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December 11, 2004

Studying History

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards,

Since my retirement from active blogging at 2Blowhards, I’ve spent most of my leisure time reading history. Mostly, that’s meant reading European history, with a focus on those periods and locations that produced interesting visual art. My ultimate goal is to better understand the general cultural conditions surrounding the creation of great visual art, a subject I’ve long been curious about. Well, that’s my ‘highflown’ goal, anyway. Speaking in more lowdown terms, I get a kick out of the out-and-out weirdness of the past. By weirdness, I of course mean many things.

One form of weirdness I enjoy consists of examples of just how the past was really not the same as contemporary society. For example, I read the other day that 12th century aristocratic factions in Florence more or less ‘owned’ (very much in the street-gang sense of the word) neighborhoods in the city. They symbolized their dominance over their ‘turf’ by building observation-and-fighting towers that stood as much as 150-200 feet tall (manned, in times of tension, by crossbowmen). At the peak of this phenomenon, roughly the year 1200, something like two hundred of these towers bristled up out of the Florentine skyline. (And remember, medieval Florence was a pretty small place.) How’d you like to be a middle-class shop-owner trying to assert your civic rights at street level with all those crossbow platforms looming above you? So if you read about the faction-politics of medieval Florence, thinking that it is just one more typical fight over who would run City Hall and hand out the patronage jobs, you might not be catching all the nuances.

(My reading also makes me wonder if people studying political theory have spent enough time looking at medieval Italian city-states. They would seem to offer laboratory conditions for examining societies functioning in an environment that approximated a Hobbesian ‘state-of-nature’ and yet which also managed to be hotbeds (if rather scary hotbeds) of cultural and economic creativity. Warning: I may revisit this thought in a subsequent posting.)

Another form of weirdness I treasure is pretty much the polar opposite of the first: spotting highly recognizable personalities operating in cultures and thought-systems rather alien to those of the present day. One is a personality type I would call ‘The Plain-Talking Engineer’ which I found inhabiting the body of one Walter of Henley, a farm-manager and author of a treatise on agriculture in 13th century England. According to Jean Gimpel in his book, “The Medieval Machine”:

Walter of Henley is, quite rightly, often quoted in history books as one of the first men known to have applied experimental methods to agriculture. His writings reveal a very independent character bound by no tradition; he never hesitated to defend the unorthodox views resulting from his personal observations, and he sometimes invited his audience to verify these theories for themselves:

“…Change yearly your seed corn at Michaelsmas[. For] more increase shall you have of the seed that grew upon another man’s land than by that which groweth upon your own land. And will you see it? Cause the two lands to be [plowed] in one day and sow the one with the bought seed and the other with the seed which grew of your own and at harvest you shall find that I say truth.”

Another example of this type of weirdness was in a different chapter of Mr. Gimpel’s book. In it, he explains that the notion that Classical Antiquity was only rediscovered at the time of the Renaissance is, well, a canard--if a very widely believed canard. Mr. Gimpel prints a large chart listing some of the many Classical works translated by European scholars from either the original Greek sources or from Arabic intermediaries during the 11th and 12th centuries. (And a number of medieval academics knew Greek, even if they couldn't write it perfectly. In contrast, none of the first-generation Renaissance humanists understood Greek a few centuries later.) Unfortunately, the upshot of all this was a form of behavior not unknown on university campuses today:

The introduction of Aristotle’s works, accompanied by various Arabic commentaries, particularly those of the great philosophers Avicenna and Averroes, presented the newly founded University of Paris with a more or less complete system…of thought.

Gee, if you’d substitute the terms “structuralism” or “postmodernism” for “Aristotle’s works, etc.” in that sentence, and change the time frame from the 12th century to the 20th, you’d still have a pretty recognizable picture, no? A group of academics falling in love with a neat system that lets them feel like they understand the whole universe at last? I guess some things really don’t change, at least in academia.

