Sympathy with the historic devil

For several weeks, on and off, I have been contemplating a statement by Chris Wickham (in ‘The Feudal Revolution’, Past and Present 155 (1997)), when discussing contrasts between the Carolingian and post-Carolingian state:

many of us need to find at least some group of powerful people in the past with whom we can feel some sympathy. In my view, in our period [earlier Middle Ages] such a search is fruitless; they are simply not there, and there is no point in regretting their absence.

Leaving aside the specific claim by Chris, this raises the broader question: do you need to have sympathy with the historical figures you study to do so effectively? The example of Chris himself suggests not, and yet you can’t help noticing that, for example, most historical work on gays, Jews or women has been done by historians who are gay, Jewish or female. Is there something useful if not necessary to historians in identifications of this sort?

At the most basic level, there is interest. Each historian, regardless of their own particular training and skills, has topics that interest them and topics that leave them cold, and I think it’s very hard to go against that. Although many early medievalists are fascinated by land ownership, it does not engage me. Nor does Russian history of any period. I find Chinese history more interesting than Japanese and Italian than Spanish. I’m not sure whether you could make yourself find a period of history or a topic fascinating by willpower, but I’m sceptical. To research history (or even just to learn about it seriously) requires above all a belief that what happened in ninth-century Aachen or the Philippines in the nineteenth-century or wherever else matters, in the face of a world that largely says ‘who cares about then?’ If deep down you don’t really care yourself, it’s hard to continue.

But, as Chris shows, you can care deeply about a period without sympathising with most (or possibly any) of the people in it. (I don’t know if he feels sympathy with early medieval peasants). So what does sympathising or even identifying with particular historical groups bring? Is there an advantage to being a gay writing about gay history or a black historian of slavery?

I think there are both advantages and disadvantages to that kind of identification. On the one hand, I think it’s very difficult to write about actions you can’t see the point of at all. I saw a blog post the other day (not on the topic of history) by a vegetarian lesbian who couldn’t imagine being a woman wanting to have sex with a man or wanting to eat a steak. That’s honest of her, but it does mean that she should never try to write seriously about straights or carnivores. But everyone has such failures of imagination and in subtly different places. I don’t like getting drunk, though I’m not a teetotaller. Although I write in passing about drinking I could not do a good book (or even article) about early medieval drinking culture, because I can’t appreciate why someone would want to have drinking bouts, where the fun of it is. Other historians can appreciate such a culture and would write better. Similarly, I can’t take polytheism seriously; I can’t understand why anyone would believe it, and yet some classicists clearly can.

An important point to make here is that this is about imagination, not necessarily belief. There are plenty of good writers about medieval heretics who aren’t gnostics, and even some who are atheists. It is possible to use analogy to gain this kind of empathy: ‘I do not know what it is like to be gay, but I do what it is like to be a marginalised member of society’. I suspect that a really good writer or speaker on a topic can also expand your imagination and sympathies. I don’t know whether if I read enough about Greek polytheism, it would come to seem ‘sensible’ to me or not.

Alongside imagination, there are two other possible areas where identification may be of aid to a historian. One is that it can be easier to spot ‘dog whistle’ rhetoric or subtexts. If I read a medieval love poem, I read it as a straight, with straight assumptions; a gay scholar may be more likely to pick up the possibility of it talking about same-sex desire. Similarly, I don’t know whether a Westerner could have come up with Edward Said’s ideas about Orientalism. For my part, having had a long immersion in Christian thought, I can not only pick up many of the Biblical allusions in a medieval text (which a well-educated atheist could do). I can also spot the Biblical verses and concepts that don’t get used, when they could be; notice how few the references are to camels and eyes of the needle, for example.

There are also some experiences which are particularly difficult to imagine if you have not been through them, where analogies do not easily work. I would include combat, for example, the death of a close relative, being a mother. (There are probably several others). Sometimes out of those experiences we have shared with figures in the past, an insight can come which seems to me unlikely to occur otherwise. One of the most interesting cases I’ve seen was reading Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (1992). One of his key points was the disconnect between Elizabethan England’s homophobia and its practice. People saw sodomites as evil outsiders; they did not connect such figures with their neighbours (or even themselves) enjoying themselves with a local youth. I think Bray’s revelation of the possible cognitive processes there came from his own experience as a gay man before the legalisation of homosexual relations and I think it would be unlikely to occur to anyone who hadn’t had such experiences.

The problem, of course, with identification, is that as well as leading to insights, it can also mislead. John Boswell was accused (a little unfairly) of projecting back twentieth century US gays into the Middle Ages. Sometimes it’s easier to get a clear view if you’re a little distanced. One of the most insightful historians on ‘Germanic lordship’ was the Czech Frantisek Graus, and I’d also argue that in some ways it’s easier to be a moderate Protestant historian of the Middle Ages than a Catholic one.

But finally, I think there’s another issue about sympathy, which is more subtle. A historian often has to contemplate people that he or she can’t easily sympathise with, who do horrible things. And yet there is still a need for, if not empathy, or sympathy, at least a quest for understanding. One of my medievalist friends said once that he was interested in why these awful medieval people were so awful. Joanna Bourke has just written a well-received book on the history of rape. To write that must have required more mental fortitude than I have; but it also requires a belief that there is a historical answer to be found. Because one of the biggest enemies of good history is a belief that you already know the eternal answer, for example that rapists rape ‘because they can’/’because they are men’. Some of the worst writing on medieval gender (names available on request) is done by those feminist historians who believe that what men do is oppress women. Any change to the social/gender order is tortuously explained as just men finding a new way to oppress women (whereas often, it looks more motivated by struggles between men). Similarly, my heart sinks whenever I start reading historians who claim that all historical behaviour can be explained by the material interests of parties (as economic historians and atheists discussing religion are particularly prone to do). Even Chris Wickham, who, as I’ve said, is a very good historian, has such blind spots. He writes in the same article: ‘Aristocrats were brutal in all periods; it was one of the signs of the aristocracy’. My research looks at the mentalities of noblemen and how they justify their power ideologically. Chris couldn’t, I think, do my kind of research, because to his mind it doesn’t matter: nobles are eternally just like that. In the end, even if you don’t have sympathy with your historical subjects, you have to be willing to listen to them; and be prepared to change your mind if they don’t ‘say’ what you hope they will.

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2 thoughts on “Sympathy with the historic devil

  1. I think Chris’s stance here is partly polemical. I think he does sympathise with peasants, to an extent, but some of what he writes isn’t very idealising about them either. But although I too have heard him say things like, “of course aristocrats oppressed the poor; that’s what aristocrats do” in public lectures, I’ve also discussed noble strategies of self-representation with him (at my viva, for example) and he doesn’t miss a beat. So I have eventually decided that it must be a kind of Marxist policy statement intended to show a party card, without it necessarily affecting his history. So although I do agree strongly with your general theme here, I suspect Chris may be too clever to be included easily…

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