Friday, May 2, 2014

On being “well read” in history

Putting Dawson’s quote in context, he writes, “. . . “The later mediaeval centuries – the eleventh, for example, or the thirteenth – have each of them a distinctive individual character; but to most of us the centuries between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Norman Conquest present a blurred and vague outline which has no real significance to our minds.  We are apt to speak of Anglo-Saxon England, for example, as though it was the same all through, not remembering that the age of Edward the Confessor is separated from that of the Anglo-Saxon conquest by as wide a gap as that which divides it from the time of Cromwell and Mazarin, or as that which separates our own age from the age of Edward III and Chaucer. 

“In reality that age witnessed changes as momentous as any in the history of European civilization; indeed, as I suggest in my title, it was the most creative age of all, since it created not this or that manifestation of culture, but the very culture itself – the root and ground of all the subsequent culture achievements.  Our difficulty in understanding and appreciating that age is due in part to the creative nature of its activity.  It was an internal organic process which did not manifest itself in striking external achievements, and consequently it lacks the superficial attractiveness of periods of brilliant cultural expansion, like the Renaissance or the Augustan Age.”

After this occurs the passage I quoted yesterday:  “Nevertheless it is not the ‘easy’ periods of history that are the most worth studying.  One of the great merits of history is that it takes us out of ourselves – away from obvious and accepted facts – and discovers a reality that would otherwise be unknown to us.  There is a real value in steeping our minds in an age entirely different to that which we know: a world different, but no less real – indeed more real, for what we call ‘the modern world’ is the world of a generation, while a culture like that of the Byzantine or the Carolingian world has a life of centuries.’

And then Dawson writes, “History should be the great corrective to that ‘parochialism in time’ which Bertrand Russell rightly describes as one of the great faults of our modern society.  Unfortunately, history has too often been written in a very different spirit.  Modern historians, particularly in England, have frequently tended to use the present as an absolute standard by which to judge the past, and to view all history as an inevitable movement of progress that culminates in the present state of things.  There is some justification for this in the case of a writer like Mr. H. G. Wells . . . but even at the best this way of writing history is fundamentally unhistorical, since it involves the subordination of the past to the present, and instead of liberating the mind from provincialism by widening the intellectual horizon, it is apt to generate the Pharisaic self-righteousness of the Whig historians or, still worse, the self-satisfaction of the modern Philistine.”

Comment:  To be “well read” in any period of history is a provocative idea.  I approached that most recently in regard to the American Civil War.  Prior to that, I approached it in regard to Islamism and before that the very medieval period that Dawson refers to.   I was well-enough-read, recently, to get into several debates (arguments) over the merits of Generals Longstreet, Hood, Bragg, Sheridan and McClellan.   But some of those Civil-War buffs knew details about routes, distances, supplies and orders that were beyond anything I knew (or was interested in).  At a certain level I wasn’t badly read, but I wasn’t well-read compared to some of those guys.  

It seems to me the American Civil War is easier to steep oneself in than Dawson’s period.  In regard to the ACW, even if one goes into the pre-war histories of generals and leaders, one is still dealing with only a generation or so, but the medieval period grows out of the Roman period (Empire) and develops differently in the various European areas over several centuries.   How does one steep oneself in such a divergent chaotic and long set of facts and speculations?  Maybe, however, I’ll be able to steep myself in Dawson’s book, assuming I finish it.  I am still reading Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire, A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, and am up to page 290.  Maybe if I didn’t skip around so much I could do more steeping.

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