In any event, all this makes me wonder that I don't see more references to history either to support or to criticize social theories, be they economic, political, or even moral. It would seem to me hard to determine what in any given situation is merely local or accidental as opposed to what is fundamental and permanent, without examining multiple examples of similar situations from history. My sense is that history served exactly this function for previous generations. Has our society, despite our vast historical resources (never more plentiful than today) become oddly a-historical?

What are your thoughts on this?



posted by Friedrich at December 11, 2004


It's scarcely a secret that traditional history education has been all but abandoned by the public schools... we certainly have a lot of resources at our command, but very few people under 40 have been given the chronological framework they need to engage in imaginative time travel. What you'll see now if you go teach history to undergraduates are adults who know quite well (thanks to Spielberg) what Omaha Beach looked and felt like--but who don't have a hope of telling you whether television, vinyl records, or antibiotics existed in 1944, and who may in fact be at a loss to slot the war in before or after the Protestant Reformation or the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. They are in fact quite weak, as a rule, on the whole idea of institutions and technologies having a historical point of origin at all.

It turns out that there is a real good reason to have young schoolchildren rote-memorize loads and loads of dates. Without 'em one's historical awareness is a sloppy dermis without a skeleton or organs, and one is more or less useless as a functioning participant in civic life...

Posted by: Colby Cosh on December 11, 2004 10:53 PM

Welcome back, Friedrich:
What you need to do is to join AVISTA:

...founded by friends of mine and inspired by Jean Gimpel's lifelong fascination with the medieval technology of Villard de Honnecourt.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on December 11, 2004 11:10 PM

So, if we looked at America today using the history of Italian city-states...what would it tell us to do, do you think?

Posted by: annette on December 12, 2004 1:10 AM

This year's Pierre Bayle lecture by historian Jonathan Israel deals with the same subject:

"The cutting back of the humanities in the universities and high schools is politically driven and defended in the name of cost-cutting and what people want. But that doesn't alter the fact that it is suicidal and an absolute plague in our society and the main cause of the new philistinism and barbarism which constitutes the true threat. Are not the Dutch as guilty here as the British, Germans and Swedes? Indeed, they are. For as principles toleration, democracy, equality, equity, personal freedom, and liberty of expression - the underpinning of western modernity - can not be defended and preserved except by people who understand what they are, how they arose and why they matter."

Posted by: ijsbrand on December 12, 2004 8:08 AM

Excuse me, since the lecture only seems to be available to subscribers, I've put it online here [pdf, 81 KB]

Posted by: ijsbrand on December 12, 2004 8:27 AM

I guess Friedrich and Jonathan Israel are thinking alike. Yipes--it's a pretty potent point.

Posted by: annette on December 12, 2004 8:35 AM

During last election I was often puzzled by constant histerical equation Bush=Hitler or "neocons=Nazis" coming from University students. I couldn't find the reason why educated people with - theoretically-World History course fresh in their minds (especially English/History/Art/Humanities majors) would insist on this nonsense other than evoke deliberate misleading and conspiracy.

But may be you're right and I was too paranoid with my theory. The answer is simple: historical mess in these people's heads?
I was clicking in and out yesterday to the C-Span programme with Tom Frank, author of "What's the matter with Kansas?". After the talk one of the questions Frank was asked was "What parallels do you see between Bush's America and Weimar republic?"
And this self-proclaimed "cultural historian" proceeded to reply in full seriousness, agreeing with this assessment...

When smart and erudite graduate of exclusive Humanities college (different example) thinks corporatism is breeding ground for National-Socialism (simple fact of corporations being natural enemies of socialists on account of sharing their profits doesn't enter his head) - something is definitely wrong in this kingdom.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 12, 2004 10:03 AM

Teachers of history & the humanities have lost out, more & more, in the political fight over funds in tax-funded schools & universities. 'Put not your trust in princes'.

Posted by: Sudha Shenoy on December 12, 2004 10:23 AM

I've enjoyed (thanks to Jimbo's tip) exploring the Post-Autistic Economics Network. A group of grousy, heterodox economists, who gripe that the standard economics training turns out youngsters who are great at spinning numbers and models, but who have no idea how institutions actually work -- and no knowledge of economic history either.

