What is History For?

Asking the big questions about the uses and purpose of history.

Film and TVWhat is History For?

The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination

Read more about film and popular perceptions of the medieval past in Paul’s new book, The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film and Medievalism! As a special for readers of The Public Medievalist, if you order your copy from I.B. Tauris Publishers, use the coupon code MIDDLE30 and receive 30% off the hardback price! It is also available as an e-book on Amazon and Google Play.

Whenever I ask people—academics and non-academics alike—what they think the public knows about history, the answer almost always comes back the same: “NOTHING!”

There’s a snobby cynicism that lies at the heart of that answer—that without academic training, we are all just dunderheaded simpletons stumbling through the world. This idea has been cultivated and exploited by journalists and politicians over and over again. To take just one example, in 2013, Education Secretary of the United Kingdom Michael Gove went on a tear about the state of the education system in his country:

Survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance, with one teenager in five believing Winston Churchill was a fictional character while 58 per cent think Sherlock Holmes was real.

“Survey after survey?” One teacher made an official request to know what these surveys were. The official answer from the Department of Education cited marketing surveys conducted by a UK cable TV channel (UKTV Gold) and a hotel chain (Premier Inn) where individuals were given pop-quizzes about historical facts. Gove then used the results of these marketing exercises to bash the UK education system and call for reform.

This isn’t the first time people have used sloppy methodology to make a point. Many of these surveys use research tools that would make a sociologist cringe, and all of them are biased. They intend to trap participants into getting wrong answers so that they can present the results as a “shocking” display of public ignorance.

Take, as an example, this survey, conducted by the BBC in 2004:

Q1 Which one of the following conquered Britain?

  1. a) Germans; b) Spanish; c) Romans; d) Americans; e) Don’t know

Q2 Who won the Battle of Hastings?

  1. a) Napoleon; b) Wellington; c) Alexander the Great; d) William the Conqueror; e) Don’t know

Q3 Which of the following fought men [sic] in the English fleet against the Spanish Armada?

  1. a) Horatio Hornblower; b) Christopher Columbus; c) Francis Drake; d) Gandalf; e) Don’t know

Q4 Which famous battle is marked every year on July 12 by the Orangemen in Northern Ireland?

  1. a) Boyne; b) Stamford Bridge; c) Bulge; d) Helmsdeep [sic]; e) Don’t know

Q5 During which war did the Battle of Britain take place?

  1. a) Hundred Years War; b) First World War; c) Second World War; d) Cold War; e) Don’t know

How many did you know? How many of you were tempted to choose “Gandalf” for 3, and “Helmsdeep” for 4, just because you’re a Tolkien fan? (I know I would have been.)

Despite being a marketing exercise explicitly intended to sell their Battlefield Britain TV series, the news media took this as evidence of shockingly widespread ignorance. The BBC presented their results in breathless tones:

Almost half of 16 to 34-year-olds questioned didn’t know Sir Francis Drake fought in the battle against the Spanish Armada […] One in five 16 to 24-year-olds said it was the explorer and discoverer of America, Christopher Columbus. Horatio Hornblower, the fictional commander in the CS Forester books, was the answer from one in five 25 to 34 year olds. And Gandalf, the wizard from The Lord of the Rings, was the choice of more than one in twenty 16 to 24-year-olds.

An article in The Guardian used it to bang the drum for a return to “traditional” history education. In an article reporting on the survey (entitled “Gandalf finds a place in British history”), they interviewed Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, who said:

“It clearly shows that our state education system has got a lot to answer for. A grounding in national history is essential for all young people in order to understand the present. This is extremely shocking.”

Another example, this time a front-page headline from the New York Times. Note the date.

The problem is that, at their core, these surveys assume understanding history is fundamentally about memorizing historical facts. If you don’t know those specific facts (almost always about supposedly “Great Men” or supposedly important battles, like in the BBC survey above), then clearly there was something wrong with your education, and thus, something wrong with you.

But history is about so much more than the rote memorization of names and dates. It is about how we understand ourselves as people. It is about learning to appreciate the differences and similarities of cultures different to our own, learning how all cultures change over time, and learning to see ourselves in people from other times and places. And it is so much more.

How can a survey study all of that?

That is exactly the topic of my new book, The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination. The study at the center of the book is fundamentally about how people use film as a way of learning about and engaging with the medieval past. Instead of using surveys that can only scratch the surface of what it means to learn history, I talked to people and really listened to the answers. I wanted to find out how people understand, learn about, and use the past in their daily lives. And I wanted to find real answers instead of just confirming my own preconceptions.

With Apologies to Mr. Bloom…

Orlando bloom with a sword strapped to his back and a prayer shawl on his shoulder, from the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven.
So pretty. So medieval?

