My last post talking about history writing and emotions raised responses from Bavardess both in the comments and on her own blog. I will try and deal with the meaning of historical accuracy in a future post. Here I want to think some more about the uses of emotions in historical writing, prompted by Bavardess pointing out that the cool emotional tone Id suggested as appropriate for writing about medieval history doesnt in itself prevent history been used as propaganda.
What her comments made me realise is that my feeling that a particular writing style is appropriate for discussing the medieval world has a historical context, or rather two historical contexts. The first is 1960s England (and I specifically mean England, not the UK here), the second is Enlightenment Europe. From the 1960s what I (and many of the historians who have influenced me) have inherited is a comic tradition of disrespect for established authorities and for conservative values, and black humour about war and violence. In terms of comic writing, the genealogy would probably be Beyond the Fringe, Oh, What a Lovely War!, Monty Python and Blackadder.
Why did a style intended for comedy end up being adopted by so many serious writers? I think because irony and absurdity seem to have become the natural condition for educated English people, especially liberal academics, in the last 50 years. In a country with declining world influence and whose historical horizons have largely foreshortened to World War II and in an university system increasingly pushed around to fit non-academic purposes, the grandiose patriotic history of the Second Elizabethan Age and its Whig forbears doesnt seem appropriate anymore. But nor does the earnestness of 1960s/1970s socially activist history, convinced that it could remake the world: recovering the history of the Levellers didnt stop the more destructive policies of Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair. Historians of all flavours have fewer illusions about their influence than before.
A cool tone specifically about the Middle Ages also has earlier precedents, however, in Edward Gibbon and other Enlightenment figures. His lofty detachment from a past era that is irretrievably alien in its barbarity was at the start of a long tradition, still visible in some modern classicists. Most early medievalists are writing to some extent against this tradition: one good way to tell whether someone is really working on late antiquity or the early Middle Ages is how they respond to the word barbarians. But it still has its effect: how can you be enthusiastic about early medieval people, without aligning yourself with the brutal, ignorant or prejudiced side of their behaviour? Some of the best historians do find a way past that tension: Jinty Nelson is noticeable for her sympathetic discussions of early medieval characters she admits are unpleasant. But its a hard balance to strike.
I think this sense of the otherness of the Middle Ages is also one reason why its harder for medieval historians to engage with the readers emotions than historians of more modern periods. Bavardess talks of the emotions that can be aroused by
bare facts – for example, an impassive commercial description of the physical size, layout and capacity of a slave ship the bare facts – for example, an impassive commercial description of the physical size, layout and capacity of a slave ship
But some bare facts are more equal than others. Partly, it is the accumulation of specific detail that arouses emotion. Suppose I tell you that in 782 Charlemagne had 4,500 Saxons put to death. We dont know the mechanics of how he killed them (although one source says beheading): with a lot of speculation it might be possible to put together a paper (or at least a blog posting) on How to kill 4,500 Saxons. But even if we had (or could reconstruct) the detail of how the massacre was carried out, would that have the emotional impact for most people that a description of a slave ship would have? I think that an audience would be unlikely to engage with it in the same way, because that is what they expect medieval people to do. The Middle Ages (let alone the Dark Ages) is supposed to be full of brutality and meaningless violence. In contrast, much of the horror of New World slavery is that its done by civilised people, including in some cases our ancestors. (Im descended from American slave-owners myself). Its the same principle that explains why there is so much more written about Nazi death camps rather than Soviet gulags (because you expect Russians to do horrible things to people).
It takes both luck and unusual skill to make a reader care what happens to someone in the early Middle Ages: luck to have enough evidence to turn them into more than a name and the skill to be able to use that evidence to connect with an audience who expect nothing more of the Middle Ages than plague, war, religion, darkness, mud and potatoes.