The history of an emotional style and emotions in history

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’ I’d suggested as appropriate for writing about medieval history doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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 didn’t 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 it’s a hard balance to strike.

I think this sense of the otherness of the Middle Ages is also one reason why it’s harder for medieval historians to engage with the reader’s 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 don’t 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 it’s done by ‘civilised’ people, including in some cases our ancestors. (I’m descended from American slave-owners myself). It’s 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.

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3 thoughts on “The history of an emotional style and emotions in history

  1. [H]ow can you be enthusiastic about early medieval people, without aligning yourself with the brutal, ignorant or prejudiced side of their behaviour?

    Suppose I tell you that in 782 Charlemagne had 4,500 Saxons put to death. We don’t 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 it’s done by ‘civilised’ people, including in some cases our ancestors. (I’m descended from American slave-owners myself). It’s 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).

    I can only speak from a novelist’s perspective.

    It’s a novelist’s job to examine particular people in specific circumstances, to avoid the generic. In other words, it’s a novelist’s job to deconstruct stereotype, to write out/through/over the cliché. That’s all received wisdom is: cliché.

    Interestingly (to me, anyway), my understanding of supposedly savage and brutal Angles and Saxons changed when I considered that an average ‘warband’ in the seventh century was probably only thirty or so professional fighters. All those battles look quite different (to me) with so few people trying to kill each other.

    Where am I going with this? Not sure. I just like talking about it after a hard day’s work trying to figure out the political interface between Northumbria (Edwin, anyway) and Gwynedd. (And, BTW, you made my day, pondering an alternate history with medieval potatoes *g*.)

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  2. Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Magistra. I find the notion that the Middle Ages is utterly ‘other’ from us intriguing, because on the one hand you do often encounter that conviction that people/things ‘then’ were totally and unrecognisably different (and backwards) from things now. But on the other hand, the perennial fascination of the medieval for popular culture (films, books, TV etc.) encourages us to think of the Middle Ages as similar in many ways to modern society (and maybe as better in some ways, thinking of the ever-popular tropes of noble knights, chivalry, true religious faith etc.).

    We need to avoid romanticizing the distant past while also countering the whiggish narrative of progress from ‘Dark Ages’ through ‘Enlightenment’ to modernity, but that’s a tricky path to walk at times, especially when dealing with people who aren’t historians. (I can’t express how irritated I am with the constant flow of newspaper stories that denigrate Islam or various mostly-Muslim countries in terms of them being ‘medieval’ or ‘from the dark ages’.) That’s partly why I try to resist the standard periodisation labels when it comes to talking to friends or family about what I’m doing. I want to disrupt the divide that says you’re either a medievalist or an early modernist/Renaissance specialist or a modernist, based on a rather arbitrary imposition of dates that in itself implies a teleology of progress. The classic periodisation really only holds if you stick to a fairly narrow range of political/economic/sociocultural indicators within quite discrete temporal and geographical boundaries. It starts to break down once you cross the traditional boundaries of ‘England’ or ‘Western Europe’, and when you start to look at themes like gender & sexuality, non-elite history etc. That approach can reveal as many broad continuities between the medieval and the early modern/modern as it reveals big changes/ruptures. While obviously historians must specialise in order to produce anything other than superficial broad-brush accounts, it’s important to be open to readings outside our ‘own’ time/place/analytical framework that can open up new perspectives. That’s where the shift to interdisciplinarity in recent decades has been so valuable (though it certainly makes it ever more difficult to gather and assess all the information that may be relevant to a particular historical study).

    Re: emotional engagement with the past – the more I ponder this, the more I’m convinced it’s more complicated than just the fact that people can relate better to relatively modern history than to accounts of the distant past. As I said over on the post at my blog, while I may be moved by the description of a slave ship, or by the medico-legal constraints on working-class women in Victorian England, I’ve met other history students who consider topics like that an irrelevant waste of time. So I think emotional engagement does have as much to do with one’s own individual subjectivity and historical context as with the particular topic or treatment at hand, as you allude to here in your discussion about approaching medieval history from your own very particular time and place (England, 21st century).

