Ringing the Changes
Some number of summers ago, I traveled to the tiny French town of Laon on my very first research trip, bright eyed and fresh faced. I found the city perched on a crescent plateau that rose steeply from a surrounding farmland still marked by shell and trench, and walking through its streets felt like exploring the bones of the earth.
Laon is old, coated in dust and memory. It was, in its time, a citadel of the Merovingian kings, a bulwark and fortification against every conqueror from Caesar to Napoleon, the center of learning in the Latinate West. The gîte where I stayed, run by a cardiologist at the local hospital and his wife, was at one end of the crescent, next to the church of St-Martin. Laon’s ancient cathedral sat at the other, rising over my little garden. Each day, I went out from my rooms and through the stone gate that used to guard St-Martin’s cloister. Into its stones were carved messages from interloping newcomers like myself: “F. H. 1914.” “E. Cießmann, Berlin 1914/15.” “F. A. M. 1914-15-16.”
Each morning—every morning—I awoke to the sound of bells. St-Martin rang first, and the cathedral soon joined in. My landlady had lived there for so long, she said, that she could no longer hear them. As I made coffee, turned an omelet into scrambled eggs, browsed the news, the bells rang out for Sunday mass. At some point, I realized: the bells do not tell time, do not mark its progression. They freeze and unify it. Echoing through past, present, and future, they are a constant, steady heartbeat uniting what was to what is to what will be.
The great French medievalist Marc Bloch, martyred by a Nazi firing squad on June 16, 1944, wrote in his que sais-je?, posthumously published as The Historian’s Craft, that the master quality of the historian is the faculty of understanding the continuing entanglement of past and present. Bloch’s perspective on history, relevant as it was to his own fight against fascism, is one that students and practitioners of history cannot ignore. The past is too much with us these days, activated in the utopic imaginations of neonationalists or assailed and rejected by those who wish to remember it otherwise.
Perspectives on History sits squarely in the center of that snarl of past and present, popular and academic. In my time as editor, I hope to untangle some of those threads and weave them into a conversation, one that is accessible and, above all else, useful. The presence of the past in contemporary discourse—whether on social media or cable news, in the classroom or at work—requires our presence and engagement. As we imagine and shape (or perhaps remember) our futures, we should keep in mind an old wisdom: that it is not our responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world but neither are we free to desist from our labor.
Providing our perspective is the historians’ task. For history is, at its core, a social discipline, a communion between and among individuals. And so Bloch was, in the end, only mostly right: the master quality of the historian is the faculty of helping others understand those entanglements of present and past. I look forward to joining hands with you in this work.
Leland Renato Grigoli is editor of Perspectives on History. He tweets @mapper_mundi.
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