Rant- History as an Outsider Perspective

One thing I have noticed since having past life memories that gave a real sense of the feeling on the ground in previous times is just how much of an outsider’s perspective most histories give.

I guess it’s inevitable that a historian would view history as an outsider.  They can gain a fairly holistic understanding of an era but in the end, they will never fully grasp that inexpressible, intangible whole of what it meant and how it felt to live in that era.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than when I read histories or watch documentaries about the Middle Ages.  Generally, if you watch or read something written more than 20 or 30 years ago or written for a broad audience as a basic primer, all you get is a portrait of an era steeped in superstition, intolerance, ignorance, and rule by force to which are usually applied hefty value judgments.  Sometimes, the judgment is one of glowing, naive nostalgia that hopes to restore some essence of the era that human societies have simply advanced beyond the need for; most of the time, the judgment is one of disdain and condemnation of a dark stain on the history of the West, a regression in values and knowledge that gave nothing of value to the modern era.  The word “medieval” is considered very insulting when applied to people, ideas, or institutions, though the word has an unnatural shimmer in the hearts of romanticists.

Indeed, between the hands of Victorian positivists and romanticists, the whole of medieval Europe was something that resembled a Wagner opera at its best, and the Black Hole of Calcutta at its worst.  Any holistic understanding was lost in favor of a caricatured parable about the Victorian age that was more a self-conscious projection of current events than a holistic understanding.

But then, history has always been a self-conscious projection of current events, and that is where I have begun to realize just how poorly we can understand the past by simple comparison.  There is nothing, for instance, that fills the total form and function of the medieval abbey, or that even vaguely equals the scale, significance, and popular enthusiasm of the Crusades.  The earnest historian is often left with nothing more than a feeling that they should compare events to x, y, and z combined, only bigger because it is impossible to grasp the real event by simple comparison.

The medieval history scholarship of the last 20 years has actually been very good, and it has done a lot to roll back the value judgments of early modern historians, but it seems to be unable to get away from projections and comparisons because ultimately, it cannot get away from its status as an outsider perspective, and the inexpressible missing element cannot be read explicitly in firsthand sources because people 800 years ago were no better at expressing what it meant than we are now.

For me, I don’t feel so much like an outsider.  I feel like I can confidently follow the thinking of people like Christine de Pizan, Roger of Wendover, Guibert de Nogent, and Geoffrey Chaucer.  I can look at medieval rituals, imagery, and objects and they no longer feel distant or alien like they used to, but familiar things with an understood context.  I look at my attempts to write about the Middle Ages before my memories broke through, and I find I never came closer to understanding it than I could have gotten from a BBC documentary.

The change hasn’t been entirely comfortable.  At times, I sit in my history classes feeling quite alone when familiar topics come up because I feel like I’m grasping things on a level that I can never fully convey.  When I do contribute, I usually draw more attention than I’m comfortable with because I bring a sort of insight that raises eyebrows with professors.  And the more I re-learn specific events, names, and places, the more it all seems to snap into place for me in a way that other students struggle with.  But where I struggle is in stepping back to a point of objectivity and reminding myself that I am learning about things that are gone now, a world that can never be again and that I, as I am in this life, could never have survived in.

I am not a romanticist in the sense that I do not fetishize the era as being more “sincere” or “genuine.”  There are certainly things I prefer about medieval art and culture, and I find myself homesick for the general feel of things sometimes, but I don’t seriously suggest that we roll back to that era.  It was a valid and important phase in the development of our current world but it’s over and done, and I can miss what was good about it but I can’t forget that some things have changed for the better.  Just like I might feel nostalgia for the music, food, aesthetics, and fashion of the 80s or 90s but am horrified by how wrong we were, I feel the same comfortable nostalgia for the 13th century.

Even if I’m dead wrong about past lives, what I have experienced has changed the academic landscape for me in profound ways and I don’t think I’ll ever see history scholarship the same way again.  I reiterate a point I made previously that my experience has made me into what I can only describe as a Gonzo historian, someone who learns the story by living it, if only as if recalling previous lives and who has a somewhat less than objective impression of the era.


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