Blogs > Cliopatria > Lost in translation, or, Inside Higher Ed needs 'une durée critique plus longue'

Jun 3, 2010

Lost in translation, or, Inside Higher Ed needs 'une durée critique plus longue'

Over at A Corner of Tenth-Century EuropeI have developed a habit of misusing an anthropological term, protochronism. This refers to the habit of suggesting that one's particular culture of interest originated such and such a phenomenon or was doing it first and so on. I tend to apply it to historical work which claims that such and such a phenomenon started in the author's period of expertise, when really it has much older antecedents. As a medievalist, I get to do this quite a lot. Others in the field call it 'trapdooring'. And so it was when Ralph posted a link to a review at Inside Higher Ed of Michael Kammen's Digging up the Dead by, er, Scott McLemee, I thought, 'that looks interesting' and clicked, and, er, well. I hope Scott won't mind my saying this, but if his review is anything to go by, Kammen's work could use a longer perspective than he was able to provide. Specifically:

The act of re-commemorating an individual’s life by moving his remains is quintessentially modern -- a kind of secular resurrection of the deceased person's social importance."Relocation and reburial," writes Kammen,"or 'translation' of a body, to use the traditional, Latin-derived word, are invariably all about the resurgence of the reputation of and hence respect for someone whose lamp and visage had dimmed in some way."

They say show don't tell, so here goes.

The tomb of St Luke the Evangelist in the Duomo di Padua (The tomb of St Luke the Evangelist in the Duomo di Padua, translated there or thereabouts 1177.)
Shrine of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral (Shrine of the seventh-century saint Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral, established for him 1093.)

These ones are obvious because they're famous and still standing but it's easy to find more. How about some texts? Leaving aside mundane old Wikipedia, there is a literature on this, and a whole welter of source texts of which the one I know best is from the era of Charlemagne (well, Louis the Pious, but what's twenty years in a thousand), but I suppose the canonical resort for these sources, other than the below, would be Martin Heinzelmann's Translationsberichte und andere Quellen des Reliquienkultes, Typologie des sources du moyen âge occidental 33 (Turnhout 1979). Moving the dead for status and impact is just not that modern. The fact that the"'traditional, Latin-derived word'" was, well, Latin-derived, might be a warning that the practice has long roots, and why on earth Kammen (or McLemee?) supposes it to be solely a secular thing I don't know. Should I read the book to find out? Or is it just that with two to three thousand years of recorded history in various places to play with, sometimes the recent bits are not new?"The possibility of a discontinuous evolution is worth considering." That's all I'm saying.

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Jonathan Jarrett - 6/16/2010

<time passes>

No, don't get up, I'll do it. I guess your copy has had to go back to the lending library or something.

So, turns out that Kammen does in fact discuss the medieval precedents for reburials and translations (pp. 27-29) and although he cites Huizinga and Burckhardt, whom most medievalists have relegated to the museum now, he also cites Caroline Walker Bynum's Resurrection of the Body and Peter Brown's The Rise of the Holy Man so he's pretty well-supported. That makes it odd that in the very next paragraph of p. 29 after he was discussing the medieval relic trade and the dispersal of bodies to meet the demand for physical remnants of the dead he goes on to speak of a "lurid early modern obsession with sacred relics" as if he had just shown the Middle Ages were relaxed and offhand about the subject, but it makes your statement that I queried even odder. I don't see any basis for it in Kammen's prose. Why do you take from what he writes that, "The act of re-commemorating an individual’s life by moving his remains is quintessentially modern"?

Jonathan Jarrett - 6/3/2010

Well, wow, if only there was someone to hand who'd read the book who could say for sure!

Does it?

Scott McLemee - 6/3/2010

I don't mind at all.

A writer makes a summary of one aspect of the argument of a book of a couple of hundred pages. Then somebody else grows so very vexed about why the author of the book hasn't addressed a matter he happens to know something about that he makes concernful noises on a blog -- but doesn't actually, you know, take a look at the book to see if perhaps it addresses precisely this point.

That's so much in the nature of things that it would be hard to mind it very much.