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A quick thought…

12 June, 2009

A quick thought…

Sorry for the lack of blog visiting and blogging. I am away earning quick money with a marking gig at BaaRamU and trying ot get writing done. But apropos of these posts at Tenured Radical and Historiann, and my comment at TR’s, I had a thought.

It might not be a particularly good one, but here goes.

I looked at it again, and noted that one of the fields that is supposedly in decline is economic history. And again, I was struck by how us early folk are pretty much written off, invisible, unimportant to the generalizations of what history is and what it’s good for. Because, well, Chris Wickham’s prize-winning Framing the Early Middle Ages sure as hell seemed to be largely economic history to me. But then I thought, “ah, but Wickham’s a Marxist historian, isn’t he? and that is also that narsty non-traditional stuff.”

Except, well, Marxist historiography is certainly nothing new.

Anyway, even if that’s a crap argument (I’ve had 4 hours’ sleep and travelled all day), here’s my thought:

Where is this absence of traditional fields when you look at us pre-Modern types?

It doesn’t exist.

Medievalists (and I’m including the Late Antique folks here) are still doing economic history, diplomatic history, military history, legal and constitutional history … all of those things and more. And doing a booming business.

Now, I ws thinking that part of why this never seems to be the case is that most of us have to use whatever tools are in our bags to get the job done, and most of us can move around a bit, because we’ve had to.

But here’s my other thought: to others — including our colleagues in history, who dammit should know better — we are medievalists. To the outside world, we don’t get to classify ourselves by subfield (except for period, pretty much). Is Steve White a legal historian? Nope, he’s a medievalist. Is Charlie Bowlus a military historian? Nope, he’s a medievalist. Judith Bennett a social historian? Nope. She’s a medievalist, too.

I should go somewhere with this, but not now.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 June, 2009 10:20 am

    Interesting. I think of Michael Prestwich as being primarily a military historian.

  2. 12 June, 2009 12:58 pm

    ADM, I don't know medieval history as well as you do (!) but your argument makes sense to me. I think you should write a letter to the times complaining about their faddish, disturbing interest in just modern history, one of the lamentable developments of the last 100 years that has displaced "traditional" interest in Ancient and Medieval history. (Really, the notion of having an American historian on the faculty was a very new concept until the 1940s!)

  3. 12 June, 2009 2:23 pm

    that's because we're awesome.

  4. 12 June, 2009 2:28 pm

    I think this makes a LOT of sense. I'd add the caveat that I don't think that many medievalists, in a lot of departments anyway, end up teaching a lot of specialized classes, so because someone researches the "traditional" fields doesn't necessarily mean they also teach classes in those fields (for instance, I don't think there are a lot of medieval economy classes out there – at least in my experience, undergrads are NOT interested in economic history labeled as such). But then, at a lot of schools, medievalists teach western civ, world, and/or medieval survey (and/or Ren/Ref!) the livelong day, so you can't even tell what areas their research is in.But overall, I completely agree with you. Early people don't count. I thought this especially since one of the people the article quotes talks about how diplomatic/economic history are still the best fields for "dealing with America's problems today." Wow. Didn't realize that the reason I went to grad school and spent 10 years getting a degree in medieval European history was to cope with America's problems today.

  5. 12 June, 2009 3:35 pm

    please do expand your thoughts when you get a chance, ADM, as this is certainly a window into another part of the profession that we Americanists don't always understand. IT's much better to have someone who actually knows what they are talking about explain it to us. 😉

  6. 12 June, 2009 3:35 pm

    Take Ann's suggestion seriously.America's problems today: the last 10 years have shown that you can never be sure which "obscure" field will turn out to be "relevant" (excuse the ancient buzzword).

  7. 12 June, 2009 4:45 pm

    vis-a-vis Kelly's comment above, it seems to me that the entire article really was about American history, with a dash of modern European history on the side. Asian history, for example, doesn't fit into the "traditional disciplines in decline" model, but there's definitely some shifting as Asianists are more professionalized as historians (rather than 'area experts') and more affected by the new theoretical and methodological trends.

  8. 13 June, 2009 8:07 pm

    Most small to medium-sized history departments don't start seeing their geographic or period specialists as that until there's three people who cover the same subject. (Two isn't enough — then you have the late medievalist and the early medievalist.)When you have three, you can start busting out methodological specialization (medieval religious; medieval military). Some departmental cultures only meld elements from geography and period (early medieval Italy; late medieval France).Early modernists and non-Western historians are in the same boat as medievalists in smaller departments. The only historians who're primarily defined by their approach in departmental description are the ones who do the history of country in which they're located. Here, we have the business historian, the historian of education, the political historian, the rural & women's historian, the labour historian and so forth — they're all Canadian historians, of course!

  9. 15 June, 2009 9:48 pm

    Changes in the fortunes of economic history may be particularly affected by methodology. The big change to medieval economic history is the availability and use of new evidence from archaeology and numismatics, which has given the topic a big boost. Meanwhile if modern economic history is following the trend of economics and becoming ever more mathematically based, that's going to put off a lot of students and would-be academics.My immediate thought with diplomatic history as well was whether a decline in the study of foreign languages was affecting that, because research in that by definition means mastering sources in several different languages. But I don't know exactly what counts as diplomatic history for modernists.

  10. 16 June, 2009 3:27 am

    Magistra, that's rather sensible! I hadn't even thought of that, and yet it's one of the things that will affect our field, if people aren't careful!

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