Translating truth?

Recently I ended up in a short conversation with somebody about medieval history. It doesn’t matter where or when or exactly what about. I’m not writing this to embarrass anybody. I do, however, want to share a reflection that it sparked about what history isn’t.

For necessary context, this was a conversation about the study of a famous figure from medieval history. My interlocutor promotes and presents this historical figure through public speaking, internet fora etc. and offers them as a role model. That doesn’t bother me. It isn’t currently the most fashionable motivation but I don’t think it necessarily makes for worse history than any other reasons for studying the past.

Amidst a range of interesting and valid points, the person I was talking to argued that their chosen historical figure only claimed that God told her to act in the way that she did because she knew that this was what people wanted to hear. She didn’t really believe this or think that God was talking to her! Having the good sense to couch her political goals in these terms was further evidence of this historical figure being a smart, independent and pro-active woman, capable of using circumstances to her advantage.

I suggested that this specific point was a bit problematic. We’re talking about a historical actor operating in a context in which belief in God seems to have been near-universal and in which God was widely perceived to speak directly to people in some circumstances. We’re talking, moreover, about a historical actor who has left explicit and personal testimony to the effect that she believed God had spoken to her directly and that she was carrying out God’s will. We’re talking about a historical actor who was ultimately willing to die rather than renounce this truth of theirs. (You may at this point have guessed who we were discussing.)

‘There are lots of different ways to interpret the past’ was the essence of the response that I got. In addition, my interlocutor argued, getting across the message of this historical figure required couching it in terms that would not alienate a modern (read, secular) audience. Furthermore, the person I was talking to had experienced great success in translating this historical figure’s behaviour in these terms, influenced by Jungian psychology.

There are, of course, lots of different ways to interpret the past but they are not all equally valid. So, what makes this Jungian, consumer-driven packaging of a medieval figure ‘bad history’ rather than ‘a different way to interpret the past’?

Most obviously, we have sources that tell us directly what this historical figure personally believed and about their wider belief environment. In the absence of direct source material, we sometimes have to fill in the gaps. We make our best guess or rely on some framework for assumption but to reject sources when we have them is always dangerous. Sometimes sources lie. Sometimes they are wrong. More often, they just don’t say things in the way we might expect. But if we think a source is lying, we need to show why. If we think it is misleading, we need to show how.

If we just think that the evidence isn’t what we want to hear or isn’t what our audience wants to hear, that isn’t a source problem. It is bad history.

The study of history can serve many purposes, sometimes simultaneously. One of them may be to offer inspiring models. Another (and one of my favourites) can be to remind us that the world has not always been the same. There are lots of ways to be human. When we start making the past conform to our way of being human, regardless of what the people we study said about themselves, we are not doing good history and history will not be doing us much good.

To use somebody as a role model, we first have to try to understand them. To translate somebody else’s truth we first have to respect it. The study of history may be many things for its audience: a mirror, a pulpit, a meditation, a comfort… It should not be a costume.

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