To give you a taste of the results, let’s look at the case of Orlando Bloom.

I showed four groups of students—recruited from across the University of Leeds campus—three medieval films each, and interviewed them before and after viewing the movies to see how film influenced their ideas about the Middle Ages. Two of those three films, coincidentally, starred Orlando Bloom: in Kingdom of Heaven he stars as Balian, a blacksmith who goes on Crusade and ultimately leads the Kingdom of Jerusalem in its final clash with Saladin. And in The Return of the King, of course, he plays Legolas.

To say that the participants disliked Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven is a bit of an understatement.

First of all, students did not feel that the plot of the film, with its rags-to-riches narrative, was at all realistic in a medieval context. But students also rejected Orlando Bloom’s masculinity. They complained that he did not match their expectations of heroic medieval men. One participant said:

Orlando Bloom is known as a celebrity and a bit of a dish […] a little bit too glossy […] you see Orlando Bloom and you make a snap decision that he’s a pretty boy.

Other participants in the groups reiterated this discomfort: “[he] just seemed a bit… wimpy,” or “he doesn’t have the voice for it, he doesn’t have the gravitas for it,” or, “[he] didn’t seem to have the power behind him to suggest that he could lead people.” When they were asked who might be a better medieval hero, several pointed to Liam Neeson (who plays Balian’s father in the film). He, they said, had the age, the gravitas, and the power to be truly medieval.

The fact that several individuals across the groups flagged Bloom’s masculinity as “anachronistic” lends credence to the idea that this was not only one person’s perception. Rather, it points to a wider cultural perception of medieval masculinity. These students expected medieval heroes to be butch and aggressive, first into the fray. Leadership ability was signaled by a deep voice and the impalpable quality of “gravitas.” And perhaps most telling, their use of the word “dish,” “glossy” and the phrase “pretty boy” imply that Bloom’s youthful features makes him attractive to the wrong sort of people: young women and gay men. To them, Bloom was more boy-band than battlefield.

Ray Winstone in his performance capture suit, flanked by Beowulf, on his left, and the "golden boy", on the right. He plays both characters in the film Beowulf (2007).
Ray Winstone in his performance capture suit, flanked by the characters he plays in Beowulf (2007).

By contrast, I also subjected participants in my study to the 2007 CGI version of Beowulf. Beowulf was played by Ray Winstone, who himself does not have a body type typically associated with Old Norse heroes. But, thanks to the magic of CGI, the filmmakers digitally stitched Ray Winstone’s voice and performance onto two other bodies—those of actor Alan Ritchson and fitness model (and alleged #metoo scumbag) Aaron Stephens.

Alan Ritchson, one of the two actors who provided the face, body, and presumably oiled abs, of Beowulf.

In effect, they digitally Frankensteined a “perfect” medieval hero out of a voice, a face, and a body that they chose.

And despite the high-tech, artificial nature of Beowulf’s medieval masculinity, participants had none of the same negative reactions to his character that they did to Orlando Bloom’s Balian. The stitches were invisible, but the expectations of authentic medieval masculinity were as plain as day.

A High-tech Middle Ages

Despite their acceptance of Winstone/Ritchson/Stephens’s medieval masculinity, study participants had other problems with the movie Beowulf. For instance, everyone is filmed in motion-capture, and every object, stitch of clothing, and piece of scenery is rendered by a computer. Beowulf wasn’t even filmed (if you can even call it that) using traditional cameras; dozens of infrared sensors bounced light off the actors and reconstructed them as wireframes in computers.

For filmmakers into tech, it’s very cool. But for the viewers of these groups, it was creepy as hell.

Participants thought the movie felt like a video game (it does), and that characters fell into the Uncanny Valley (they do). Several also contrasted this specifically against a familiar medieval aesthetic. For example, one participant noted:

Whenever I think of medieval, I always think of Robin Hood and crappy, really crappy effects. And, I don’t know, that kind of vibe about it makes it seem more medieval. Whereas if it’s computer generated and all sparkly and polished, it’s too new.

Another then added, “It’s not a very sparkly and polished time, is it?” Interestingly, co-writer on the film Roger Avary agreed with them, writing: “It was a strange way to be making a film that should be dirty and muddy.”

Again, this has nothing to do with the actual Middle Ages. Travel to the countryside or even a park after a rainstorm and you’ll see just how muddy and dirty our contemporary world can be. Instead, this idea comes from a combination of our perception of medieval people as being filthy and plague-ridden, exacerbated by some of the most successful films and TV shows set in the Middle Ages. Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail is a classic of both the muddy and the aggressively badly-made (but wonderful) Middle Ages.

