Corvus corona, the Plague Crow
Plague—that’s something I know a bit about. I’ve studied the science of the human past under Michael McCormick, listened attentively to Monica H. Green’s lectures. I know that the Black Death gets all the attention but that the Plague of Justinian, transmitted, perhaps, across the Roman Empire by its famous roads, is what people should talk more about. I can differentiate plague swellings from owls (that’s a very niche joke). I know my bubonic progression of Y. pestis (deadly) from the pneumonic (very deadly); I know the etymology of quarantine. I know plague doctor masks have nothing to do with the European Middle Ages. In short, in matters endemic, pandemic, and virologic, I am the very model of the relevant historian.
Still, as a historian struggling through life in what often feels like a slow apocalypse, I marvel a bit at the response of my chosen discipline, at our deep-seated need to say, “We’ve been here before!” It is exciting to have one’s work so suddenly and evidently relevant to a current crisis. Hello, topicality, and good riddance to academic obscurity! Finally, no great-aunt will ask me, upon learning at my wedding dinner that I am a medieval historian, “Oh, is there much call for that?”
It should already be clear that I am firmly in a camp that thinks history is the use of the past to study the present. Or, in the words of the great philosopher Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes), that “history is the fiction we invent to persuade ourselves that events are knowable and that life has order and direction.” But even given that truth, the reflex to exuberant historicization seems noteworthy, if not downright odd, because of the modern moments we tend to deem most apt to our display of relevance. The pandemic has been a constant topic for historians interested in engaging a broader public, of course, but there are others that keep popping up. When war breaks out in the Middle East, historians spring forth from the shadows to examine the “clash of civilizations” or emphasize the (dis)continuities with the Crusades; historians’ role in the discussion of Confederate statuary surely needs no elaboration here.
Conflict, suffering, and death form the unifying threads that bind together these disparate topics. This should not be a shock or revelation. History, after all, had been the study of power relationships long before Michel Foucault put such a fine and philosophical point on the matter. When studying it, we therefore assume, to some degree or another, conflicts over interests. There is little scholarship on blissful harmony, and that which exists often does so to examine Eden before the fall—because it is the origin point for an inevitable following sequence of persecution and violence. Convivencia is simply the precursor to reconquista.
This is not a condemnation of the discipline. Blissful harmony makes up very little of recorded human existence, and especially of the records of human existence. It certainly is not a prominent part of the study of those records. But it necessarily follows that for historians to see their work become relevant to contemporary events, those events must often be full of upheaval, suffering, violence, and chaos. The relevant historian is, in other words, a species of carrion crow that has found a fresh and juicy eyeball for its dinner.
To relate one’s own historical interests into the conflict and suffering of the broader society is a popular path to relevance, a fact evidenced by the articles in this very issue. But this sort of engagement often toes the line between helpful observation and exploitation, between examining a wound and picking over the corpse. It makes me hesitate, and it sometimes makes me profoundly uncomfortable. Because I don’t know if it’s the best way for historians to engage in the present world, and I certainly don’t want it to be the only way. And so we must keep asking: Have we chosen to relate the present to the past and the past to the present for ourselves, or for others?
Leland Renato Grigoli is editor of Perspectives on History. He tweets @mapper_mundi.
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