Bavardess and I (plus assorted commentators) are now engaged in an intercontinental discussion on historical fiction writing (see recent instalments here, here and here). I want here to focus on one paragraph of Bavardess’ last post:
I also believe that novelists should not be the only ones aspiring to make us emotionally engage with the past. Historians like Marcus Rediker or Judith Walkowitz have the ability to tell what really happened with faultless attention to the scholarly apparatus, and to make us care about what happened and possibly use that knowledge of the past to help fuel change in the present. To my mind, that is an extremely important skill for historians to possess, particularly those who work on the histories of the marginal and the previously unconsidered (the poor, the mentally ill, migrants, slaves etc.). But it does open up the fraught question of whether academic history should also be serving the causes of social activism (as many historians believe – that was, after all, integral to the feminist history that emerged in the 1970s), or is indeed by its very nature political regardless of any claims to objectivity.
I think that any discussion of what historians should be doing has to start from two core values: honesty and accuracy. Honesty without accuracy pushes you towards the view of some amateurs that if they believe something enough it must be right, regardless of the evidence. Accuracy without honesty gets you the pettifogging of the lawyer or the sectarian, none of whose arguments are technically untrue, but which are intended to mislead. Writing about the past without honesty or accuracy is the basis of most propaganda.
I have no problem with academic history serving the cause of social activism provided that the work still adheres to these core values. But historians who hold strong views of any kind (socially activist or reactionary or whatever) always have to keep checking that the expression of their personal views in their work, which is justifiable, doesnt tip over into losing honesty or accuracy. Its easy to think of many important historians (John Boswell and Eamon Duffy spring to my mind) whose work sometimes doesnt meet that standard. In this sense only, I think that historians need to be like scientists: if your theory doesnt fit the evidence, you need to discard your theory, not the evidence. If you find that slaves actually had a better life than many non-slaves, or that the church you belong to has behaved with unspeakable cruelty in the past, or that liberal social advancements have come as the result of actions by very unliberal people, you must as a historian acknowledge that, however much it goes contrary to your own beliefs and values.
In the same way, attempts at getting your audience to engage emotionally with the past also need to maintain these ideals of honesty and accuracy. And that means thinking quite hard about what youre trying to achieve with your work, in both a moral and an aesthetic sense.
In lectures and conference papers, for example, I am quite happy to include a few attention grabbing anecdotes: Ive always held to the theory that if theres a plausible way of mentioning severed heads in your paper thats a good thing to do. (Owing to my research topics, I am actually sometimes able to include severed heads without it seeming contrived). But lectures arent solely there to entertain: I could easily fill most medieval lectures with a string of bizarre and emotionally engaging anecdotes, but all Id have done is recreate the Horrid Histories for adults. The ideal lecture is where you can make the vivid anecdotes reveal deeper truths, in the hope that some of that sticks in the students minds as well.
Similarly, those writing history thats broadly intended as social activism need to think quite hard about what theyre trying to get their audiences to do. If youre wanting them to storm the barricades (metaphorically) then it may be quite justified to focus on getting them outraged or appalled. Some of the feminist historians of the 1970s did that to considerable effect. But I think that now feminist, anti-racist, gay, working-class etc history is more established that more subtle effects are now called for. Miri Rubin in the Bad History article that Bavardess (among others) has linked to, wants people to realise how religious violence isnt simply a popular phenomenon, but normally deliberately encouraged by more influential figures. A history of anti-Jewish actions that wants readers to take on board this more complex point may need to rein back on the emotional intensity of their descriptions of violence, encouraging a reflective response from readers, not a purely visceral one.
But the really big moral problem many historians with attempts to arouse their audiences emotions is a more basic one: this is the way that propagandists have repeatedly written history. Particular as a historian living in Europe I am very conscious of how often emotive accounts of medieval history have been used to justify vicious actions. Some of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica volumes I use in the Institute of Historical Research library still have the swastika bookplates that show they were a gift to the Institute from the pre-World War Nazi government. Serbian nationalists have made much of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. An Austrian anti-Muslim organisation names itself after Charles Martel. Against this background, the cool tone of many modern historians about medieval times should perhaps be seen as a deliberate political statement, a refusal of the manipulative emotional traditions in which medieval history has often been written.
Theres also an aesthetic point I want to make about evoking emotions. Its interesting that the two historians Bavardess sees as doing this well both work on relatively modern periods of history (18th and 19th century). I dont think thats a coincidence: there are certain kinds of source material that make evoking emotions easier than others. One is staggering data. One of the historical articles that has engaged me most emotionally is Robin Flemings ‘Bones for historians: putting the body back into biography’, in Writing medieval biography: essays in honour of Professor Frank Barlow, ed. David Bates, Julia Crick, and Sarah Hamilton (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2006), pp. 29-48, for its jaw-dropping archaeological evidence on just how early and how horribly Anglo-Saxon people died. The other kind of text which makes engaging with an audience easier is when the text itself expresses an emotion that seems familiar to modern sensibilities. The conventional pieties of Alcuins letters are far less likely to hook them than the letter in which Einhard expresses his grief at the loss of his wife.
The problem is that many early medieval texts and facts dont spontaneously create such emotional contacts with their readers. And so if youre trying to engage emotionally with an audience when working with less appealing materials youre in danger of breaking the basic rule of writing: Show, dont tell. Aesthetically, having to tell readers directly what they should feel is at best obtrusive (with the same grandstanding effect as too much moralising has) and at worst manipulative, like the film music when they want you to cry.
Appealing to emotions can also sometimes get in the way of honesty, by foreclosing reactions to historical events. As a small example, an article I wrote talked about the ninth century separation of Count Stephen of the Auvergne from his wife, a case which we know about from a long letter by Hincmar of Rheims. Their separation and remarriage was allowed because (allegedly) Stephen had refused to consummate the marriage, since he had already slept with a relative of his wife and was thus worried he would commit incest if he slept with her as well. (The principle that an unconsummated marriage could be dissolved later becomes an important part of canon law).
Studies of the political/personal aspects of the case have varied in their views: were Stephens concerns genuine or was this a handy way to get out of a marriage that was no longer politically useful? I was interested in the case as part of a wider examination of who got their way in marriage disputes, and what it told us about gender. When Suzanne Wemple discussed the case she saw Stephens wife as a victim, cruelly discarded. I thought when I first read Hincmars letter that it implied that Stephens wife had planned the whole thing, frightening her husband out of the marriage. (Unfortunately, I then realised that my idea rested on a crucial Latin phrase which Id mistranslated, which scuppered that line of argument).
Ultimately I concluded that we couldnt know: she might have been colluding with Stephen, she might not have been. If I could have shown her as either a victim or a cunning agent, it would, I suspect, have been more emotionally engaging for my readers. But I couldnt honestly say that I know what she was: she remains beyond our grasp. Sometimes the lesson history has to give, particularly early medieval history, is that we cannot have the emotional engagement that we want with a particular aspect of the past, unless we forcibly stamp it on texts ourselves (or, of course, write historical novels).