The skin and bones of history

Chris Wickham
Chris Wickham a number of years pre-retirement

Last month I was at a conference on political culture in the earlier Middle Ages. I’ll talk about that in future posts, but for now I want to think about it in combination with another event I went to recently: a celebration of Chris Wickham’s work to mark his retirement. Rachel Moss has written appreciatively  of Chris as a colleague; the short papers on the day had much to say about different aspects of his research. One recurrent theme was Chris’ determination to get inside national historiographies and understand them fully, rather than merely cherry-pick from them. (His review-article, Marx, Sherlock Holmes and Late Roman Culture got particular mention).

I want to talk about the most important insight I got from Chris’ work, especially from Framing the Early Middle Ages. This was his use of explicit models and ideal types to pin down specific components of what we are trying to compare over time and space. Such a move may be seen as reductionist or too schematic, but it’s a powerful tool if well-used. Several of my more recent projects have started from this idea of comparing underlying structures, even if they’ve been on topics a long way from Chris’ own interests.

Chris’ focus has been on underlying social and economic structures, what you might call the bones of history. A review of The Inheritance of Rome complained it didn’t have enough about kings in it. It was quite a mental stretch to go from that to the conference that Katy Dutton organised in Manchester on “Political Culture from the Carolingians to the Angevins”. That was full of kings, as well as dukes, counts and countesses and a surprising number of archdeacons. Ever since I read Mayke de Jong’s Penitential State I’ve become interested in Carolingian political culture, because Mayke emphasized its dynamic nature. Many previous studies of Carolingian ideology had focused on royal image-making as relatively untroubled process, whether it’s Charlemagne’s followers sneering at the Merovingians or Charles the Bald’s creation of an imperial image. Penitential State, in contrast, showed political tactics being contested and how metaphors and discourses allowed actions (such as deposing a king) that were unthinkable otherwise.

How does this political culture relate to the kind of structural history that Chris favours? I’m starting to see it as the skin over the bones. In the keynote speech at the Manchester conference, Martin Aurell talked about the conflicts of Henry II and his sons in 1173. Although there were important underlying economic and social issues beneath the conflict, the chroniclers discussed it largely in terms of personalities and individuals.

In the same way, the Brexit result, which inevitably haunted the conference, combined deep underlying structural issues (such as the depressed state of the economy in some regions) with important roles for spectacular personalities, such as Boris Johnson and a campaign marked by the successful use of sometimes horrifying propaganda. To understand what happened, here, as with other political events, you need skin and bones – political culture combined with socio-economic structures.

How we carry out that combination varies. Much of my historical work has tended towards the ‘skin’ side, focusing on specific cultural moments, but Chris’ work keeps on reminding me that I need to look at wider patterns as well, see how all the pieces of a society fit together. That’s the impact, often indirect but important, that he’s had on my own research.

 

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