Inside, Outside*

This is one of those posts that I've been mulling over for days now, which either means it's going to be brilliantly insightful or--more likely--hopelessly convoluted. I had an idea this morning that I had finally figured out a way to tackle the question that's been nagging me, but now, at the end of the day, tired from reading in the literature on late medieval Flemish art, I'm not so sure. I don't, however, want to let it go another day because I'm afraid my entanglement and fatigue is only going to get worse. So, here goes: why do we study history?

I know, I know, I'm an historian. I should know the answer to this question. But the thing is, I don't, not really. I know some of the answers that my colleagues have given, but even so, I'm still not sure. Do we actually care about the past "for its own sake"? If so, why? It's not like we can help the past be anything other than the past. Or do we study the past to tell us something about ourselves--in which case, why not just study ourselves? To be sure, studying ourselves might necessarily involve studying our history; we are, as individuals as well as cultures, creatures of the past, after all. But to study the past solely as a way of analyzing our current situation seems, well, a bit shallow, not really respectful of the past or of the people who came before us. But then, again, trying to empathize fully with the thoughts and actions of the past feels at times, well, a bit prurient, as if trying to live someone else's life rather than one's own.

My colleagues have written many learned and insightful books about this question, but I can't help but feel--here, at the end of the day, at the end of a month spent reading myself into the historiography in a new part of my field--that we have actually boxed ourselves into a corner. For example, just to give you a taste of the kind of questions with which this particular historiography is involved: were the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries a) a period of general sterility and decline ("late Middle Ages") or b) were they a period of innovation and growth ("Renaissance")? Should we see in the pious practices of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century laity a) a desperate attempt to discover some meaning in an ossified and incomprehensible religion that had been imposed upon them by a power-hungry but otherwise indifferent clerical elite or b) a fervent response to the very teachings that the clergy were anxious to communicate? Is the realism of the art of the so-called "Flemish primitives" a) imbued with a dense and cultivated but nevertheless well-known spiritual symbolism or b) is it an attempt to communicate a new, more worldly, even skeptical understanding of nature and humanity's place therein?

Confused? I am, because, of course, there is no way to answer questions such as these other than from within one's own perspective and values. Yes, yes, I know that as historians we are meant to put everything in context so as to avoid overlaying our understanding of the past with our own prejudices and concerns, but I have yet to encounter a historian (myself included) who does not remake the past that he or she is studying into his or her own image of the way the world should be. All history is, in a very real sense, forgery. Every period will see itself--or that which it fears--in the past that it studies. Thus the terrible sterility of questions of periodization. Who cares whether the fifteenth century witnessed the birth of modernity unless we would like to claim for modernity some of the things that we can see happening at that time, e.g. the creation of beautiful art? Who cares whether the late medieval laity were sincerely devout in their prayers unless we would like to know how to practice those prayers ourselves? Who cares whether Jan van Eyck intended all of the rich symbolism that twentieth-century art historians claimed to be able to discern in his paintings unless we, too, would like to have a sense that there is more to the visible world than meets the physical eye?

Well, I guess, I do, except for that part about modernity, which is really the most hopeless red herring one can pursue. (For the record, "moderns" have always been with us; they are the ones alive at the time of writing.) It's just that it doesn't sound impressive enough to say, "I care." But why else would I be studying this material? It's interesting how often we feel the need to justify our interest--which is all it really is--by way of claims that satisfying our curiosity will somehow make the world a better place. The thing is, how exactly will it make the world a better place to put the dividing line between "medieval" and "modern" just there? How will it make the world a better place to decide whether late medieval Europeans were really Christian or just faking it? How will it make the world a better place to be able to look at a van Eyck and know whether to look for symbolism or not? You will say I have only pointed to the good things that happened during this period. Okay, so is the fear of witchcraft "medieval" or "modern" given that the majority of trials happened in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? Too easy? How about this one: was the Protestant reformation a good or bad thing? No, I'm not thinking just the unity of Christendom, although there is that. Rather, was it the answer to a "tension" that had been "building for centuries" or was it a rupture that might never have happened had Martin Luther been a different sort of man?

You will notice that all but one of the preceding paragraphs end with a question. I know there is the kernel of an answer somewhere in all of this, but I can't see it now. I think, however, I do have a better sense of what the problem is. It actually occurred to me during church yesterday, but I can see now it is part of the question. I feel guilty (in the sense of culpable) studying what I do because I am both interested (in the sense of invested in the answer) and yet not. Ideally, at least according to the unspoken canons of the academy, one studies something one is not or, at the very least, something one is able to have some distance from, so as to maintain objectivity. But, on the other hand, one is only able to write about things that one actually knows--and how can one know what one does not oneself practice? Here I am, a Christian, studying the history of Christian practices of prayer. Which means I inhabit a perspective already that believes in prayer as a worthwhile and, potentially, illuminating and transformative practice, thus excluding me from the perspective that it is nothing more than an elaborate exercise of imagination with no bearing on reality other than in its cognitive, social and artistic effects. But, on the other hand, I am alive now, not in the fourteenth or fifteenth century; my daily life is nothing like that of the people whose prayer practices I am studying. Even if I were to say the Office of the Virgin daily, as they did, it would not be the same practice as theirs, only an analogue. So what do I hope to accomplish?

Another question, another tangle. Ultimately, I realize, there is no justification for any work of history beyond the desire of the author to want to write it. It is enough for me to say, "This interests me," in order to have a reason to write about it. As to why it interests me, ah, there's the rub! My readers will want to know and I will feel obliged to tell them. I feel guilty (in the sense of not-playing-by-the-rules) because I don't care about the questions that my colleagues have hitherto asked, at least not all of them. I don't care when we can see the first glimmerings of "modernity" by which we usually mean "people like us". I see all humanity, now and then, as "people like us". There are just as many competing views on reality now as there ever were; it is a fiction of the intellectual class (and, indeed, only a part of that class) that reality is now resolutely secular (a.k.a. "of this world") and that nothing is real other than that which we can observe with our senses or reason. I think it is silly to argue whether painterly realism is more "symbolic" or "naturalistic"--it is clearly both. And I think it impossible to decide whether the Reformation was inevitable (in the sense of unavoidable) or not. Clearly, there were problems with the institutional operation of the Church in the early sixteenth century, but to say that Luther's emphasis on justification by faith alone solved a problem with the sacramental system that others had been feeling for centuries seems to me to be going a bit far. Sometimes nobody sees the problem until the answer is already there, and perhaps the "answer" created the problem in the first place.

So do I have my answer yet? Clearly, what I'm looking for is permission to write, and nobody can give that to me but myself. How's that for cutting the Gordian knot of historiography? We study history because we want to; it is our wanting that takes so many forms, not strictly speaking history itself. There are, potentially, as many justifications for the study of history as there are authors or topics. Do I have to apologize for wanting to know more about the effects of disciplined, structured, symbolic, regular prayer? Not really, unless, that is, someone asks why I care. Clearly, that is what I am going to have to articulate, for myself, as well as my readers.

To be continued....

*Picture credits: (top) Quentin Metsys, Virgin and Child, Brussels Museum of Ancient Art; (bottom) Quentin Metsys, The Banker with his Wife (detail), Brussels Museum of Ancient Art


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