Reflecting on the interaction of historical and social scientific concepts, Roland Betancourt discusses the extent to which contemporary social and cultural trends influence the study of the past. Responding to criticism that current research is “contemporary”, he argues for the value of historical research for its ability to clarify understanding of both past and present societies.
In 1940, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss founded the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, donating it to Harvard University to promote Byzantine and Medieval studies, replete with an extensive art collection, library, and gardens for the enrichment of scholars.
On the walls of the Dumbarton Oaks garden, a dedicatory inscription from 1940 states that the Blisses founded Dumbarton Oaks “so that the continuity of research in the Byzantine and medieval humanities may remain unbroken, to clarify the ever-changing present and to inform the future with wisdom.”
In many of our great institutions of the same period, similar declarations can be found, which speak of the expectation that science should contribute to the improvement of society. These statements require that science not withdraw or distance itself from the vicissitudes or questions of its time, but be motivated by the imperative to clarify and inform those present of the unique wisdom that our science has to offer.
For Dumbarton Oaks, the Blisses’ expectations of the influence and strength of Byzantine and medieval studies in the world are unequivocal. These expectations also go beyond how the humanities are often viewed today as some kind of quixotic or arcane project whose lofty proclamations of impact are often reduced to suggestions and broad justifications for the existence of our faculties and disciplines, but are of little value. efficiency is higher than that.
Despite these fundamental credentials, today we face widespread accusations of “anachronism” and “presentism” from both far-right pundits and even scholars who lament (albeit in different places on the political spectrum) the so-called misrepresentation of history with help, modern-day fears are often rooted in intergenerational grumblings about “modern kids” and the perceived demise of austerity.
Often these critiques forget that the notion of historical anachronism is a decidedly modern invention that can be traced back to the Enlightenment, but which took hold during the twentieth century. To a large extent, this was the product of an exclusionary colonial and class project that sought to divert the scholar’s work from the problems and concerns of our world, while still continuing to craft history in its own privileged image. These allegations have also been disproportionately leveled against queer, transgender and BIPOC academics, whose work has actively sought to rethink canonical decrees and not suggest that the white, Kishet subject is the default subject.
Within medieval studies, an active and persistent group of scholars is engaged in rethinking outdated ideas about gender identity, sexuality, and the processes of racialization that past scholars interpreted through their own puritanical and orthodox ideas about medieval Christianity, blunting the enormous diversity and complexity that existed in the Middle Ages. evidence of art and texts.
Today, the imperative – for the Byzantine and medieval humanities – to “clarify the ever-changing present and wisely inform the future” has become more necessary than ever with the spread of Christian nationalism and far-right religious politics, which often use the medieval past as the basis of their political imagination. Since the Middle Ages, we have also witnessed a huge investment in the political manipulation of history to censor much of the exploration of gender identity, sexuality, and race in history in general.
At the same time, critical terms of the social and human sciences spread in popular culture; terms such as critical race theory and intersectionality. Thanks to the widespread popularization of these concepts, many are reassessing how they think, represent and articulate their own identity today. This has led, for example, to a confrontation with the limitations of our contemporary Western gender binary and has largely normalized conversations about gender identity and the use of pronouns that were previously restricted to those with supportive networks and peers.
Not surprisingly, many lay and academic audiences are now interested in studying the history of these identities and their expressions over time. Thinking of transgender, genderqueer, or non-binary figures in the Middle Ages hardly seems anachronistic to many today, especially to those who came to realize their identity at a later age, having experienced these realities even before they had a name or a term. available for his capture.
To resort to anachronism, relatively speaking, means to use current practice to suggest how something was done or how subjectivity was interpreted in the past. However, the use of modern critical terminology and methodological frameworks that help to formulate the complex nuances of the past is the responsible craft of the historian. In the same way that the paleographer anachronistically assigns terms to describe the highlights and characteristics of ancient writing in order to date, classify, and trace the development of handwriting, the historian must use advanced methodologies to help formulate, analyze, and present arguments for how our premodern sources represented past.
Today, in response to accusations of anachronism, we see what can be called hyperchronism, a short-sighted attachment to historical “facts” that smooths over the complexity of the historian’s craft and fetishizes otherness with this adage of “the past as a foreign land.” Hyperchronicity is a crude reflex, a new positivism. It is this super-chronicity, not presentism or anachronism, that presents the biggest challenges for the humanities today, negating much of the work that scientists have done to free life stories that have been deliberately erased or brutally forgotten.
For medieval science that seeks to ask questions about gender identity, sexuality, or race, our current moment has given us a robust and broad audience that often accesses our science not through academic bibliography of queer theory or critical racial theory, but through ideas. about gender identity, sexuality, and race from academia now popularized on social media.
Like the Blisses, committed to ensuring continuity in the humanistic study of Byzantium and the Middle Ages, it is this so-called anachronism that will make it viable to study these supposedly secret areas for new generations who once felt marginalized and denied access. into these spaces. If something like Byzantinism survives to the next generation, it is only thanks to a science that dares to clarify its brilliant contribution to our world.
While some like to lament the weakening of ancient language teaching or the renewal of canonical surveys, these complaints negate the simple fact that what many of these scholars are doing is much more difficult: it still requires the same flawless language skills in the series. ancient and modern languages (sometimes for understanding a single text and its transmission), it still requires the same extensive understanding of historiography, methodologies and current research in our particular fields and disciplines, and also requires a subtle understanding of methods. and theories from all the humanities and social sciences, each with its own intellectual history, as well as a deep understanding of the state of the conversation in these related fields, in the wider academy, and in the general public that is critically invested in these debates and wants to participate in the work that as rich and complex as it is accessible and exciting. And this still requires field research and archival research, which can be an extremely dangerous practice for marginalized scholars and nearly impossible when researching certain sensitive issues or topics.
In reflecting on the present’s approach to the past, we must take into account the imperative placed before us by institutions that once believed in our science’s ability to inform, destroy, and correct; that our goal is “to clarify the ever-changing present and wisely inform the future.” We must recognize that the disparaging use of the terms ‘anachronism’ or ‘presentism’ is the product of a humanist study that has forgotten the human being in its field.
Like a beacon of warning, left to spur future generations on, towering above the dedicatory words of Dumbarton Oaks is an ominous Latin epigram: “Quod severis metes” – “as you sow, so shall you reap.” As scientists, we must hurry up with this warning and ask ourselves what kind of future we want from the history we sow today.
Roland Betancourt – author Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender and Race in the Middle AgesInterested readers can read the review on the LSE Review of Books.
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Image credit: Dumbarton Oaks library image reproduced with permission, image detail Fragment of a floor mosaic depicting Ktisis.via The Met (public domain).