Emotional engagement and historians’ values

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, doesn’t tip over into losing honesty or accuracy. It’s easy to think of many important historians (John Boswell and Eamon Duffy spring to my mind) whose work sometimes doesn’t meet that standard. In this sense only, I think that historians need to be like scientists: if your theory doesn’t 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 you’re 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: I’ve always held to the theory that if there’s a plausible way of mentioning severed heads in your paper that’s 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 aren’t solely there to entertain: I could easily fill most medieval lectures with a string of bizarre and emotionally engaging anecdotes, but all I’d 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 that’s broadly intended as social activism need to think quite hard about what they’re trying to get their audiences to do. If you’re 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 isn’t 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 audience’s 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.

There’s also an aesthetic point I want to make about evoking emotions. It’s interesting that the two historians Bavardess sees as doing this well both work on relatively modern periods of history (18th and 19th century). I don’t think that’s 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 Fleming’s ‘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 Alcuin’s 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 don’t spontaneously create such emotional contacts with their readers. And so if you’re trying to engage emotionally with an audience when working with less appealing materials you’re in danger of breaking the basic rule of writing: ‘Show, don’t 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 Stephen’s 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 Stephen’s wife as a victim, cruelly discarded. I thought when I first read Hincmar’s letter that it implied that Stephen’s 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 I’d mistranslated, which scuppered that line of argument).

Ultimately I concluded that we couldn’t 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 couldn’t 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).


4 thoughts on “Emotional engagement and historians’ values

  1. Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Magistra. I’ve been enjoying the conversation :).

    I do agree with you that honesty and accuracy are twin foundations for sound historical practice. And yes, absolutely, you can’t ignore, discard or manipulate the evidence to fit your pet theory, whether you’re driven by ideological concerns or simply by a conviction that you ‘must’ be right.

    It concerns me that it is often seductively easy for people to pick out more overtly socially activist historians for criticism (John Boswell being a good example, though this is not to say his work isn’t flawed), while ignoring the unexamined privilege that shapes other, more mainstream histories. I’m thinking here of the vast amount of history that has, since the 19th century, been written from a white heterosexual male perspective, a bias which has often been utterly invisible because it is the ‘norm’. Honesty and accuracy depend on the historian being willing to consciously examine and expose their own internalised biases, assumptions, and privilege, while also being up front with their readers about what they’re trying to achieve.

    There is definitely a need for less black-and-white, goodies-versus-baddies history even (or perhaps especially) amongst historians who see their work as integral to their social activism. Reading some of those 1970s feminist histories now makes me cringe at the simplicity of the arguments and the lack of nuance, but I guess we had to start somewhere. Miri Rubin’s point on this issue was very deftly argued in the THE article you’ve linked to.

    However, I don’t fully buy your connection of emotive history with propaganda. While it’s certainly true that emotive, polemical history is used this way and even deliberately produced for this purpose (in Europe and elsewhere), other far less emotive forms of history are equally open to political manipulation. History as a profession has always been deeply implicated in politics and vice versa (for example, Leopold von Ranke and all those other Prussians being appointed to their university positions by a grateful state; or historians being reliant on gaining access to state archives to do their work). So I don’t believe the potential for propaganda is a valid argument against the historian aspiring to emotionally engage their reader, but it is an argument for the historian to be attuned to how their work fits into the wider political landscape, even if they themselves are ‘not political’.

    I’m glad you raised the point about the two historians I named as being more ‘modern’, as that is something I’ve been mulling over further myself. Their names came to mind partly because I have read books by each of them recently, but also because one of the things I respect about both these historians is that they *don’t* haul on the heartstrings for effect. As you say, texts don’t need to be *about* emotions we recognise or experiences we identify with (love, death, grief etc.) to engage us emotionally. Sometimes, it is the very presentation of the bare facts – for example, an impassive commercial description of the physical size, layout and capacity of a slave ship – that touches us and draws us in to a history at a very human level. Also, for me at least, even the driest history is always emotional at some level because in looking at the past, we’re forced to confront, over and over again, the fact that we all die and our individual lives probably won’t end up meaning anything much at all except to those who knew and loved us.

    Sorry this got so long. I have used your post here as the springboard to go off on yet another tangent, but again, I’ll save that for my own blog. I’ll post the links to this series of posts there, too, as I think it’s been an interesting discussion that has ended up going way beyond just the question of history versus historical fiction.


  2. I think it is highly refreshing to see two historians placing their substantive positions to the twin foundations of accuracy and sound practice, in the relating of history.

    I am not a professional historian, I have, shall we say, an interest.

    Sound practice an absolute must. Accuracy is a totally different ball game. Sound practice will certainly enable information to be found and assessed. Therein lies the subjective and questionable element, the assessment of what you obtain. One other ‘interference’, is interpretation, whether it is actual language, or analysis of detail. I feel it is a tall order to expect total accuracy with the study and relating of history.

    The first casualty of ‘war’ is truth, and all history is full of different levels of that, from the micro dispute to the big political wars. Why should we expect it to be any different because it is, say, Medieval history, or more ancient than that. You will only ever be able to pick out, analyse, develop themes, even with recent histories. That does not mean to say, you cannot learn from what is generated by the studies, of course we can. It is the founds from which we learn that are questionable, and where monumental banana skins abide. We will always have to apply caution and caveats.


  3. Wow, what a fascinating discussion!

    I know, for myself, I use the “attention-grabbing” aspect as a way of quickly internalising a historical or literary narrative. For example, my understanding of early 11th century English politics is sensibly pinned on my historical research into Archbishop Wulfstan II of York’s relationship with the English monarchy. But in order to do *that* I needed a fast working understanding of the politics of late Saxon England – and *that* is all tied up in my brain in an extremely unlikely narrative about how “everyone wants a piece of Thorkell the Tall”, and a somewhat more believable but highly personalised story about Emma of Normandy and her political motivations. These both make for highly entertaining stories if I ever feel the need to regale people with obscure medieval anecdotes (which I do, frequently), but for me, they’re a memory device for holding facts and relationships in place so that I can study something *else*.


  4. I’ve always pictured Thorkell as the initiator of those discussions, somehow. “Evening all. Got twenty ships of restless Vikings downriver. Don’t suppose any of you gents can think of some job or other for ’em, can you? I shouldn’t like to think what they might get up to otherwise. They’re quite big ships…. What, an earldom? Well I shan’t say no milord. Let me get a lad on the road down to the ships, get them to stop digging round your bridge.” Only, naturally in equivalently-argoted Old Norse…


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