The paper I heard at the International Medieval Congress that got the most varied reactions was probably Jeff Rider from Wesleyan University on ‘The uses of the Middle Ages’. Rider’s main argument was that we have of the Middle Ages was a body of surviving artefacts, and the ideas we weave around them. These ideas tell us about no longer existing worlds, and Rider saw the possibility of such imaginative projection as enabling us to live better in the everyday world. The exercise of reconstructing a medieval world opens us to new possibilities of being in this world.
Anyone, of course, can reconstruct the past in any way they like. The role of historians as a collective community that Rider sees in this reconstruction is on placing views on the limits of acceptable reconstruction (we can imagine the Franks as Roman wannabees or hairy savages, but not as samurai) and by discussing such reconstructions, making them more comprehensible.
All this fitted well with some of what I (and others) have talked about in the past about why early medieval history matters, even if I don’t start citing Paul Ricoeur, as Rider did. And yet after the session a friend of mine was dismissive of the paper, ridiculing the idea of history enriching us personally in this way. This friend comes originally from a region noted for its biased and nationalistic historical traditions, so may have some more reason for scepticism there than many.
But I also wanted to tie up Rider’s paper with issues that I’d been discussing with other bloggers at Leeds. The attempts at meet-ups were all rather patchy, but I did talk to several other bloggers, and get a sense that there were two different kinds of medievalist blogs. One was intended predominantly as a professional show-case, trying both to grow a new audience interested in the Middle Ages and to demonstrate the ability to communicate to multiple audiences. Such bloggers normally blog under their real names, for obvious reasons of publicity. In contrast, other bloggers include more personal material on their blogs (one even called it confessional), and are often particularly interested in exploring their interactions with their role as researchers and teachers. I’d put my own blog in this category. Such blogs are often written pseudonymously, even if, as in my case, my identity is fairly easily discoverable.
On one side, we thus have the medieval as personal and potentially life-expanding, and on the other side we have it as fascinating, but personally irrelevant. One interesting factor in which side of the divide you fall on is, it seems to me, gender. My friend who couldn’t see anything life-enhancing in medieval history is male. There is also a definite split in the bloggers, with female bloggers more likely to write more ‘personal’ blogs. The divide isn’t absolute, as both Jeff Rider himself, and a blogger like Eileen Joy show. But I think that many women (and other historically marginalized groups) who come to the study of history do so partly out of a sense that it will say something relevant to their own position, in a way that middle-class white straight men may feel less need for. This isn’t so much about naive searches for a golden age for women/Jews/gays etc (though that may often be an initial factor) as for an understanding of how past events have created current society. And I think that the experience of being a historian (or a would-be historian) is also different for men and women. If my blog became a purely professional one, it would lose some of its attraction to me as a tool for thinking with. And the same would be true if my field of research ceased to have resonances with my own personal life.
I asked at the end of Rider’s talk whether his ideas of exploring new possibilities didn’t mean that the real rival of medieval history wasn’t science fiction. Though I didn’t have time to explain, I was thinking of Judith Bennett’s concerns that feminists no longer turn to history to inform their world (and of the increasing queer/feminist interest in areas such as cybernetics and genetic engineering). If considering the future offers more enriching possibilities for women, why study the past? Do the more personal blogs of medievalists, connecting together historical experience and our own in a most ‘unprofessional’ way, offer one route for us to indicate to non-medievalists why history still matters?
22/07/09: updated to remove irrelevant details.