From how it really was to how it could have been. Challenging the Grand Narratives in Dublin

Reading time: 14 mins

One of the really difficult questions that we face in contemporary historical writing is: can we still write grand narratives like in the days of yore? Is there still space for new Pirennes, Mommsens, Blochs, Huizingas? Or are we now firmly in the gilded age, when we need to focus solely on small history, case studies, fragments and very specialised topics?

In his introduction to the workshop, Niall Ó Súilleabháin set forth an ambitious set of goals for us: try to find new ways to write history and to see if we can still deal with the “Big Ideas”.

The Medieval History Research Centre at Trinity College Dublin decided to tackle those questions and organised a workshop titled “Challenging Grand Narratives” (full program here) that I had a chance to attend on June 8-9, 2017. As befits a topic that is potentially both controversial and wide-reaching, instead of a traditional conference format we all presented short flash-papers and the rest of the time in the session was devoted to an open discussion. This open format seemed to have done the trick and the two days in Dublin were filled with fascinating ideas, arguments, discussions and challenges. As per usual I would like to write some thoughts on points that caught my particular attention - by all means those are not full summaries of the presentations and discussions! You will notice a lot of question and quotation marks in the text. That is because during those two days in Dublin we have questioned a lot of our assumptions, but also those that are present in our field. If in doubt though, we blamed the 19th century historians! (lovingly and with great affection!)

Problems of Origins - are we actually looking for truth?

Brendan Meighan from TCD talked about the mutating identities of Medieval Ireland. He stressed that self-perception lies at the very centre of identity building and that in the Irish context our first traces of such come from the clerical circles (and that in itself poses problems for interpretation). If this self-perception is the first stage, then the group experience of the Other is the next one. This might lead to writing down (or, passing down, as the mode of communication can be different) the origin tales themselves, but they, in Brendan’s view, can only describe what is already there. And if we already have those origin stories, does it really matter if anybody believes in them?

Next came Kiri Kolt from Aberystwyth (wow, I wrote that down correctly on a first go!). Her presentation started as Rankeian as it gets (which of course made yours truly very excited) by asking the question that haunts us from beneath our beds and from empty spaces in library shelves: can we know exactly what happened? As we seem to be operating in a dichotomy of “actual history” vs. “imagined past,” is it beneficial to ask why people even felt the need to create those origin stories? Were they trying to fit “national” histories into a broader narrative? If so, how and why? Kiri could ask those questions because of her far-reaching source base, ranging from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Kosmas. In this she demonstrated that if you ask the right questions, if you come well-prepared to do your source work, you can still tackle a very large and wide-ranging source set. As a firm believer in “going big,” I could not agree more.

When discussing those problems I believe that the most important question that arose was “what is truth in those stories and do we really need to find it?” If the people that wrote them down were actually not that aware of questions like ideology or not as pragmatic as we have previously assumed, we might have beens simply asking our sources the wrong questions all along. One important point that was raised (although a controversial one) was that origin stories can just be… stories and can be non-defining and non-ideological in nature. Or they can be a form of coercing or “massaging” members of the group into an identity. After all, origin stories are still, to an extent, being written to serve a similar purpose (watch that space for an upcoming feature of a particularly funny - or terrifying - example from Poland).

Histories from the Outside - looking for meaningful explanations

Christina Wade has shown us a case study on the magic practitioners in Viking-era Ireland and how difficult it is to determine not only the function of an individual in a society by their grave goods or by their description in the written sources; not to mention their gender identity. The grave goods could be difficult to interpret or completely misleading. The way we fit them into a narrative is very much predetermined by our own assumptions and our own framework of thinking and that might not leave us space to see the actual importance that the people of the past have attached to them. For example, we close the grave finds into a male/female dichotomy, leaving very little space for concepts like third gender or self-determination of gender. Objects that we see as devoid of power (for example those that we cast as belonging into a domestic sphere) could in reality carry with them a power quite significant in the past society. Who is defining that power? What is the place of liminal space in our investigations?