Beowulf didn’t have that “medieval” feel. That’s not because Beowulf was set in a pristine, gleaming version of the Middle Ages—Beowulf gets plenty dirty. But the fact that the mud is not real (and that, in fact, nothing in the film really is) makes it unsatisfying, unsatisfactory. The CGI, while enabling the filmmakers to do whatever they wanted, became an interfering layer for an audience hungry for a more low-budget, “authentic” medieval experience.

Medieval Orcs and Elves

Scenes from Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King drawn in a quasi-medieval style, by Jian Guo: https://breath-art.deviantart.com/gallery/

On their final meeting, each group viewed The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I wondered whether they would see this film as “medieval.” Obviously, a fantasy like The Lord of the Rings isn’t “medieval” if you think of that word only in reference to a period of real history. But Tolkien was drawing on medieval mythologies, social structures, technologies and aesthetics when he wrote The Lord of the Rings, and the filmmakers followed suit. Would the average viewer pick up on that?

As it turns out, there was disagreement on that point. Some felt that because Return of the King depicted a fantasy world, comparing it to actual history was ludicrous: “It’s too much of a fantasy to learn anything historical about medieval times from it.”

Others took the opposite tack, with one saying that it “probably depicted medieval England better than Beowulf did.” Importantly, he added, “I don’t know if it did, but in my mind it seemed to gel.”

The most interesting part, to me, is the way the second participant talked about it—speaking from the level of intuition and inductive reasoning rather than as a simple recollection of facts. Many of the participants talked this way—with hesitation and groping for their answers—because these were subjects that they had learned long ago and by consuming popular culture.

But that was not the same as not knowing anything. My study showed me that these students knew quite a lot about the medieval past, but that they did not have much confidence in their knowledge. The participants had fairly wide-ranging knowledge, and a remarkable amount of expertise in particular subjects that they were interested in. For example, one participant was very knowledgeable and interested in medieval social dynamics and material culture as a result of her being a fan of historical novels. Similarly, several others were well-versed in the technology of medieval warfare as a result of being connoisseurs of medieval war games. Moreover, most participants were fully aware of the gaps in their understanding, and aware that some of the things they did know were derived from sources—like films and other popular culture—which are not to be trusted.

That could be seen in the way that others talked about Return of the King. Though many did not label the film “medieval,” they were more than happy to compare it with the other, genuinely-medieval, films they had seen (as well as their experience with the Middle Ages in other pieces of pop culture). The battle of Pellenor Fields, for example, was cited as an excellent example of a medieval battle, and the quest for the ring was productively compared to a crusade. So while Middle Earth is not the Middle Ages, in many ways it was very, very medieval indeed.

You Know More than You Think

Despite what the newspapers tell you, everyday people know a lot about the Middle Ages. Yes, many people harbor incorrect ideas about the Middle Ages, but those frequently have nothing to do with an inability to remember dates and names of famous men or battles. Instead, misconceptions came from incorrectly applying knowledge too broadly.

Sometimes scholars pick on people for making grand pronouncements that the medieval world was an objectively terrible place, or projecting their understanding of the world today backward onto the Middle Ages. This certainly happened during my study—for example, several participants assumed that the Crusades played out similarly to the war in Iraq, and assumed that the conflicts that exist today in that region must have been the same in the Middle Ages.

These mistakes are a natural part of how our minds fill in gaps in our knowledge—not just of history, but any subject. But identifying and complicating these mistaken assumptions is an essential part of the learning process. Because, as we have sought to explore here on The Public Medievalist, medieval people were more like us in some ways than we might like to admit. But in other ways, they, and the world they inhabited, were fundamentally different from ours. The trick is in learning which is which.

But that is a far cry from not knowing anything at all. So, the next time someone tries to tell you that people know nothing about the past, you have my permission to tell them to stick it in their ear.

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Fantasy vs. RealityPast and PresentWhat is History For?

This Conspiracy will Put Medievalists Out of a Job! (No, it won’t…)

Engaging with the public directly puts you in contact with a lot of interesting people. In the public lectures and museum work that I’ve done, I have met a large number of really compelling people, most of whom are more knowledgeable and passionate about history than the professoriate would fear.

But, as any public historian will tell you, occasionally you encounter a fun one.

One of mine occurred during the Q&A section of a public lecture I gave several years ago on the depiction of Robin Hood in film and television. In the back of the room, a perfectly normal-seeming man stood up and, with a twinkle in his eye that I couldn’t quite place, asked me a question that I won’t soon forget:

“What if it’s all a lie?”

I’ll admit, I didn’t quite know what to do with that question.

He then launched into a monologue describing a bizarre theory—one which I have come to find out is not just his own—that concludes simply: the Early Middle Ages did not exist.

