Blogs > Cliopatria > Doublepoints (peasants, ghosts and memory)

Jul 31, 2009

Doublepoints (peasants, ghosts and memory)

It has recently been the conference season in the UK, and your humble correspondent has been doing his bit, not least at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, which is as big as my bit of history gets this side of the pond. On the way up to Leeds I was reading something that seemed worth talking about here, a paper from the Festschrift for Professor Thomas Bisson by Simon Doubleday.1 This paper is more directly tributary to Bisson than any of the others and doesn't present new research; what it does instead is do a very close reading of Bisson's own Tormented Voices, fully loaded with critical theory culled largely from Derrida, and tries by this strategy to amplify the importance of what was then Bisson's most important work.2 But as a result it also asks the sort of questions we can all throw in opinions about, question of what we do what we do for and how that affects how we do it, or, if you prefer, about objectivity, and whether it really helps.

I have to admit that I'm inclined to question this technique of close reading, at least outside the classroom, and it seems especially dangerous in a Festschrift, because its implication is naturally that you see more of what the author was doing than they did themselves. Also, it's criticism of criticism, and this is well documented to get my goat. However, I told people at Leeds that I wasn't going to do any more rants against postmodernism, for a variety of reasons but largely because I have started finding the work in that vein that I can use. This is one such, or at least, it has caused me to reflect (and was easy to understand; Dr Doubleday is a rare practitioner of good writing in the postmodern vein) and so I thought I'd briefly muse in public.

Cover of Thomas Bissons Tormented Voices

Tormented Voices is based around a series of querimonia, detailed complaints, to the King of Aragon and Count of Barcelona by several peasant communities on the wrong end of feudalism around the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Their tales of violence and mistreatment make pretty harrowing reading—as Bisson says, one is forcibly struck by them—and what Doubleday draws out is Bisson's mission, almost a penitence, to somehow render at last unto the peasants some kind of fair treatment. Bisson openly empathises with the victims and does not attempt objective detachment; these stories, he argues, deserve to be told and there is a moral imperative to tell them just out of justice. This is of course the same sense of social anger that has powered so much work on the marginal and mistreated elsewhere in medieval studies, and it's a perfectly laudable impulse. And Doubleday invokes Derrida to argue that Bisson, and by extension others though less consciously, are in a real sense (by which, obviously, he means an unreal one) haunted by the ghosts of their subjects, the voices that speak from the past, that this is inescapable if we apprehend the past at all, and that Bisson's strategy of running with his feelings to write compelling history is, while not unproblematic, at least more intellectually honest than pretending to disinterest and objectivity.

I wrestle with this a bit. I would have to admit to some haunting. The deeper I got into the closing stages of my thesis, the more I found I was developing an image in my head of Borrell II of Barcelona (945-993), and I still plot to write his biography at some point simply to give that image an outlet, a recognition that I think he deserves. I did, at times, hear his voice, although speaking in English so not really terribly phantasmic. I put it down to shortage of sleep, deep immersion in my work and a lot of caffeine. But, OK, guilty as charged and it's just as well I also draw inspiration from Bisson, right? But I question the moral imperative, or at least its basis. I get uneasy with apologies for the misdeeds of the fathers. It's important to recognise that misdeeds and terrible things did occur, yes, and indeed that they continue to have effects, but people who did not make those decisions and would not now endorse such a thing should not be asked to make compensation simply because they have more conscience than their forebears. I live on the back of Britain's colonial past, for example, and though as far as I know no ancestors of mine actually helped expropriate peoples in Africa and the East of their lands they certainly did well on the money gleaned from other people who had. That doesn't make me responsible for the British Empire and, though I do think it's moral for me to contribute to foreign aid, it's not Imperial history that governs whither I do so, it's current need (and, of course, successful publicity by those who assert that need). I can't revive the victims of Amritsar, for example, and though it's important to remember that they were there it's also important to remember other things about that situation than simply 'evil colonialists shot the unarmed people' because if you don't then it becomes no more than blame-placing and actual understanding of what happened, why and how is distanced by the hostility. Bisson's own empathetic insight is valuable precisely, and only, because it did not cause him to recoil from the power structures that made those maltreatments possible, but to investigate them.

And, fundamentally, Bisson's peasants are no better off for his recovering their story. They suffered, eventually died, and we don't really know whether they got any remedy from the Count-King or not. The injustice they suffered is beyond remedy, and if they haunt Bisson urging redress of it they were fairly irrational spectres; much much too late. But where there is a moral imperative, to my mind, is to remember. I've argued this before at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe but I'll do it again: we as historians have no purpose so important as to be specialists of memory. And it's not that they were victims that makes Bisson's peasants important to study, or the ways that Borrell changed government in Catalonia at the close of the tenth century that crucially affected the development of the system under which those peasants would suffer that makes him important (though that is what I would tell a funding body, I admit). It's the fact that if no-one does they'll be forgotten. That really bothers me. So I think I'm distinguishing, in a way that has no semantic basis, moral importance from historical significance. Borrell was historically significant, though maybe not to you; the peasants were not so much, but they're all important just because they existed and now they could be forgotten.

This is not the first time I've made this argument, but you haven't seen the first time yet because it's coming out in print, at the end of the introduction to my first book:

Each of these great histories contains hundreds of micro-histories and biographical fragments, as we see people through the irregular magic lantern of land transfer and its documents. For some of these people we can construct a kind of life story. For others the evidence is too scant for us to be able to do more than briefly remark their existence. It is perhaps the great histories which make for the significance of this study. [My study abbey of] Sant Joan’s operations affected many; each individual settler in the Vall de Sant Joan changed their environment only a little. Borrell II may have changed the political direction of Catalonia and certainly helped rebuild the structures of power on its frontiers; Guallus his cook, whom we perhaps see in one charter, had a career which left less of a mark on the medieval world. All the same, in conducting this study the little stories have intrigued me as much as the big ones, and I contend that neither makes sense without the other. I hope that by briefly catching hold of these people’s lives I have allowed them to say something about the society of which they were as much part as were their rulers.

It's to do with equality. The poor and the powerful; the remembered and the forgotten; the living and the dead. We can get outraged all we like, and we should, because living is about feeling, but there's no place for any of these groups being considered 'better' than the others in my historical compass. They all have an equal claim to our memory.

P. S. I should also direct you to one of another Leeds write-up, where some related questions are touched on.

1. Simon Doubleday,"The Re-Experience of Medieval Power:Tormented Voices in the Haunted House of Empiricism" in Robert F. Berkhofer III, Alan Cooper & Adam J. Kosto (edd.), The Experience of Power in Medieval Europe, 950-1350: essays in honor of Thomas N. Bisson (Aldershot 2005), pp. 271-285.

2. Thomas N. Bisson, Tormented Voices: Power, Crisis and Humanity in Rural Catalonia, 1140–1200 (Cambridge MA 1998); it might now be argued that his most important work is the new The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government (Princeton 2008), though I'd look a bit silly doing so as I've yet to read it.

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