How do you distinguish a polemic from a misunderstanding when dealing with a historical source? When we know that the sources are hostile but they do not slip in any way, how can we even know what their authors thought? Yan Bourke tried to tackle that on the backdrop of the Crusades, highlighting the importance of correctly unpicking the precise meanings of terms in the sources. Because if we do not, confusion kicks in and a confusion in terms leads to a confusion in interpretation.

The first and foremost problem in this case is: who is liminal? Who is on the outside and who is on the inside and how, if at all, does the process of crossing that boundary look? How do we place our subjects in or out of that space? “Liminal” in historiography tended to be seen as negative but this does not have to be the case. Liminality in different cultures (like for example in the Viking one) did not have to be perceived in a negative way. Power came up quite a lot in our discussion. What constitutes power? Does the author of the source automatically hold an agency and wields the power (in this case: of description? of interpretation?)? One interesting topic here is the methodology that we require to interpret the sources that describe people or groups in the liminal position or the sources created by liminal people about liminal people. One proposal attracted great attention: to have the courage to include in our narratives sets of meaningful explanations as a basis for discussion and not necessarily go after the one explanation.

Problems of Continuity - walking a fine line

Behind continuity as a concept lies a political justification, stated Eoghan Keane, and I could not agree more. He highlighted that on the example of Irish history and the problem of English conquest and invasion in the 12th century. That process is seen as a breaking point, which is not only possibly untrue but also dangerous. Eoghan put a lot of focus on our tendency to assume the existence of continuity when there is not enough evidence to the contrary. We just really want to fill in the gaps. But do we really need to? What drives us to do so? Moreover, continuity as a concept does not preclude change and therefore does not have to be seen in a binary perspective.

Yours truly talked a little bit about how we understand continuity and discontinuity as a historical concept and, maybe a bit provocatively, do we really need those terms to describe the processes that we are witnessing? Continuity is not an innocent term and it tends to imply a certain agency that in most cases we cannot prove. Evidence for or against continuity sometimes seems to depend largely on the source set that we are employing and that makes it into a dangerous exercise to pursue the search for it. Maybe we should even abandon the term altogether as it seems to impose on past societies an agency towards their predecessors that we can only suppose and not prove? At the same time the narrow and rigid understanding of continuity makes us sometimes miss the moments of genuine connection of one group of people to another across time.

When discussing those problems the most fundamental methodological question was: are we not just substituting terms here? There is a fine line between “continuity” and “reuse” for example. We need a very firm methodological basis to walk that line and a strong justification to do so. When it comes to filling the gaps, after all, as historians we are more chroniclers than annalists - we tend to offer narratives not lists of events. Our duty is to the facts but also to tell a story. This is also a political problem - implying continuity or discontinuity can decide who has the right to the past. As we cannot (and maybe should not?) divorce our political views from our historical writing, this poses a problem of how to treat another aspect of continuity - the intellectual one. We need to engage not only with the continuity of historical processes but also with the continuity of historiographical ones.

State centrism - what is a state, really?

The state can use the past in many different ways. Martin Pjecha has shown how the Hussite movement was used by both the Czech nationalists and Czechoslovakian communists to advance their own agenda. They tended to look at the past in a nationalistic sense and read descriptions from the Hussite time like “faithful Czechs” in an ethnic light. But now we start to deconstruct such approach and see that “faithful Czechs” did not have to be Czechs at all - that the overreaching principle of that grouping was drawn on religious lines and not ethnic ones.

Who or what constitutes a state? Is it the king personally? Is it the institution of the king? The idea of the king? Is a state (in the Middle Ages at least) synonymous with a kingdom? (I have to immediately ask: is the exchange rate then also one horse for one state, like in the case of kingdoms?)1 Anne Rutten highlighted those problems on the example of the lieutenancies in Scotland at the end of the 14th and beginning of the 15th century. Scotland seemed not to be able to function without the person of the king in that period but there is a great involvement of state institutions in governing. Was then Scotland a cooperative enterprise or was it tightly tied to the idea of a monarch?

