Marc Bloch once wrote, ‘The good historian resembles the ogre of legend. Wherever he senses human flesh, he knows that there lies his prey’.1 For nothing animates the historian so much as the sense of human presence. Where ogres of legend smell or hear their prey, historians track their subjects down from a distance, following traces left in documents, objects, on the environment. Historians are always at work in their present, its activities and feelings, all freighted with memories of the past and hopes for the future. That present establishes the historian’s conditions of work and observation, and so it is always within historical work in this ‘weak’ sense.2 The present can also shape historical work in a ‘strong’ sense, as its concerns become the avowed point of departure, that which sets the historical problem (histoire-problème) and formulates its questions. Since we are always at work from and through the present, several consequences follow: we can employ insights and concepts developed after the period of study; we are bound to be curious about the genealogies that link the present with the past; and we use the past as a comparative sounding-board for what are ultimately judgements about the present. In that sense we are all ‘presentist’, and it is best that we acknowledge that we are bound to be so.
Until Past and Present created this forum, I had rarely encountered the term ‘presentism’ in written form.3 It is most likely to be used as a conversational shorthand, usually as a slur. ‘Presentism’ is attached polemically to those historians who acknowledge the impact of ethical considerations on their work, like the founders of this journal. Those historians who use conceptual frames of some robustness — feminist, post-colonial, Marxist — are also accused of presentism, for these frames are seen as violating the period under study with the sharp edge of concepts alien to it. The presentist is thus accused of being a confuser of categories, an offender whose crime is the historian’s cardinal sin: anachronism.4
While English-speaking academics used ‘presentism’ in their conversations, another usage was being developed elsewhere: présentisme as elaborated by the ancient historian and historian of history François Hartog.5 French historians, often of the classical era, had already conducted interesting conversations about the use of anthropology and psychoanalysis in the study of ancient social practices and myths: scholars such as Jean-Pierre Vernant and Nicole Loraux.6 Hartog has taken the discussion further, and surveying centuries of historiography he traces ‘regimes of historicity’: a past-centred age that came to an end with the revolutions of the eighteenth century; the future-centred modernity that followed; and now, since 1989, the present-orientated, présentiste, regime of history.7 Such is the present that ‘it appears that only the present exists, a present characterised at once by the tyranny of the instant and by the treadmill of an unending now’.8 This does not mean that the past is forgotten (how could it be?), but rather that Clio has recently ceded to Mnemosyne, History to Memory. As Eelco Runia has put it, there is a desire for ‘presence’ or for ‘being in touch’ that goes beyond academic history, and which historians must, perforce, satisfy, serve. Such yearning is expressed in acts of communion offered by historians, and which Peter Coss and Steve Smith consider in their discussion.9
In what follows I shall explore the conditions whereby historians use concepts and frames developed within history and elsewhere and apply them in historical research and writing.10 I shall argue that the engaged use of concepts and posing of ethical questions is the most honest — and perhaps the only — way of making history that does justice to the past and is accountable in the present.
Anyone intent on working with traces of the past embarks on a strange conversation. For the answers to the questions posed to a document or an artefact are provided by the questioner herself within the republic of historical letters. A historian of (so-called) medieval Europe is trained in a variety of skills aimed at making texts, images and artefacts usable and comprehensible. Yet so many of the terms of historical engagement are determined by the historian’s own choices: the definition of the archive’s extent, of the period under investigation, of the points of view and actors to be considered. My own work in the late 1980s sought to explore the religious cultures of Europe through ideas and practices around the Eucharist.11 My questions were: how can we study religious life outside a providential framework; how might we understand religious life as a social system? How might we view it in practice, rather than as part of a design for Christian living made by theologians and taught by priests? The sacrament had been hitherto addressed as a theological problem or a liturgical challenge to be studied through theological texts and liturgical books. And, like all areas of medieval religious life, the historiography was imbued with perspectives that were highly confessional in tone.12
How, then, to study religious life without taking for granted narratives that gave the laity little agency, and which saw Catholic decline or Catholic triumph as their end?13 My wish to explore the religious experiences of individuals in communities led me to a different definition of the ‘archive’. It came to include vernacular texts for the use of lay people, the writings and experiences of religious women,14 the ‘errors’ and alternative interpretations voiced by individuals under episcopal or inquisitorial examination; it used visual and material traces with the aim of understanding better the unfolding of sacramental rituals in space and matter. The resulting study offered the sacrament of the altar (which for people after 1200 was a regular, indeed a compulsory, annual experience) as a key to a whole cultural system, to the religion of later medieval Europe.
