Tag Archives: historians

Reflections on the American Historical Association Annual Meeting, 1

This past week historians descended on Boston thicker than a Nor’easter snow storm!  This is an enormous conference, not least because it is open to as wide a collection as possible of the fields and subfields under the history umbrella.  In hundreds of workshops, innovative ideas are presented, discussed, have sex with each other and create new little ideas that will grow in the work and research of both the presenters and the audience.  These are great moments for those of us in the field to develop professionally and grow in the field.

I have a couple of thoughts that I would like to share this week from the conference and which I will spread over a couple of posts.

Rhetorics of Reform and Medieval Religion

The Semiotics of Pious Reform and Insurgent Historiographies in Early Islam, Thomas N. Sizgorich, University of California at Irvine

A Conversation Across Centuries: Reforming the Secular Clergy in Western Christendom, 800-1200,  Maureen C. Miller, University of California at Berkeley

Reform, and Ever Reforming: From “Movements” to Conflicts, from Persons to Institutions, from the Twelfth Century to the Fifteenth, John H. Van Engen, University of Notre Dame

Comment: Mayke de Jong, Universitiet Utrecht

I have been interested in various reform movements in the Medieval period, spending the most time with the Carolingians and the 11th century.  In most cases, I was concerned with the intended reforms and not their relative success, in other words: trying to grasp what was intended in these reforms on the part of specific reformers though not necessarily how successful any actually were.  The reason for this is obvious–we have the documentation for the reformers so we can make that effort to get inside their heads, but determining their successful or unsuccessful implementation is not as well-documented.  But, this is where the challenge is and historians are remiss to ignore it.  This was, to a large degree, the substance of the talks.  The word “reform” has started to lose its currency in much the same way that the word “feudalism” has.

Whereas Miller turned to material culture to try to trace attempts at clerical reforms and actually ascertain to what degree the reforms were implemented, Van Engen discussed the difficulty in the idea of “reform” for an institution that should be continually devoted to self-reflection and, thus ideally, self-correction.  The point is this: to really return a sense of substance to the word, it would behoove us to stop considering reform in terms of waves of movements, and instead focus on the changes that occurred (or didn’t) as a result of calls to reform.  De Jong congratulated the presenters on this precise point when recalling the work of Robert Markus (recently deceased and remembered) who suggested that the real work for scholars would be to look at the spaces and places that changed and shifted in the Church’s history.  (This is what he did so well in The End of Ancient Christianity.)

Without this revision to our approach, the word “reform” seems to require definition and explanation every time it is used.  It also means that we need to leave behind the purely intellectual history of most previous reform discussions and try to tease out the actual effects of these propositions on the ground.

This is what Miller did in her presentation regarding the priestly vestments and their evolution through the period of the 800-1200 reform movements, seeking evidence of these alterations in the material culture–a challenging task given the limited number of sample artifacts.  Her project is clearly attempting to rectify not only the problems with our discussions about reforms but also the means by which we gain insight to movement on the ground.  In addition to the vestments, she made use of the regional liturgical legislation as a method for inter-textual reading against the legislation that was coming out of Rome which faced unique challenges that were not experienced in most regional churches.

Van Engen compared the resistance to these movements among the clergy as being frequently resisted among large segments of the targeted population to a hypothetical reform in academia wherein professors would lose their offices and instead congregate together as a return to academia’s purer roots!  Given that, it seems worthwhile to identify actual successes or setback in such programs.

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History vs. Journalism, a problem with sources

Where have all the reliable sources gone?

I love reading a well-written piece in magazines such as the Smithsonian.  These cultural catch-alls are entertaining and usually skillfully crafted prose, often adorned with fantastic photography or artwork.  Still they are not written from an academic perspective, nor typically for an academic audience.  The sources are frequently limiting in their perspective and infrequently fully disclosed.  As a historian I read many pieces with a certain sense of frustration, usually related to the author’s method.  (As a high school student, I recall being particularly fired up after reading a National Geographic article on Ibn Battuta, the African Muslim traveler who covered way more turf and sand than Marco Polo, but NO sources were provided.)  I am not entirely sure how this is played out for other academic fields, but in the field of history there are demands for disclosure of one’s sources that are not required of journalists–in fact, journalistic codes often require just the opposite: protection of one’s sources.

An "Indelible Image" in Smithsonian Magazine, a regular edition that typically interviews the individuals in the photo and the photographer about the picture.

A few years ago, I sat in the Dirkson cafeteria on capitol hill with a fellow colleague of the Close Up Foundation.  He was also working part time at one of the big box book stores and taking advantage of a book loan program they had for their employees.  Sadly, I cannot recall the title or author of the particular book he was reading, but I do recall that it was about the Bush administration’s decision to go to war.  When I asked him about it, he said it was rather odd: it was written by a journalist and had sections of dialogue in it.  Actually, it was like a running transcript of a discussion supposedly held in the Oval Office by Bush with Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell.  According to my friend, there was no citation or explanation about where the script came from.  WHAT??!?  Don’t you have to at least tell me that you got it from a source you can’t tell me about?

Admittedly, journalism has changed–look at what I’m doing; journalists do it, too–but, the whole approach was always different from history.  If journalism requires investigations into current politicians, corporate heads and international politics, than sources need to be protected so that they may speak freely.  That is the theory, anyway.  I respect that, although, when the news contradicts itself as much as it does, today, it is really hard to know what is actually happening.  Historians do not need to worry so much about their sources feeling reprisal since all parties are often dead.  In fact, it is quite the opposite approach.  Everyone should have access to the source!  As I read a historian’s work I am not only at liberty to check his interpretation against the sources he used, but am encouraged to follow his sources to develop my own theories and ideas and build on our current understanding.  This is an essential feature of  the field.  It is frequently not possible with journalistic writing.  When I would desire to check a random assertion, I am left without a footnote and my only recourse is to see what others have published.  It is often difficult to get to the primary sources, because no one wants to divulge them.  All I can do is trust the journalist’s integrity and judgement!

Journalists forgetting their press badges are not "backstage passes."

It is thus difficult to do one’s due diligence.  We have an undesirable situation compounded with the withering of the newsprint industry.  Instead of reading a lengthy story with explanations and a trail building to a conclusion, most people have chosen short blurbs on TV media or snappy online sources.  I tend to ignore tweeted news without an article attached to it.

Twitter killed the newspaper star?

That explains my frustration with current news media, but it also explains one’s irritation when reading journalist-written histories.  The training creates significantly different products from a journalist than it would from a historian, but it often gets read more, promoted more and discussed more outside of academic circles.  To add insult to injury, journalists with insufficient knowledge or training often review academic history works in popular publications.  What a mess!  I don’t really have it in for journalists, but I do get frustrated with them–they aren’t historians, but they sometimes play historians in the media!

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