There's always the basic psychological-growth thing to wrestle with where history's concerned: the fact that many people find that they aren't much interested in history as youngsters, but as they pass 40 they start to go, Wow, history! Which of course is no argument for not teaching kids the basics, just because they'd rather not.

Interesting thing I remember from my years following publishing? It's that there's quite an amazing market for well-done narrative history. Two explanations for it: 1) as people get older they both leave school and find themselves getting interested in history. But also 2) academic historians have tended to forsake the "good story" and "interesting characters" sides of history for various theoretical reasons. (Always fun to blame academics for helping create their own predicaments -- why stop now?) So that many people who might have gotten hooked by history in school never were -- it really was boring, at least as presented by the teachers. They get out of school, they run into a few books or TV shows that are good, and full of drama, and make you think, and help you see life in a little perspective, and they get hooked. And of course they wonder why the teachers were keeping the good and exciting stuff from them. I wonder how many college history courses use Paul Johnson's books, for instance. Whatever their demerits, they're very exciting, involving and informative.

A funny thing about arty kids these days is that they live in an eternal present. They've got no background in anything. Which in a sense is great for them -- they certainly don't feel the burden of history, and to some extent that's freeing. On the other hand, it does mean that they're kind of mentally stunted too, doesn't it?...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 12, 2004 12:09 PM

Although that last comment is I'm sure true, I'm wondering if it really gets at the heart of the issue. If universities aren't teaching or emphasizing history, it's because our society isn't valuing it in some way. Yet it doesn't stop thousands of pundits and everyday people from commenting on our political/cultural/economic state without valuing history. I, half-jokingly, blame phrases like "the space age." I think our country got the distinct impression somewhere in the sixties (the boomers again?) that "nothing like this has ever gone before" and therefore history can't be a good guide to a world moving so fast, a world with TV and jets (and now the internet), a world where Presidents get impeached for abuse of power, etc. Plus there was a general debunking of the accuracy of "official academic" history in this same period---it's just the sanitized white male version of history, where America was great for ripping off Indians and the military wasn't racist and...and...and... Academics (and textbook publishers) have some of the blame for people thinking that "history" as historically taught was a selective version of facts, so people may have subconsciously stopped looking to it for guidance. Which then led to it being de-emphasized in importance in scholastics and everyday lives.

Posted by: annette on December 12, 2004 12:12 PM

Oops--Michael and I posted at the same time. I wasn't referring back to his comment, but Sudha's correct observation that History doesn't get academic funding to the same degree anymore...

Posted by: annette on December 12, 2004 12:14 PM

"It would seem to me hard to determine what in any given situation is merely local or accidental as opposed to what is fundamental and permanent, without examining multiple examples of similar situations from history. My sense is that history served exactly this function for previous generations."

According to C.S. Lewis (in The Discarded Image, a book about the Medieval world view), intellectuals in the Medieval period generally had an extremely poor sense of history. They were well acquainted with the classics, as you point out, but they assumed that the ancients who had written them lived and dressed and behaved more or less as they themselves did. In addition, they tended to assume that if someone had cared enough to write something down in a book, and if subsequent generations had cared enough to preserve that book, then its contents must very likely be true. Of course, many of the books they had available to them contradicted each other; which led them to interesting flights of fancy and interpretation and synthesis as they tried to reconcile everything they thought they knew.

So says Lewis, anyway, and he's got the references to back it up. Fascinating book; it's available from Canto, Cambridge University Press's popular imprint.

Posted by: Will Duquette on December 12, 2004 12:15 PM

Thanks to everyone for their comments on a posting that is going sixteen different directions at once.

Mr. Cosh:

I agree, having a strong framework of names and dates is pretty much essential to understanding history. Without it one can't connect the dots, so to speak. For example, just yestderday I was thinking, apropos of nothing: "Hmmm, the return of infantry to an occasionally leading role in the military history of the 1300s after centuries during which tiny groups of mounted men called all the shots--is there a link between this and the very large population growth of the the years between 900 and 1350?" Dates force your brain to consider what else was going on in the world at that time. Even if that raises more questions...!