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  3. Nichola – I would happily accept that a good novelist could make someone care about Charlemagne massacring Saxons, but they’d do so by making things up, which isn’t really an option for most historians. And the lucky reporter who had a time machine to take them back and get eye-witness accounts could also make an emotive story out of this event, even with a dispassionate style of writing. You might just be able to get an emotional effect with a TV reconstruction, though that would be much harder to do well. But if you’re writing evidence-based history, it’s very hard to build up a scene in that way when you constantly have to point out the mechanics: X and Y might have happened, because they did in similar situations, Z is less likely in this case etc. When you’ve got as many gaps in the evidence as almost every early medieval event has, you can only produce a smooth story if you gloss over those gaps very carefully.

    Bavardess – I’m not convinced that a fascination with the Middle Ages shows that it’s not thought of as Other. In fact I’d say that most popular representations of medieval people are exotic, and have been ever since Gibbon and Walter Scott: look at how violent and ignorant they were (unlike us moderns) or how pious and chivalrous they were (unlike us moderns). The idea that medieval people are really just like us tends to be limited either to popular archaeology (look, they cleaned their teeth too!) or irritating modern films, which want to have their cake and eat it too by having people agonise about the joys of peace before they commit acts of excessive violence.

    At some point on this blog I want to stir things up a bit more by contemplating how modern the early modern really is, by the way. But meanwhile, a bit more on emotions. I think one possible way of getting past the objective versus subjective side of emotional engagement is to use the idea of emotional communities, which Barbara Rosenwein has done a book on, and which she defines (p 2) as ‘groups in which people adhere to the same norms of emotional expression and value – or devalue – the same or related emotions’. The concept makes intuitive sense for a lot of different academic and non-academic groups: if you go to a particular seminar like the IHR ones regularly, for example, you learn that each has a particular style as well as a particular content and it’s always jarring when a speaker comes who doesn’t fit that, even if what they’re saying is good in itself. And part of teaching a group is creating a shared identity, which will normally include emotional norms: how heated can debate get, how ‘personal’ should students’ discussions be, how much black humour is allowed etc. (It sounds like your BDS students had their own distinctive ethos, for example). Similarly, most blogs have their own emotional style and the comments will often reflect this.

    In these three cases, there’s interaction and feedback within the group, so that the emotional community gradually gets reshaped as you go along. In contrast, you have a rather different situation with conventional publication, where you tend to get far less direct response to a work, unless you’re the sort of author who gets fan-mail. But I’d also say that any author is potentially creating an emotional community among his or her readers, those who feel the way he or she does. The problem is that emotional communities can repel as well as attract: there are novelists (and historians) whose skill I admire but whose written work raises my hackles by its tone.

    Is this a problem? Not for novelists, I would say. The best novelists tend to create quite distinctive communities, imbued with their own personality: the emotional community of Charlotte Bronte devotees is not the emotional community of Emily Bronte devotees. For a novelist, having fewer but more engaged readers may be a good trade-off. For myself, however, the focus of my academic work is not primarily me, but the argument I’m putting forward. I feel that my research is important, both in its specific details and also in continuing a historical tradition that has put women’s and gender history into the mainstream of early medieval studies. If when I write I adopt an emotional tone that puts barriers in the way of people accepting my argument or taking gender history seriously, I’m failing in my purpose. It’s the same reason that scientists adopt a deliberately impersonal tone in their scientific papers (in contrast to their e-mails): it’s not about them, it’s about their theory. That doesn’t mean that I suppress all emotional content in my academic writing (as opposed to more personal writing, such as this blog), but it does mean that I don’t think of such work as primarily about evoking feelings in the audience. If I was writing more avowedly popular history, I might need to change my style.

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