Historians at the Cheltenham Literature Festival
9th October 2013
One of the things I most like about Cheltenham is the Literature Festival, which always attracts many world-famous writers – and often some notorious historians. Whatever your thoughts are on the role of history in the media and so-called ‘TV historians’, I was really pleased that both Diarmaid MacCulloch and Simon Schama were on the bill for this year’s festival. As an undergraduate history student (quite a while ago now!), I always enjoyed Simon Schama’s history programmes; they inspired me to study history – and his shows about the Reformation, in which computer imagery recreated the inside of a church in its pre-Reformation colourful and vibrant splendour, really struck my imagination. Diarmaid MacCulloch (a recent entrant into the realm of ‘TV History’) is well known to early modernists as a core researcher on the Reformation, and as my supervisor’s supervisor, it’s always good to go along to his papers. What was especially interesting about Schama’s and MacCulloch’s talks, and what I’ll write about here, was that both historians spoke about what history means to them, and about their historical methods and motivations.
Diarmaid MacCulloch discussed his recent book, Silence: a Christian History, which explores the relationship between Christianity and silence, both in terms of Christian worship and also the Church’s silence on various points in its history. MacCulloch argued that religious worship is often about revelation through the senses, so silence is significant – silence is just as important as things that are said. He spoke further about the impact of this on the historian, for how do you write about absences in the past? The things that aren’t said or spoken about in the source material are still so obviously apparent, for example the silence surrounding homosexual identity – it may not be mentioned in sources from the past, but that doesn’t mean that it did not exist.
Simon Schama discussed his recent book and TV series on the history of the Jews, focusing more on his experience researching the book than on the arguments themselves. Schama spoke especially about the fragility of the past, the delicate nature of the source materials we use, the written words which are printed upon papers in archives that can turn to dust (quite literally) in historians’ hands. He spoke about how historians aim to recreate, to breathe life into the people of the past, into people who have gone, who are part of a culture that is different to our own. Recreating this culture from the past is what is so fascinating about history – it’s why historians want to ‘do’ history. According to Schama the role of the historian is to induce ‘insightful insomnia’ in a culture which prefers ‘cooed lullabies’. Meaning that history should unearth ideas and concepts that are unfamiliar, that are different, potentially challenging or even unsettling, rather than ideas that speak to who we are now, or comfortingly confirm our present identities. These are ideas I often discuss with students.
One theme which united both these talks was what MacCulloch and Schama had to say on the theme of religious history. Both historians emphasised the importance of religion to culture: indeed, religion and culture are intertwined and enmeshed – and we will fall short of attempting to pick apart and to understand other cultures if we do not appreciate or comprehend the religious cultures of those societies. Which again, as a specialist on the Reformation period, is something that I often discuss with students. So, a thought provoking couple of days so far!