Ms. Skatebol:

Thanks for the link. Maybe as a result of having a father who was an engineer, I'm always intrigued by the way engineering threads its way through history--a very neglected topic in general histories, as well!


I'm shocked that the Dutch don't teach history, especially their own! Dutch history rocks! I've been trying to restrain myself from writing a bunch of posts purely about the most entertaining elements of the Dutch Golden Age. I love those stories, and so inspirational (or so I would assume.) I think one of the biggest losses in not studying history is to realize how (at least occasionally) virtuous and even heroic people can be, or at least amazingly creative in very tough situations. This is a lesson that really needs emphasizing, no matter how corny it may seem.

Annette: Any correspondence between my thought and that of Jonathan Israel is purely the result of luck on my part! The lessons of the Italian medieval city-states are ones I am struggling to comprehend--they don't seem to fit tidily in current intellectual constructs. I'll have to get back to you on that one.


Yes, historical analogy can be misused as easily as it can be used. But only people with enough background in history are really able to play this game and spot the fakes...which, regretfully, seems to leave big chunks of the population rather vulnerable to manipulation.

Mr. or Ms. Shenoy:

Are you referring to the teaching of history or the research of history? While the teaching end does seem rather in ruins, the research part seems to be making significant strides. Of course, that leaves a bunch of fairly erudite people talking to themselves, but that's something, isn't it? No? Maybe not.


As I got older, I certainly found history and biography to be more compelling than fiction in terms of learning about the world. And history is absolutely full of brilliantly entertaining episodes, without dreamed up Hollywood climaxes or fake happy endings. But what you say makes me less surprised at the steady flow of new product in the history sections of bookstores. If people didn't bring their own mature curiosity to the subject, and reacted as if in school, the last history book would have been published decades ago!

I guess it's hard to blame kids for being so a-historical, though. History does almost seem to be treated in society as a sort of private vice. I wonder if the real culprit here is the relative lack of any really significant shift in cultural consciousness in post-WWII America. Really big shifts (in art, at least) seem to follow huge changes in how society is organized, or how it views the world. Probably a lot of the disappointment we both feel in the face of the art of our time is related to the lack of significant disruption Americans have faced during our lifetimes. Of course, that may change...

Mr. Duquette:

It's true that medieval historians, or antiquarians, or whatever, weren't great historians. But intellectuals in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries were living in a "new" era that was quite revolutionary in many respects, and they probably didn't see the need to treat history as anything other than a toolkit they could rummage through to find useful knicknacks to help them do new and cool stuff. Whereas the better historians of the Renaissance Humanists were in many cases just propogandizing for fairly regressive, indeed conservative societies who were in many cases living on the 'capital' heaped up by their more energetic ancestors. I may do a post comparing the real accomplishments of the Renaissance and the High Medieval eras.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 12, 2004 1:22 PM

Are we an ahistorical society?

It's a tough question.

On the one hand, we're the home of Henry Ford's "History is Bunk" mentality.

On the other, America was the most self-consciously created of all the nations. The founders deliberated over a document - The Constitution - that would deliberately set us down a path based on the best (as they saw it) Enlightenment Thought (English/Scotch branch) of the 18th Century.

Some have said that for that reason America is a Lockean project.

The people who would change that project are always running up against The Constitution, which, though dented, is still very much part of our historical consciousness.

So I would say that we are, on balance, not an ahistorical society.

Posted by: ricpic on December 12, 2004 4:14 PM

I don't believe it: you are the ONLY Google hit for "plain-talking engineer" as of today. An archetype is born.

Posted by: Toby on December 12, 2004 4:50 PM

There is history that concerns all people and then history that would only interest specialists/hobbyists. The history of buttons may be avidly pursued by some people but if I never hear it I will still probably be Ok. I assume you're talking about history as a liberal art to understand the world around us. History can present disturbing realities that people addicted to indulgent media would rather not hear. There are issues of community involved that most people take for granted. Many people don't care to understand what's happening around them today.

