December 05, 2009

History, Reading not Writing

History in the modern sense means analysis as a prelude to writing. Whether that is a child at school learning facts before he repeats them in an essay or exam, a student who strives to follow his professor's instructions before repeating and elaborating upon them in an essay, a graduate combining evidence into a PhD and even a scholar (not neccessarily an academic- see for example David Farr) assembling evidence and producing out of it a monograph, a lecture or even an article. History is an activity that leads to written output. But that is not how it has always been viewed. Whereas history books now are examples of, and history teaching at all levels is a preparation to, put pen to paper: history in the Renaissance was a prelude to action, it was an activity of reflection which led ultimately to princes and others taking action. What that means is that history books and history teaching were not guides to writing but guides to reading- that is what you did with history, particularly its main texts- the classical texts bequeathed by Greece and Rome to us.

Anthony Grafton has explored this world more than anyone else and this is really an introduction to looking at his most recent work- What was History- a work that explores and reinvigorates an ancient mindset. As he notes the noted humanist Jacopo Acconcio offered instructions to both readers and printers about how to prepare his and other texts and then how to absorb them. Baudoin and Bodin, two French intellectuals, even offered their readers elaborate rules for the way that they should read a classical text. Recovering the past for many of these scholars was an activity of teaching itself- teaching for modern politics. That was their root into the past. Vital to it was the concept which Lorenzo Valla developed- decorum. In the Declamatiuncula against the Donation of Constantine, Valla wrote speeches that he believed that those who would have been at Constantine's court should have given, given their position in that court. Reading such a speech enhanced the reader's prudence- their ability to imagine the politics of Constantine's day made them more able to discuss and inhabit the politics of his own day.

This created a need for great scholarship. In part, writers had to defend their texts- Bodin for example defended Tacitus from accusations of impiety because Tacitus was a pagan, but still wise. To expect Tacitus to inhabit a post-Constantine era is nonsense- but to derive wisdom from Tacitus is still possible. This opens up in part what was going on in history- what Grafton calls the ars historica- in this period. History was a means of education but not an education neccessarily prioritising knowledge of the past for its own sake, but prioritising it- as Machiavelli did- as a method of instruction for the present. Hence Valla's speeches which taught you something were important to read, even if they didn't actually happen (and Valla knew they didn't happen). This required the historian and his reader to educate themselves about the past and these men were educated- they had to contextualise what was happening in these texts that they were reading to understand the point of view with which the writers wrote. But their attention was not focussed on the past, the past was a means of discovering actions to be performed in the present- hence the fact that fictional speeches could be part of this discipline, fiction did not matter so long as it was appropriate fiction.


James Higham said...

When one looks at the capacity of these people to even write, compared to the rampant illiteracy today, one wonders who'll write the current history in anything approaching an erudite manner.