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Anecdotal History

8 May, 2011

I’m working on a paper that is likely to be a few days late in getting to the respondent (REALLY, REALLY sorry about that!). It’s ostensibly on what we can see in some charters about step- relations. This has been made more difficult by the fact that I can’t find the notebook that had my notes that I used for the abstract. Go me. Anyway, some things occurred to me today that I need to jot down, and here seemed as good a place as any. As I’ve been working, I’ve been worrying about whether or not the abstract and the paper will match up at all. Fortunately, whatever I write will still fit within the parameters of the session, so that panic is off.

So anyway, I might not find as much as I’d like on stepmother-stepdaughter relationships. I can stretch that to talk about stepmother-stepson relationships, and in fact I think I need to talk about those if only because most of the high-profile stepmother stories from the Carolingian period are royal and stepmother-stepson. This morning, though, I realized that I can’t recall all that many mother-daughter (or mother-son) relationships in my documents. I should mention here that I am using relationships in two ways: the first is the obvious one, evidence of any familial connection; the second is the one that we infer from donations made on behalf of others. It has long been posited, and I think that this is largely correct, that donating property on the behalf of another is to some extent evidence of affection. I think that duty is perhaps also a reason, but really that is unlikely if the person for whom the donation is made is dead. I am also now wondering, though, if donating for a third party is also a way of mediating disputes or securing an uncontested release of property, i.e., “I know that my relatives really want to get their hands on this, and they are going to fight about it when I’m gone. Even though I have made provisions for this in the charter, in that they can pay a whopping sum to the monastery to get the land back, they’re a bunch of greedy bastards and I don’t really want that to happen. So I’m also going to put their names on it. This will put them in a position where they will really look bad if they try to regain that property.”

Maybe. I’m not entirely sure I haven’t read bits of that before, but will need to look that up. At any rate, I think that there needs to be some comparison to the charters in which people make donations for their mothers as well.

But anyway, it seems to me that the paper will be better if I contrast the mother vs stepmother cases. Which is probably obvious to most of you, but I tend to forget such things. In fact (and this is something that I have really got to get over) I’m like a magpie when it comes to research, going for the shiny and not thinking about framing it nearly as well as I should. Part of this is that I tend to do research only when I can concentrate on it, which is in the summer. This is really not ideal, and I must figure out how to change that, even if it only means keeping up with reading through the academic year. In years like this one, where I teach nothing medieval at all, it’s especially important to make time to do this. If it weren’t for blogs, I’d be absolutely lost, and most of you know I’ve been crap at keeping up this year. Another part may be that I am, apparently, a mental magpie, or Doug, the dog in Up, whose attention is completely taken over by the random appearance of a squirrel. Don’t know if I mentioned it, but apparently, I have ADHD (inattentive). Knowing this does make me more conscious of looking for solutions and coping mechanisms, rather than beating myself up over being a magpie, at least.

What does this have to do with anecdotal history? Well, it also occurred to me this morning that I seem to be stuck in a pattern of finding cool anecdotes to write about. They are the sorts of things that fit in well with my teaching and service load, as well as my tendency to follow the shiny. I don’t think they lack value, either. In fact, I think that anecdotes are what make what we do accessible to non-historians and help to demonstrate one of the real values of studying history: historians look at people, and try to understand people and why they did what they did — and to me, this sort of inquiry is immediately valuable and transferable to how we approach our own world.

Having said that, I also want to make a concerted effort to make my anecdotes more meaningful to other historians, to add more to the larger conversation. In the meantime, I suppose I can continue honing my skills at asking awkward questions. 🙂

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 May, 2011 8:24 pm

    You and I are very much alike. Starting from an anecdote or two can open the doors to an interesting analysis. I think you're good to use the many examples of stepmothers and stepsons where they occur – the issue of how these women interacted with the family besides being seen as interlopers in some of the more nasty accounts? That's going to be interesting.

  2. 13 May, 2011 11:04 pm

    I completely agree about the usefulness of anecdotes for both teaching and understanding history. Don't you think they preserve the oral dimension of storytelling and moralization of historical materials? For that reason, I think they're regarded with suspicion by certain historians.

  3. 29 May, 2011 7:25 pm

    Well, I am not a fan of the moralization of history, if I can help it… at least not the distant past.

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