People resist learning lessons from the past if it limits their actions. There is a certain me-first mentality that is associated with technological toys and wondering at the latest advances in Pixar animation. And it is possible to draw different conclusions from the same history. Lessons from history can only be shared by people working with the same facts and moral beliefs. Some issues are big enough that people can agree on the moral, like "It sucks to be dead" or to be poor, dispossessed, or bullied.

History should be presented as self-defense to be effective. I agree that you need to have the picture painted for you and sometimes that works better in historical fiction. Quality historical fiction can be a real service to reading actual history books which may or may not be dramatically written. Maps and graphics also help. Those George Lucas FX can do a lot for painting a historical picture.

It takes a lot of work to understand a time and place in history. I'm not sure one book could do it all except in a very small scope. So when you have the History of the World books or semester-length courses you're really just getting a limited encyclopedia or a philosophy in the guise of historical facts, what is it that really matters. I would need to read books and books about a certain time and place in history to begin to get an understanding. If I got there it would probably help me understand my world better. It's usually more fun to study a far away time and place than the suburb you live in.

Posted by: Edvard Grieg on December 12, 2004 6:45 PM

"It's true that medieval historians, or antiquarians, or whatever, weren't great historians. But intellectuals in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries were living in a "new" era that was quite revolutionary in many respects, and they probably didn't see the need to treat history as anything other than a toolkit they could rummage through to find useful knicknacks to help them do new and cool stuff."

I didn't mean to say that the Medievals were poor historians. Your original point was that perhaps in our era more than others, we ignore history and the lessons we can learn from it. My point was that the Medievals are oddly bifurcated on this. On the one hand, they had an exaggerated respect for the books that had been handed down to them. On the other hand, they expected that past eras had been more or less exactly like their own--that socially, little had changed. The medieval artist who painted Biblical figures in Medieval dress wasn't trying to be clever; he was painting people, and that's how people dressed.

In short, we look to the past to see how things were different then, and to learn which modern day "truths" are in fact ephemeral; they looked to the past expecting things to be the same, and that the truths of the ancients were, quite simply, truths.

Something to be said for the latter view, I think.

Posted by: Will Duquette on December 13, 2004 12:07 AM

On the Florentine towers: A large handful still stand in the (much smaller) hill town of San Gimignano, enough to give you a sense of what it might have been like.

"One form of weirdness I enjoy consists of examples of just how the past was really not the same as contemporary society."

Not was "human nature" as unchanging as we may casually think. D.W. Robertson, a great Chaucerian and a great lecturer, blew the top of my head off one day when he said, more or less: "There's a default assumption that the figures in the Canterbury Tales seem broadly-drawn 'types' rather than novelistic characters because the author didn't have the benefit of six more centuries of accumulating technique. But let's see what we might learn if we assume instead that he had all the technique he needed, and 14th-century people *were* precisely like that.."

Posted by: Monte Davis on December 13, 2004 7:01 AM

The best thing about the medieval mind is that it had not been subjected to Freud.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on December 13, 2004 7:31 PM

Anybody here read the series of medieval books by Joseph and Frances Gies; or Barbara Tuchman's Distant Mirror; or Simon Schama on the Dutch Golden Age?
Used to be that Huizinga's Waning of the Middle Ages was considered the last word--but nowadays we have a little more to choose from.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on December 13, 2004 7:36 PM

I believe Richard Southern's Making of the Middle Ages is still canonical in the academy, and it's very readable.

Posted by: Colby Cosh on December 15, 2004 9:04 AM

Thanks to everyone with recommendations for my further reading. I can see I'll be busy.

Ms. Skattebol: I think you're on to something with the relationship--or, I guess, the lack of one--between medieval society and Freud. I came across a psychoanalysis of Courtly Love (heavily emphasizing infantile elements) the other day, and almost spit my Diet Coke out at the mall food court where I was sitting. Oddly, to my perspective, the Middle Ages seem more contemporary, and far more 'real', than Freudian analysis these days.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 15, 2004 12:45 PM

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