IMC 2: gender and the purposes of history

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.

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10 thoughts on “IMC 2: gender and the purposes of history

  1. Absolutely spot on. I would argue very strongly that my own experiences and interests inform the way I do history and my blog posts reflect that. One of the primary reasons for setting up the blog was precisely so I could explore that relationship and yes, that’s the reason for my pseudonymous identity. Reivers is pseudonymous because he doesn’t trust ‘it’, but ‘it’ remains unspecified!

    Interestingly, I sometimes explore this relationship between the personal and professional in teaching, especially if a seminar has gone a bit flat (usually half way through the gender course). A bit of self-reflection from myself and the students gets the discussion going again. If my history became too divorced from what I considered important in my life, then I would find it hard to justify it.

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  2. Surely the real rival to history in this regard is anthropology. I’m a historian myself, though not a medievalist, and I find that one of the great benefits of my reading/training is awareness of alternative possibilities to The Way Things Are, whether we’re talking about monogamous heterosexual marriage or a single just and angry but merciful god. Far too many people, having never left their own country (or travelled only in culturally similar places), tend to believe that TWTA is also The Way Things Have To Be; awareness of real human alternatives, whether in the past or in more “exotic” climes is an invaluable corrective to this.

    Science fiction is also fun, but consists by definition of imaginary (if imaginative) human alternatives, rather than actual ones. Thus it can be more easily dismissed as stuff that couldn’t happen, which is harder to do with history and anthropology.

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  3. How many historians born after 1950 were initially or simultaneously SF fans. Lots, I think.

    Your friends attitude is odd. Why enter any academic field if it doesn’t enrich the self?

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  4. dr ngo, I’ve written SF novels, now I’m writing an historical (7th C, about Hild of Whitby). The world-building is the same–starting with what is known to be known and extrapolating. I’d say, yes, readers and writers of both fictional genres are disproportionately interested in history and archaeology and anthropology. We want to explore cultures, past, present, future, imaginary…

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    • I wouldn’t dispute the parallels you suggest when it comes to fiction. My distinction was between History, which purports to tell “what really happened” – how close it comes is another question – and Fiction, whether SF or historical or any other.

      Both categories may profitably explore alternative cultures, and more power to them both. (I’m a fan of many kinds of fiction, including SF & historical.) But you cannot demonstrate the viability of an alternative fictional world, in the way you can with an alternative culture perceived through history or anthropology, and for some purposes that’s important.

      If someone I knew was interested in the middle ages, I might well recommend the novels of Ellis Peters (or other novelist of your choosing) as a way of evoking a certain period or style of life. But I could never say, with regard to human behaviors no longer practiced, “It must be true, because Brother Cadfael says so!”

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  5. Ah. I see the distinction you’re making. Yes. And yet…

    I’ve just finished reading Elves in Anglo-Saxon England, by Alaric Hall (Boydell Press, 2007), which traces the development, use, and changing meaning of the word ælf. Errors of translation, interpretation, transcription (etc.) led to the belief–for a while, for some scholars–in an A-S belief in such things as illness being caused by being ‘elf-shot’. Hall shows this to be a mistake. (I hope he’ll forgive for summarising badly what is a dense and interesting exploration.) But for a while such notions were received wisdom: because some 11th century glossator said so. It was history. In other words, we made a story from the data, and told ourselves the story until we believed it.

    We know now that our beliefs (in this case that A-S leechcraft was incoherent and ineffective) influence our understanding. We know this partly because of our experience in disciplines such as anthropology–which (in my opinion) is a kind of formalised empathy with the Other.

    Fiction is just an expansion of this.

    My comment is already getting very long, so I won’t launch into a tub-thumping explication of the creation and reinforcement of culture via extra-somatic information delivery, especially fiction. But if it interests you, I’ve talked about this before here:

    http://asknicola.blogspot.com/2008/08/youve-been-warned.html

    Thanks for the interesting conversation so far!

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  6. DoublepointsJust 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…

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  7. Leeds report 1 (Monday 13th July)So yes. As recounted elsewhere I travelled up to Leeds on the Sunday before, installed myself and then went to a party, which has no business being reported here so I’ll move on. Anyway, I was there for all of the actual International Medieval Co…

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  8. Thanks for all your comments – sorry I’ve taken so long to respond. I think I must start by saying that I don’t think one part of my initial argument stands up. On reflection I think I misunderstood my friend’s dislike of Jeff Rider’s paper, and I was also wrong to link it to his gender. It wasn’t so much that he objected to the idea of studying history as being life-enhancing as about the best way to ensure that it was. To him, the search for historical accuracy was the key thing, providing the most important benefit for humanity a historian can: countering falsified history.

    There are certainly some situations and topics in which this clearly is the major role that a historian can play : I find many of Richard Evans’ views on historiography irritatingly old-fashioned, for example, but he played a vital role in exposing David Irving as a Holocaust denier. But what, if like Jeff Rider, you spend your life studying Galbert of Bruges? Or Carolingian morality, like me? It’s slightly harder to see study of such topics as providing a vital corrective to dangerously misleading historical fantasies. Who is harmed by wrong views, or indeed total ignorance, about Galbert? What those of us working on such subjects need to offer to the world is something more than accuracy: we also need to offer some reason to care about the topic.

    But even though I was wrong about my friend, I still think I was right about female historians and blogging. Despite all the feminization of higher education, there is still something slightly odd about a woman becoming (or trying to become) an academic, in a way that is sensed by many of us. (For one thing, it’s a rejection of hundreds of years of culture that say women should give their whole-hearted commitment to people rather than to ideas). Blogging gives a way to express and analyse such feelings and connections in a way that hasn’t easily been available beforehand, unless we have particularly patient friends. What I guess we as historians need to learn (and some of the blog and face to face discussions are now discussing this in some depth – thanks for the links, ADM) is how we can best blend the personal and the historical in them to produce something of value to our readers as well as ourselves.

    On fiction and history, meanwhile, I’m just writing a post about why I no longer read historical fiction: we might continue some discussion on that post. I was particularly thinking about the mind-expanding effects of SF at the time of Leeds because unusually, I was reading some: Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which has the first depiction of an anarchist society I’ve ever read that makes it sound sustainable. Though I wonder whether in the future, more mental exploration of possible worlds won’t be done via MMORPGs rather than fiction.

    Finally, while anthropology undoubtedly is mind-expanding, it also suffers from the potential problem of ‘not invented here’. At an unsophisticated level, that’s the view that what brown-skinned people do tells us nothing about what humans ought to be like. At a more sophisticated level, it’s an argument that you can’t easily reject your own cultural heritage just because a different one exists somewhere else. For some purposes therefore, history trumps anthropology: for example, it is more effective in debates between Westerners on marriage to point out that the ancient Israelites had polygamous marriage than that some Chinese still practice it.

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