My book Corpus Christi employed some very traditional methods combined with concepts I had learned from cultural anthropology and literary analysis. A very interesting attempt at resituating the Mass had been offered a few years earlier by John Bossy. Bossy approached the Mass in the longue durée, up to its transformation by Reformers in the sixteenth century, and discerned in it the power to create important social solidarities. His article ‘The Mass as a Social Institution’ arose from consideration of theorists of ritual and sacrifice: Émile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, René Girard, and with an eye to the work of the Hellenist Jean-Pierre Vernant (whom I have already mentioned).15 Bossy assessed their varying concepts and understandings of ritual and sacrifice against the preoccupations of those historical agents who designed the Mass; he accepted some of their insights and rejected others. His use of the concepts was transparent, and so he treated the Mass as it had never been seen before, with lasting effect. Like Bossy, other historians of the transformations between 1400 and 1600 were seeking interpretative approaches to religious ideas and social practices: earlier Natalie Zemon Davis in her studies of religious violence during the French Wars of Religion, and soon after R. W. Scribner and Lyndal Roper in their histories of the Reformation, as processes best understood through concepts of class, gender and communication.16
All these works used concepts and terms derived from disciplines outside history, terms often unknown in the period under study, and so they might be deemed presentist in the extreme. But can any historical analysis be imagined that uses solely the concepts available at the time? Any claim that we share a language through shared words — liberty, virtue, mercy, sacrament, truth, public — is an illusion, as Bloch put it: ‘For, to the great despair of historians, men fail to change their vocabulary every time they change their customs’.17 Even words that seem familiar have had very different meanings at different times, and are thus no more useful than neologisms unless we study that historicity. The vast project of historical semantics led by Reinhart Koselleck aimed exactly at such a refinement of language, so as to facilitate political conversations and historical analysis across centuries.18 The careful inquiry into historical semantics opens a world of thought and meaning to us, but doing so does not exhaust the possibilities of historical engagement. To study the development of the term sacramentum was a necessary part of my inquiry into the meaning of the Eucharist. To understand its import, I also had to treat the ideas and practices by which the Eucharist became a world-view, a ritual, a private devotion in a variety of tangible and intangible ways.19
Historians are part of our past’s future, and so we possess some vantage-points and skills unavailable to those who lived and made the times we study. Simply put, we know a great deal about their world of which they were ignorant: we know how the (hi)story ended; we can assess the reception of an idea; we have learned to understand texts beyond an author’s declared aims; we can compare events that happened at the same past time and seek out patterns unknown to local actors.20 And so some historians are intent on recovering experiences of people marginalized in their own times and since, women and peasants, those conquered, enchained or silenced.21 They do so for a host of reasons, often spurred on by the discontents of contemporary life, embedded in the historian’s personal and professional formation, and thus inescapably in ethical and political environments.
