The incommensurability of personal history

The first two seminars I attended at the IHR this term both dealt with small esoteric elites, and yet could hardly have been more different. I found myself haunted afterwards by the question: is what we’re doing when we being historians actually one thing? Or is the nature of what we can know about different past societies so different that we’re really carrying out completely different projects?

The first paper was at the IHR Earlier Medieval Seminar with Julie Barrau of UEA talking about “Bible and amicitia: literary and scriptural sophistication as a social strategy”. Julie was looking at letters from the C12 Angevin Empire, especially those sent to and from John of Salisbury and Thomas Becket. She started by pointing out how the use of Biblical quotations in such letters was a conscious choice, and how such phrases had to be noticed if they were to have any rhetorical point. In some letters, especially to laymen, Biblical quotations were consciously flagged up by the letter-writer – Julie also made the interesting observation that the same was often true in letters to Becket, which may say something about his perceived familiarity with the Bible. But in other letters, there is an extraordinarily obscure and complex rhetoric going on, with passing references to some very obscure Biblical passages. Often the actual message of the contents of the letter (e.g. a warning against false friends) is subordinate to stylistic showing-off: bonding by a shared common culture. In a few cases this even allowed some slightly dodgy Biblical jokes, such as John of Salisbury thanking Peter of Celle for his treatise on bread in the Bible, but asking him for one on wine as well, since the English are noted for their drinking (“Potationis assiduitas apud exteras nationes fecit Anglos insignes”), and Peter’s treatise is a little dry.

The use of typology could also convey all kinds of inferences, framing situations in ways that might influence real-world actions. A letter to Becket in 1164, for example, described him as “Phineas noster”. The reference is to Numbers 25: 6-8, where an Israelite marries a Midianite woman and brings plague to the wandering tribes of Israel. Phineas kills the couple and prevents the plague from killing more people. The implication is that Becket must be prepared to go against leaders who are spreading “pollution”, in this case via the Constitutions of Clarendon.

In an odd way, what this most reminded me of as I was listening to Julie was the very modern phenomenon of fandom, where half the fun of others’ stories/comments/jokes are the shared points of reference. And yet I was brought back abruptly to the distance between our world and the twelfth century when John Gillingham asked if it was possible to use such stylised exchanges to say something about the actual warmth of the relationship between the writer and recipient and Julie admitting how rarely that was possible to know. All this shared amicitia may in fact just have been for display purposes, given the odd position of letters between the public and private.

Two days after Julie, I went 750 years later in time, to the IHR Women’s History seminar, to hear Sally Alexander of Goldsmiths talk about “Primary Maternal Identification: D. W. Winnicott and Social Democracy in mid-Twentieth Century Britain”. Winnicott, who I freely admit I had never heard of before, was a prominent paediatrician and psychoanalyst, whose work informed the development of the welfare state in the 1930s to 1950s. In some ways, his life seems as bound up in obscure intellectual circles as any C12 literary cleric – much of Sally’s talk discussed the complex set of rivalries within the British Psychoanalytical Society (with Freudians, Kleinians and independents). And yet Winnicott’s ideas were also greatly informed by his clinical work: he spent decades working in clinics in Hackney and Paddington with children and their mothers, observing and recording detailed case notes about their physical/mental traumas, notes which we still possess today.

The contrast here with the medieval period is suddenly intense. The disconnection between elites and the labouring classes is bridged in Winnicott’s work – these people matter to him. Delving into medieval people’s psyche is almost impossible, but here we have at least limited glimpses into the most intimate family secrets. It immediately raises the question: did medieval children have these same complex physical/emotional symptoms of distress (headaches, asthma etc) which were just ignored? Or are some mental health problems only expressed, only imaginable in a particular cultural framework?

The paper also raised questions about the methods and sources of doing history. Sally Alexander said at the start of the paper that “history learns from psychoanalysis and then forgets it”. Yet she also specifically said we should not try and psychoanalyse Winnicott, even as she laid out the knowledge we had of his difficult childhood and marriages. Psychoanalysis is not a realistic approach for medieval historians; it is potentially for modernists. The individuals I study are more or less objects; modern sources allow the study of subjects or at least subjectivity. How such study of the inner life of individuals can be integrated into a wider history isn’t entirely clear, but the option is there. I was left with the uncomfortable feeling , in contrast, of studying a dead world. Yet even if all we medievalists can produce is grainy black and white photos rather than technicolour close-ups, I still think that attempting to understand medieval people needs to be done, as one of the many aspects of exploring what it means to be human.

Note: Post updated to correct minor dating error.


2 thoughts on “The incommensurability of personal history

  1. Putting my parental hat on, I would strongly recommend reading Winnicott. His “good enough mother” idea is pure genius, both sensible and reassuring, but there is much more that is very interesting. Thanks for mentioning my paper!


  2. Very interesting and stimulating post – thanks. I think your final comment can resonate with a number of areas of study – not least, anthropology.

    I agree – ‘grainy photos’ also help us to understand our identity more although psychoanalysis is anachronistic for medieval studies, perhaps.


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