This session sparked probably the liveliest discussion of all. The problem of a state has highlighted quite substantial differences between Early and Late Medievalists and even along the lines of national historiographical traditions. What is a state after all? From what point on can we use that term? (And if not, which other: a kingdom, a polity, an entity? Is it not just substituting the terms, vide discussion on continuity?) Who recognises an entity as a state - the insiders or the outsiders? Is it a process we can even highlight and if so, is it tied to the person of the king, to the elites, to the bureaucracy? How fuzzy can we go with the definition? Can Western Catholic Church in the Middle Ages be seen as a “state”? It did have a monopoly on violence in many areas, had a coercive power and large bureaucracy, but… We realised that a lot of that spurs in a way from the assumption that a strong state is inherently good and that this assumption can be a very dangerous fallacy.

Periodisation - when does it all end? (Or start, for that matter)

An Old English dictionary - an unlikely but fascinating place to look for periodisation problems. Rachel Fletcher talked about how periodisation syncs in with language (or not!) on the example of William Somner’s Dictionarium Saxonico-Latino-Anglicum from 1659. She stressed that the period boundary based on events does not always match the language divide. Somner’s dictionary seems to rely largely on 1066 as the breaking point between Old and Middle English (of course without using those terms). Should we rely on such dates? Or should we rather look for other marks for periodisation, like processes or ideas or even rely solely on fuzzy dating?

Where you stand depends on where you sit, and nowhere it is more evident than in the fuzzy and unclear period of the 5th to the 7th century. Sihong Lin has illustrated that by how Cambridge Ancient History and Cambridge Medieval History look at the 6th century - for both it means something completely different as a period. And that is the crux of the matter, because different periodisations produce different narratives; and since we are all storytellers, the way we periodise affects very strongly the way we write history. (Enough to look at the Late Antique/Early Medieval debate).

Do we even need periods? Are they a reflection of a contemporary spirit or just an assumption of later generations? (Or a bit of both?) At the end I had a feeling that in the discussion we saw periods in history maybe not as a necessary evil but more as a crutch that we need not only for ourselves, but also to communicate our research better to the public. Sometimes though it can cause immense problems, especially in “border zones” - epochs can coexist in one geographical space and finding the end or the beginning or an end of one can prove to be almost impossible (yes, yes we did have a 15 minute discussion on when do the Middle Ages end. We had to, sorry.) The periods that we are using and their borders depend largely on the type of history we want to write.

So, how was it really?

This was an extraordinary meeting. The format of the workshop, which allowed for an extensive and exhaustive discussion in every session, led to some very interesting avenues of thought. It also allowed for a “question everything” attitude, which for myself I find very often lacking at workshops and conferences. For myself, I have challenged a lot of my methodological assumptions and tenets.

Far from agreeing on everything, we saw that there are important issues that we need to address if we are to continue writing medieval history. There are important terminological, methodological and chronological problems. Those tend to be skipped over or marginalised, maybe precisely because they are not being addressed enough. If there is one question that I will most certainly take with me it will be this one: what is a point of writing history to you, personally? Without such self-reflection it is really difficult to write meaningful narratives (not to mention any grand ones).

Great thanks to the Medieval History Research Centre at TCD (and especially to organisers: Niall Ó Súilleabháin, Lynn Kilgallon and Stephen Hewer), Friends of Medieval Dublin for the lovely tour of the city (with special kudos to Caoimhe Whelan) and to all great minds that I met in Dublin for that wonderful opportunity to discuss and challenge the way we write history. We all agreed that this needs a follow-up, and by Jove there has to be one! Take that, 19th century historians!

  1. I have been advised by Anne that in Scotland, going rate for a state might be a good flock of sheep with some additional pigs if you’re feeling generous. 

Written on June 12, 2017