On occasion, a felicitous convergence between polemics of the past and modern sensibilities offers particular clarity. I encountered such a moment when studying the polemic that erupted within a circle of French literati over the most renowned poem of the age, Le Roman de la Rose (begun by Guillaume de Lorris about 1230, and extended by Jean de Meun in the 1270s). In 1401 the poet Christine de Pisan launched an epistolary polemic about the poem’s great promoter, the chancellor of France and literary patron Jean de Montreuil. Why, asked Christine, celebrate a poem that so unjustly denigrates women? The poem, especially its extension by Jean de Meun, depicted women as dissimulators and frauds. It taught men to seduce and discard women, rather than cherish, as a Christian husband should. It even taught violence, as Christine wrote in her letter to Pierre Col, another participant:
While her interlocutors admired its poetic artistry, Christine spoke about the Roman de la Rose’s effects on women’s lives, and thus on the common good. The arguments are fresh, combative and feminist to the core,23 yet they are also utterly embedded in the philosophical and poetic conventions of the fourteenth-century literary vernacular. Moreover, Jean Gerson, theologian and chancellor of the University of Paris, joined Christine in her attack on the amatory double standard taught by this most famous poem. Here priest and female poet combined in a polemic against the secular sophisticate, the courtier who delighted in descriptions of sexual prowess and in the traditions of classically inclined vernacular poetry. The Querelle de la Rose is a distinctive microstoria, but it is also a meeting ground for feminisms past and present.
Not long ago, I heard … a man of authority say that he knew a married man who believed in the Roman de la Rose as in the gospel. This was an extremely jealous man, who, whenever in the grip of passion, would go and find the book and read it to his wife; then he would become violent and strike her and say ‘Filthy thing, just like he says …’.22
So we come to the past with the best we can offer — our cherished values and our skills, the legacy of insights learned from scholars who have come before us — and we begin a dialogue. We formulate questions, and put them to the traces of the past. This act of invasion, with questions and concepts unfamiliar to our subjects, is an act Nicole Loraux has called ‘controlled anachronism’ (anachronisme contrôlé), and it is a dynamic relationship.24 The more we are aware that such is our practice, the more likely we are to avoid the less controlled version. And historians are not alone in considering the challenges of such negotiations with the past. Reflections on emic and etic practices begun by linguists in the 1950s, taken up by anthropologists, and discussed throughout the social sciences raise exactly these dilemmas: what are the terms (words) best suited to contain the past’s fullness? Its own? Ours? A dialogic combination of all that is on offer?25
Historical training is rigorous (medieval historians take particular pride in their lengthy apprenticeship) and it sometimes tests itself against the procedures of other disciplines. As we acquire concepts, and the theories that have borne them, as we formulate our questions, we habitually work in the contrapuntal rhythm I have just described. We identify the ‘grain’ of our evidence — be it priestly, patriarchal, gay, Catholic or bourgeois — its avowed self-understanding, and then we try to work against that grain.26 We do so by seeking out the unfamiliar; by worrying away at that which does not quite fit with the official script, we look out for suppressions and silences.27 We are most likely to succeed when our ‘archive’ is made of different types of source, to be read alongside and against each other: say, a visitation record alongside a liturgical book. Walter Johnson’s study of the slave market in New Orleans assembled such a diverse archive (notarized acts of sale, court cases about slaves, posters of slaves for sale, letters by slaveholders, narratives written by slaves) and produced a polyphonic history which acknowledges the vastly varying experiences embedded in the sale and purchase of a single slave.28
In amassing our archives and testing our concepts — charisma, bureaucracy, class, transference, subaltern — we should put some guiding questions to ourselves: how useful, how illuminating, are they? How precious is the value it yields? Jules Michelet believed in the ethical duty of those ‘who love the dead’ (historians) to speak for the dead, to utter their unspoken words.29 As we nurture our history writing, might we not also reflect on the principle primum non nocere, ‘do no harm’, to avoid perverse historical questions?
To those who worry that the presentism of concepts and theories endangers academic history I suggest that pointless, lazy or careless use would soon be found out by fellow historians. For anyone entering the dialogue with the past, that controlled form of anachronism must convince with the usefulness — utilitas as a social good — of the approach, acknowledging the plenitude of our situation in the present, and the collective skills, procedures and discipline that make historians potentially so powerful a community of practice.