"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

The Challenges of Historiography

It was thanks to the combined influence of the historians Robert Taft, late of the Society of Jesus, and David Reynolds of the University of Cambridge (especially in his absolutely spellbinding book In Command of History) that I first came, almost two decades ago now, to take such interest in historiography. This led one on to crucial new ways of critically understanding, e.g., how the story of the quasi-split of 1054 is told, or the Union of Brest, or the pseudo-sobor of Lviv of 1946. The usual renderings of all these--as well as other events--reveal deeply problematic tendencies on the part of Eastern Christians to amplify what Vamik Volkan has so memorably called "chosen trauma," which is so often paired with "chosen glory," both of them distorting the actual nature of the events in question and their long withdrawing roar. 

More recently that has lent itself into writing and lecturing about the shabby way in which Crusades history is recounted, with artery-clogging masses of tendentiousness more than enough to introduce a myocardial infarction in any serious historian--or, indeed, fair-minded observer. 

Along come several recent scholars to keep our historical hearts and minds in fighting form. Up first: The Saint and the Count: A Case Study for Reading Like a Historian by Leah Shopkow (University of Toronto Press, 2021), 216pp. About this book the publisher tells us this: 

 While historians know that history is about interpreting primary sources, students tend to think of history as a set of facts.

In The Saint and the Count, Leah Shopkow opens up the interpretive world of the historian using the biography of St. Vitalis of Savigny (d. 1122) as a case study. This biography was written around 1174 by Stephen of Fougères and provides a rich stage to demonstrate the kinds of questions historians ask about primary sources and the interpretive and conceptual frameworks they use. What is the nature of medieval sources and what are the interpretive problems they present? How does the positionality of Stephen of Fougères shape his biography of St. Vitalis? How did medieval people respond to stories of miracles? And finally, how does this biography illuminate the problem of violence in medieval society? A translation of the biography is included, so that readers can explore the text on their own.

The second book, from the same publisher, is The Devil's Historian: How Modern Extremists Abuse the Medieval Past by Amy Kaufman  and Paul Sturtevant (2020), 208pp. About this book the publisher tells us this: 

Amy S. Kaufman and Paul B. Sturtevant examine the many ways in which the medieval past has been manipulated to promote discrimination, oppression, and murder. Tracing the fetish for “medieval times” behind toxic ideologies like nationalism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, and white supremacy, Kaufman and Sturtevant show us how the Middle Ages have been twisted for political purposes in every century that followed. The Devil’s Historians casts aside the myth of an oppressive, patriarchal medieval monoculture and reveals a medieval world not often shown in popular culture: one that is diverse, thriving, courageous, compelling, and complex.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments are never approved. Use your real name and say something intelligent.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...