This man was describing to me (and a group of increasingly confused audience members) the Phantom Time Hypothesis. In short, the Phantom Time Hypothesis, developed and promoted by journalist Heribert Illig and historian Dr. Hans-Ulrich Niemitz, posits that the historical period between 600AD and 900AD simply didn’t exist.

It’s a fascinating load of crap. (more…)

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Games and The InternetWhat is History For?

Facebook and the Value of Forgetting

Several years ago, I became good friends with a woman who had been abused by her previous partner. Abuse is shockingly common; her experience is not all that unusual. She confessed to me that she would wake up bolt-upright at 3am, shaking from night terrors. Things that would remind her—even just a little—of her previous partner would send her into a tailspin. Even saying his name could overwhelm her and give her a full-blown panic attack.

Her story is, sadly, not that unusual. But what made her experience particularly bad was that she had an exceptional memory—something approaching either what psychologists term an Eidetic memory or Hyperthymesia, where one can easily recall with great precision images and events from your past. Being able to remember everything from where you put your keys to the little wrinkles around your first child’s eyes may sound like a dream, but for her, the experience was a waking nightmare.

For her, counselling and therapy helped her to eventually make the memories—if ever present—less intrusive in her daily life. It allowed her, if not to forget per se, to choose what to remember on any given moment.

And perhaps ironically, that is one of the chief ways in which we, as a society, use history: we use it in order to decide what to remember and what to forget. (more…)

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What is History For?

History, Inside Out

This is part three of our continuing series on “The Uses of History.” You can find parts one and two here and here respectively.

Pixar’s new film Inside Out does a wonderful job of exploring something we all are intimately familiar with, but which we only rarely think about: our emotions. The study of cognition—meaning our explicit thought processes and consciousness—has been a part of psychology and neurobiology since the 1960s. But it is only relatively recently that the scientific study of emotions (an interdisciplinary effort lumped broadly into the category of “affective science”) has emerged.

And historians, too, have been getting in on the act. Spearheaded by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, and the Australian Research Council’s Center for Excellence for the History of Emotions (a nationally-funded collaboration of five Australian universities), historians have been exploring the inner emotional lives of people in the past. I have heard this research agenda derided as “silly” at a recent conference, and surely it might seem strange to study the feelings of past people.

It can be assumed by humanists (such as me), that people in the past had the same emotional responses that we do—they experienced joy at their successes, sorrow at their losses, and had hope for and fear about the future. But, these historians provocatively ask, outside these broadest of terms, what if they did not experience emotions in the same way that we do? What if emotions themselves are culturally (and therefore temporally) defined? What challenges does that present to our historical empathetic imaginations—which I have argued is the core activity of creating good history—if these people do not just think differently than we do, but feel differently than we do? (more…)

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Museums and HeritageWhat is History For?

There is No “Average” Person

There’s a common idea floating around that needs to die. It’s common enough that I have heard it several times in the last months, both in professional contexts (in the mouths of august and eloquent professors) and non-professional ones. That is the idea of the “average person.”

The idea of the “average person” takes the form of the “average public” when discussing what people think about the medieval world, “average student” when in the mouth of a professor, or the “average visitor” when it comes to the museum. In common parlance we even have snappy phrases for the idea—“John/Joe Q. Public”, “John Doe”, “Tom, Dick and Harry”.

Let me be quite clear. “John Q. Public” is not real. And even if he were, we have absolutely no reason to pay any attention to him. He is, at best, a sly cover for the speaker’s ill-informed views, and at worst, a rhetorical trick designed to reinforce the status quo and the tyranny of the majority. (more…)

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What is History For?

Shattering the Mirror: History and Narcissism

by Paul B. Sturtevant

This continues our series on the uses and importance of history. For our previous article on the topic, click here

If you didn’t sleep through your Psychology 101 course (and I didn’t… entirely…), you may be familiar with the theory of the Mirror Stage of child development. To recap: the Mirror Stage was proposed as a crucial part of child development by Jaques Lacan in the 1930s. Lacan proposed that at the age of about 6 months, a child begins to become fascinated with images of themselves in a mirror (or any reflective surface), but it takes them until about 15 to 18 months until they consistently recognize that what they are seeing is their own body. If you have children, or are allowed to borrow any occasionally, you probably can recognize this.

Lacan however, as was his wont, went beyond a simply mechanical understanding of this child development phase and applied it to a concept altogether more abstract. To Lacan, the Mirror Stage was a crucial moment—perhaps even a crisis— in a human’s developing subjectivity. To him, a child coming to terms with itself in the mirror was a shocking revelation that our “self” is not just a free-floating sort of consciousness, but is contained within a body that is both crucial to and external from that self; in his terms, that there is a separation between the body and the Ego.

