Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Meaning of History

Jonathan Jarrett has an interesting post that meditates on what it means to be an historian (or what it means, more generally I think, to study the past). I love this kind of stuff -- these kinds of questions. I've dealt with some of these questions before but first let me too give a shout-out to PhD Comics:
And the debate continues...
Anyway, I think Jonathan's right that uncovering the past does reveal "truth" in some way -- it reveals something that happened to someone, somewhere, at some time. That, in and of itself, is important. Outreach is important too. I sure as heckfire want as many people as possible to know why the Middle Ages "matter." Maybe more people will buy my book (or books) someday but more people will want to take courses on the Middle Ages and we'll hire some more medievalists, even here at Virginia Tech.

But understanding the past does something else too. To paraphrase what Teddy says to Lenny (repeatedly) in the movie Memento, knowing the past will not only tell you about who you were but also informs who you are and who you will be.* The little tag-line on this blog ("Although long-dead, the people of the Middle Ages still have something to say.") isn't intended to be just fluff. Knowing about the Middle Ages tells us -- all of us -- something about who we are now and where we're going. And I don't mean that history's going to repeat itself, because it's not. What I mean is that understanding the past informs our identity, and not always in productive ways.

Doing history problematizes that memory.** Doing history makes us less certain and ultimately, I'd hope, more thoughtful about other ideas, letting us categorically reject some and willingly/ grudgingly accept others. For example, medieval history specifically tells us something about our notions of Europe, Christianity, violence, representative government, and the relationship between East and West, among (many) other things.

I love when people ask these kinds of questions and talk about this kind of stuff, not because it makes us, us who study the past, stand around in epistemological angst. Instead, I like these kinds of questions because it makes us think about answers, and I think we have some damn good ones that we can offer.

*My thanks to C. Stephen Jaeger for inspiring me to look again at this film.
** I'm thinking here of the definitions offered in the excellent Keith Michael Baker, Inventing the French Revolution: Essays on the Political Culture of the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 1990).


DanielCure said...

Interesting thoughts. My take on this subject is as follows... http://danielcure.blogspot.com/2009/04/medieval-matters.html

Matthew Gabriele said...

Thanks for visiting, Daniel. I would, however, disagree with your Oxford scholar who said the past was essentially "fantasy". That, unfortunately, seems a way of exculpating yourself from what happened then, instead of confronting the good and the bad together and ultimately learning something about it.