings of people or why some succeed and some don’t.
For humanities and historians specifically it’s far harder. Who succeeds isn’t simply arbitrary: there are some people at the top of the tree who we all know are there rightly. Similarly I’ve had several friends whose seemingly effortless rise upwards is justified by one simple truth: they are brilliant. But at the level below these, there are lots of good historians (and a few less good ones); rankings here are far more subjective. As a result, it’s easy to feel that the ‘wrong’ person won out, when in fact it may just be their work is not to your taste. In the same way, at a micro-level, there can be some agreement about the really good and the really bad article/seminar/book. In between, the argument is often less about the technical aspects of the work (is its argument right?), but its importance (does it matter?) When there’s little agreement about historians about what the important questions really are, it’s not surprising we can’t agree about who answers them best.

This combination of public judging and semi-objectivity seems to be particularly likely to arouse feelings both of depression (when you know your work is inferior) and envy and malice (when you know your work is not). I don’t know the answer to this (success in itself clearly doesn’t remove these insecurities, as I can see from some other historians), but there was ironically an interesting insight from one of the papers at Leeds this year. Richard Kieckhefer, who’s a very distinguished historian of late medieval religion and magic, gave a lecture on ‘Mystical Communities in the Late Medieval West’. I learnt less about mysticism from it than I’d expected, but more about community. His focus was on how religious communities dealt with the ‘spiritual virtuoso’, the mystic with a particularly close relationship to God. How could such ‘stars’ provide an inspiration and model to a community, rather than disrupting it. Kieckhefer looked at the ‘sister books’ from fourteenth and fifteenth century Germany, collections of hagiographical lives from specific convents (for more on these see He argued that at some points in these texts you can see what he called deliberate ‘inattention to difference’, that mystical experience could be deliberately extended to include others. Among other examples, he discussed how one nun saw angels taking Eucharist to a sick nun in the infirmary. The first nun described her vision and asked the other if she had seen anything: the sick sister said no, but then added that she had felt inward sweetness earlier on. A modern reader might see this as humouring another sister; to the writer of the book it was a shared mystical experience. In another example, one nun was unable to weep along with the rest of her sisters: but one of them saw a vision of how a single tear from her was carried up to heaven by angels. The quantity of tears was thus deliberately made not to matter as a sign of holiness.

Kieckhefer is of course aware that ‘inattention to difference’ in medieval texts can easily be used to mask unequal power relations, but even so, he sees it as a strategy that could be used to bind a community together and mitigate the possible problems of virtuoso mysticism. Some of this same ‘inattention’ seems to me a useful strategy for historians as well, concentrating on the common interests we share, not simply our differences in status. Maybe in that way we can combat the demons lurking round our conferences and seminar rooms.

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