The problem with narcissists then, in these broadly Freudian/Lacanian terms, is that they have not successfully moved past this phase of development—that they can’t look away from the mirror.

This obsession with ourselves, however, is far more common than that, and not limited to compulsive mirror-gazers. We all suffer from a related concept also explored by psychologists—the False-Consensus Effect. You certainly are familiar with it—the false-consensus effect is the tendency for people to incorrectly assume that other people are just like them—share their opinions, their beliefs, even their way of thinking.

It can lead you to think that yours is not just the right opinion, but the only one. Dangerous, indeed.

This error is rampant in politics; rich candidates for office have been particularly vulnerable to it, assuming that everyone shares their rarified lifestyle, and one response to it is the “check your privilege” meme. This has led to gaffes and idiocy in debates as wide ranging as the minimum wage to foreign policy.

“We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.”

History and the Mirror

And so, I come to the nut of it. The second way that studying history is useful is that it helps you to resist the false-consensus effect. When studying history, we encounter people who are, in ways large and small, fundamentally unlike us. They are not just separated from us in time. They have a fundamentally different way of looking at the world that informs what they believe to be right and wrong, how they live, and what they value.

This is a core tenet not just of history but of certain fields of sociology. To quote Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s fantastic seminal work, The Social Construction of Reality, “What is ‘real’ to a Tibetan monk may not be ‘real’ to an American businessman.” In other words, even reality itself is subjective, and socially-defined.

Intensely studying the lives of people fundamentally different from yourself can be a useful corrective. It is a reminder that our perspectives are not just shaped by ourselves but by our times, and reminds us that we are not the final arbiters of reality and truth. In short, studying history can help us to shatter Narcissus’ mirror.

So, to again use the metaphor of the imagined dinner party—when asked why you study the past, you could do better than to reply: “Studying history reminds me that not everyone is like me. It helps me be less egocentric.”

The Paradox of History


For those regular readers, this may seem to fly in the face of what I wrote before about empathy. I can’t possibly have it both ways—history can’t possibly allow us to see ourselves in others and also recognize their fundamental difference from ourselves, can it?

To me, that is the fundamental tension inherent in history, both as an academic discipline and on a more philosophical level. It is the tension between recognizing people’s fundamental and specific difference from us – historicizing them – and recognizing their inherent similarity to us – empathizing with them. One arm pushes them away, one arm draws them closer. One views history as a social science, one as one of the humanities.

In reality, it is something of both. It is impossible to create histories—rendering limited evidence into logical narratives—without using a well-informed imagination. And that imagination is based, in large or small ways, upon empathy. But only using imaginative empathy when writing history can lead to wild flights of fantasy, or perhaps the cardinal sin of history-making: anachronism.

So, whether we acknowledge it or not, all historians must strike a balance between those extremes. How that is accomplished is what ultimately decides an individual historian’s style, perspective, and methodology. And this is, in large part, what I try to explain to my students when they ask how two historians could possibly come up with equally-valid but totally contradictory interpretations of the same evidence.

Yes, it’s a paradox. But unlike what some of the complainers in my class might say, this is not a weakness, but one of its key strengths.

How do you balance the two?


Featured image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gonzale/88206532

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Museums and HeritageWhat is History For?

American Medieval

For those of you who don’t know me personally, I am an American. Having just returned to the USA for work after an extended life abroad, this little fact is very much on my mind. My American-ness obviously passes without notice or comment on my current continent, but I was simply not accustomed to that in Europe. There, no matter how long I stayed, my nationality and accent always set me slightly apart.

Among my friends, my American-ness usually either went without comment or elicited a bit of gentle ribbing. It simply was one aspect of my life. But some of the most push-back that I fielded when living and working abroad had to do with my profession– and why I, as an American, chose it.

Essentially, some were surprised that an American would devote their life to the study of the medieval world.

Academics weren’t the culprits, if nothing else than because of tradition; today there are as many (if not more) American medievalists as there are European ones. American scholars have been among the leaders in the field ever since the field began.

But to some others there remains a certain confusion of why, in the great Venn Diagram of life, the “American” circle would overlap with the “medievalist” one.

America: A land without a Middle Age

Lanse aux meadows
The American Middle Ages in its Totality

The confusion is understandable. Aside from a damp corner of Canada, there simply was no Middle Ages in North America. I am aware that this may be surprising or even controversial– even among historians– but it is important to recognize that “the Middle Ages” is not just a temporal category, but a geographically- and culturally-specific one.

The idea of the Middle Ages was conceived by Italian humanists in the fifteenth century as a way of setting themselves apart from what came before. They wanted to distance themselves from what (they argued) was a time of darkness that engulfed the gap between the glories of the Roman Empire and their glittering present in the fifteenth century. (This is, by the way, rubbish on a wide variety of levels but that is the topic of another post…)

And while there is argument over exact dates, causes and effects of the Middle Ages, contemporary historians usually maintain that same rough paradigm: the Middle Ages is bookended by the Romans and the Renaissance; between empire and nation, between the beginning of hegemonic Christianity and it’s fragmentation.

Defining the Middle Ages this way is different from simply saying “the tenth century AD”, which, though counted differently in each of the world’s calendars, provides a global chronology which is the same everywhere, more or less. But “the Middle Ages” is a term just as culturally to specific as “the Meiji period” in Japan or “the Vedic period” in India. Similarly, it is just as absurd to discuss the “Chinese Middle Ages” as it would be to discuss a “European Seven Warring States period”. Thus, there is no Middle Ages in the Americas, outside perhaps a fleeting Norse excursion in Vinland.

And it’s for that reason that I can understand why I often field puzzled looks at dinner parties where Europeans ask, “the Middle Ages? Why did you decide to study that?” It belies a feeling that the Middle Ages is theirs, not mine. In honesty, I suppose I might wonder the same question about an Indonesian person who was an expert in the American revolution.

But this mindset only illustrates just how ingrained in us is a nation-centric conception of history, and the peculiar limits of what is “our”  history versus “your” and “their” history.

I recently attended a conference of history education scholars from around the world. And there, I was intrigued to find that one of their chief concerns, no matter what country they called home, was deconstructing the idea that history’s purpose ultimately is to socialise people into their particular nation. Many, if not most of the scholars there rejected wholly the idea that history’s purpose is to create good citizens who all think about history in roughly the same way.

I was raised in an educational system that privileged national history, but I can see the power and appeal of their idea. Who is to say that “our” history extends only to the history of our nation? Isn’t the history of all humanity all our history? Sure, we instinctively as human animals are inclined to care more about our kin-groups than those outside them. But extending this idea out to the nation is a far bigger sell. Nation-states have a very vested interest in inculcating a sense of collective identity and history in their populace. And they have done so by dictating education curricula, days of commemoration and other ways of rendering the past into a coherent identity. Thus, “our history” implicitly ends at “our borders” in the same way that “our land” and “our people”, and “us” do.

But is that wholly true of the Middle Ages in the USA? Is it really so true that the Americas are so devoid of the medieval? Americans have had, and continue to have a peculiar relationship with the Middle Ages that does not fit within the usual chronological or cultural.

Give us your poor, your tired, your medieval…

Part of the American love affair with the Middle Ages relates to a collective and individual desire among white American people to see themselves as a product of a complex immigrant past. In the USA as in across Europe there was a revitalization of interest in the medieval world at the end of the nineteenth century and in the beginning of the twentieth. In Europe this worked in tandem with nationalistic movements which used the Middle Ages to define new identities for themselves. Perhaps not coincidentally, this period also saw a significant influx of immigrants to the USA, and also heralded the birth of the mass media.

John D. Rockefeller and other industrialists of the early American twentieth century famously felt that America was devoid of “culture”, and so they looked to Europe in order to acquire some. In Rockefeller’s case, this led to the importation of significant portions of five medieval abbeys, which were reconstructed as The Cloisters on the northern tip of Manhattan (which I will be talking about at greater length in a few weeks). The result of this was not just to define an American identity, but to argue that America’s common heritage is a European, medieval one. This is obviously a complex and thorny issue that I will be exploring in the coming weeks. But the overarching point here is that even though the USA might be mostly-devoid of its own Middle Ages, it is replete with medieval art and architecture collected or shipped from Europe wholesale. The Cloisters in New York. Dunbarton Oaks in Washington, DC. The medieval manuscript collection at the Library of Congress. The Royal Armouries, USA (at the Frazier Museum in Louisville, KY).

Or the medievalesque imitators built here, made of stone, brick or plastic: The Chicago Water Tower. The Smithsonian Castle. Hearst Castle. The Biltmore Estate castle. White Castle. Cinderella’s castle.

The Real American Gothic
The Real American Gothic

Add to those the thousands of churches built as imitators of European styles. And standing above them all, the National Cathedral, resplendent in its late-fourteenth century English Gothic style.

And those don’t even count the ways in which Americans most typically engage with the medieval past today: through reenactment, playful pastiche and popular culture. Faux-medieval Renaissance Faires. Medieval Times theme restaurants. HEMA groups. Films. TV shows. Video games. The SCA.

It may be odd to be a medievalist in America. But for a public medievalist, it’s just fine.

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Film and TVRace, Class and ReligionWhat is History For?

Would I Have Owned Slaves?

Note: This contains minor spoilers for the film “12 Years a Slave

Buzzfeed has flooded everyone’s Facebook pages with a peculiar sort of public history.

This takes the form of quizzes with titles like Which Founding Father is your Soulmate?, Where Should You Go in a Time Machine, or What Period in History do you Really Belong in?  They’re a silly bit of fun, to be certain, and obviously of very dubious quality. But they call towards a deeper impulse within public history: to imagine yourself in an historical context. It is first-person imaginative history, though of a very uncomplicated sort. This is the same way—though on a more sophisticated level—that participants in Renaissance Faires and historical re-enactors engage with the past. Though in my experience working with re-enactors previously, many of them tend to revel in an uncomplicated, romanticised version of the past.

But what happens if we complicate the idea and complicate the history? Is there any way that we can, in a more historically valid way, imagine ourselves in the past? And does our doing so offer us any further insights into the past or present?

As I have written in a forthcoming article, my first job in public history was as an historical interpreter at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. One of the most difficult conversations I had with visitors involved the question of slavery. Washington was a slave owner.  And that fact caused cognitive dissonance in visitors—that one of the nation’s greatest heroes engaged in one of its greatest shames. Sometimes, their attempts to rectify this dissonance manifested as this question: “Was Washington good to his slaves?” When responding, I would offer the question: “How could you be good to a slave?” Some offered ideas like feeding them well, offering humane accommodation, or refraining from beating them. But I would often repeat my line of inquiry until they came to what I believe to be the best answer: you set them free.

Once this is established, we can then talk about how Washington compared to other slave owners.  He stacks up about average. He enacted some cruelties against his slaves and some mercies. He famously freed all the slaves that he owned* but only upon his death, when they were, by definition, of no more use to him.

And this, I hope, went some way to imagining both our historical heroes and slave owners in a more complex and complete way. We must first establish and emphasise that slavery was wrong, full stop. And despite the standards of the day, it was evil— though it is part of the privileged position of the present that we see it that way. But not all slave owners were created equal; though slavery dirtied all the hands involved, some radical abolitionists did risk wealth, social standing and even their lives to do away with it. And on the other side, some hands are immeasurably dirty.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, Fox Searchlight Pictures 2013

The film 12 Years a Slave does an excellent job of portraying the moral complexity of the institution of slavery. The director explicitly set out to portray, just as the memoir on which it is based does, the range and variety of people who engaged in, benefitted from and suffered under the slave trade. White people are shown benefitting actively or passively, militating against the system or enthusiastically embracing their abusive place within it. The African-American characters are similarly complex. Some passively accept the system, though most struggle, each in their own way, to find a way to survive or even benefit (for certain values of the word) within it. But the fear the system creates forces them often to comply with injustices. The protagonist, Solomon Northrop, is forced to whip another slave. The alternative would be to die. One of the fundamental cruelties of the system is that it encourages you, or even forces you to do horrible things in order to survive, in order to get by.

Reflecting on the film and my work at Mount Vernon, and considering the complex range of interactions with and reactions to slavery in Antebellum America, I find myself wondering how I would react if I was living as a white man in the south at that time. Certainly I— and I hope most people,  would like to think that I would see slavery for what it was, an unmitigated evil, and fight against it. But that seems like too much wishful historical thinking—a projection of modern values onto an imaginary, romanticised past. Instead, I think it a better tack to really think about my own complex reactions to the thorny political and social issues of today, and see how my reactions to today’s injustices compare to a hypothetical person from the past.

Historians typically avoid discussing their own personal and political perspectives in their work for fear of being painted as unobjective or biased.

But I think when exploring history through this first-person imaginative space, it is important to do so.

Politically I tend to be very liberal, especially socially. I believe strongly in social justice, I am in favour of environmentalism,  I am a feminist and am in favour of gay rights. But doing so is easy for me. I vote accordingly, and my teaching and writing reflects this perspective. But I doubt anyone would consider me a radical. I’ve only been to two protests, I’ve never broken the law in accordance with these beliefs (like, say, chaining myself to a tree or attacking whaling ships). I can only count one instance where I put myself any physical danger, defending a woman from a few drunk creeps, in accordance with my beliefs.

But I know that I let many things slide. I know that eating meat is very bad for the environment, but I am not a vegetarian. I try to conserve energy, but if it’s hot I will put on the AC. I am against sweatshops and refuse to shop at Wal-Mart, but don’t check the labels before I buy a t-shirt. I buy free range eggs, but don’t ask whether the restaurant does so before ordering breakfast. I have lent vocal support to my gay friends, but have neither sacrificed my time to march with them nor my money on donating to the cause. I am, I’m afraid to say, something of a liberal of convenience. Push does not generally come to shove about it, and if my support of those ideals threatened my life or safety, I’m afraid to say I would probably try to find a way to keep both my ideals and my life. I suspect many people behave in the same way.

So if I imagine myself realistically in the Antebellum south, who would I be? Not the passionate abolitionist, I’m afraid. I hate to say it, but I would likely be a character of convenient conscience. Had I owned slaves, I would probably free them in my will as Washington did, and think myself quite virtuous for doing so. In terms of Twelve Years a Slave, I might be a William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch’s character), a man who owns a slave plantation but seems to treat his slaves with relative kindness. But, he does not militate against the system or free his slaves and, when his safety is threatened by Solomon’s conflict with an overseer, elects to sell Solomon rather than risk himself. Or I hope I would be Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt’s character), a Canadian who is vocally against slavery and will argue convincingly against it because he risks little by talking. But when he is presented with an opportunity to right a serious wrong but, in attempting to do so, lose his job and risk his life, he does it. In so doing, he saves Solomon. Of course it’s important to point out that he only does so when the injustice he sees is made both personal—in that he knows and has come to respect Solomon—and also illegal— which gives him the ability to act against it by alerting the authorities. But notably, he does not try to free all slaves. He frees the one who begs him with tears in his eyes to do so, but only because he can do so without violating the law.

There are two ways to react from examining the past introspectively in this way. The first is complacency: to shrug one’s shoulders and fall back on the axiom that we all live according to the standards of our day. Surely there will always be injustice, and who am I to fight against my age?

The other, perhaps more interesting, way to view it is to use the past to reconsider my own actions in the present. If I really do feel strongly about social injustice, perhaps I should act more on my conscience, lest I continue to class myself as someone who might shrug and demure in the face of the injustices of the past.

Historians generally do not engage with the past in this fashion, and public attempts to do this too-often fall back onto cliché and romanticism. But there might be a way that historians can work together with their publics to better imagine, and appreciate, the complexity of  past people by reflecting on the complexity of our present selves.

* Note: Washington freed all the slaves he owned, but most of the slaves held at Mount Vernon were owned by his wife’s family, and so he had no power to free them. 

Photo Credit: Twelve Years a Slave, Open Library

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What is History For?

Shadows of Ourselves: Empathy and History

by Paul B. Sturtevant

What does history do for us?

The question is simple enough, but it strikes at the heart of what I do as a public historian. Sure, we can retreat behind clichés like the George Santayana quote: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But when you consider that idea in depth —that we should use history as a way to make decisions in the present—it becomes thorny fast. Sure, maybe a better consideration of history might have indicated that the war in Iraq was a bad idea, and that it would lead to sectarian chaos in the region. But if we use the past this way, it only resigns us to powerlessness. If the world is simply destined to behave as it always has, how can we possibly change it?

When historians are confronted with the question of history’s value and relevance, many have difficulty answering. Sure, it is a complicated question, but unless we are able to answer succinctly and powerfully when asked, history as an academic discipline will be consigned to obscurity. There was once a time when historians could get away with saying that history was important and worth studying simply because it was. In light of aggressive funding cuts to the arts and humanities around the world, that time is over.

There are many possible answers to that question. And I’ll write more about them as time goes by. The one that I’ll start with is the most interesting one I’ve heard recently. The idea was explained most succinctly by John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars and presenter of Crash Course World History  – a Youtube series that presents, in fifteen minute increments, entertaining summaries of world history. Green’s idea is this: “The study of History allows you to empathize better; it allows you to think more complexly about others.” And the importance of empathy – even imaginative empathy towards historical people – should not be underestimated. Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge University and author of the Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, (among many, many others), believes that empathy is the root of goodness in humans, and that a lack of empathy is the chief source of cruelty, barbarity and evil.

Baron-Cohen’s theories are of course more complex than that. And I am certainly not saying that studying history will make you a better person.

Actually, that is exactly what I’m saying.

History allows you to encounter people fundamentally different than yourself—people who grew up in a vastly different time and place, and who found themselves in an entirely different world than we see today. And yet, when read closely, we can see shadows of ourselves. I myself on a number of occasions, reading an old letter or standing in the keep of a shattered castle, have felt that I would not be so different from the people who lived there, who lived then. And that helps me, when reading stories about people today who live halfway across the world, to understand that even though they are in many ways totally different from me, they are complicated people doing their best to live a good life in their time.

Is this the only way to engage with history? Certainly not. But it is a useful one. So, the next time you are accosted at a dinner party and asked to justify why you are excited about the past, why you have dedicated your time to studying it, you could do worse than to answer “Because it makes me a better person.”

What do you think? How do you use the past? Have you encountered people in the past who help you to think about others?

Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pearlsareanuisance/

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