The events of the last few months have changed our lives in ways we couldn’t have envisioned at the beginning of the year. Back in January, historians have been predicting what our variant of the’Twenties’ might look like: could it be a replica of the Roaring 1920therefore, or could it be like the 520therefore, the 1020s, or even 1620s? Those carefree jokes make poignant reading today.
We could forecast, but can’t yet foresee, how this catastrophe and its long term effect can influence the practice of history. There are instant professional and personal challenges to confront for pupils, teachers and investigators; universities and schools are hastening to accommodate, however there are serious questions about how financial insecurity, social inequality and uneven access to sources, all which are intensified by the outbreak, will impact the area for a long time to come.
There are also less tangible ways that it may affect our job in future. Can it alter our Profession priorities? Certainly we’ll be alert to considering the historic encounter of plagues and epidemics, even following the present rash of Dark Death thinkpieces has expired.
Then there’s the dilemma of the tools we use. Institutions which produce their collections simple to find and utilize digitally will get more focus than ever from investigators struggling to visit libraries in person. That in itself may impact the sorts of resources which bring scholarly interest and induce future directions for study. If continuing travel constraints mean scholars are restricted to their immediate place, will historians react by extending their fields of attention, getting more keen to travel much abroad in your mind even if they can’t traveling in body? Or can we instead observe a golden era of history, as investigators opt to make the very best of those sources nearest at hand?
Even since we’ve been pressured more to the digital world, a place of disembodied heads floating in Zoom meetings, lots of individuals have found comfort in a number of the oldest crafts in the entire world — gardening, baking bread — even if the actual action of grasping hold of dough or dirt proved to be an antidote to using so many different kinds of touch drifted away into the abstract. With a heightened reliance on online tools, I wonder whether we’ll see growing digital exhaustion and frustration with the constraints of those tools, essential and helpful as they are. I am thankful for e-books, clearly, but they really do make me overlook actual books — novels you are able to encounter by accident to a library shelf, without needing to wrestle with an internet catalog that never knows what you’re searching for; novels you’ll be able to flick through and navigate, touch, smell and texture, watching the marks of the men and women who have touched them . This all shapes the way people read, the way we participate with our resources.
The months of lockdown, if it wasn’t feasible to travel farther than a couple miles away from home, appeared to make a people more intensely conscious of their own regional area, of the immediate neighbours and tiny changes observable from day to day — a shrub slowly coming into foliage, varying numbers of cars on the street, looks on the faces of strangers from the road. The joke going around was that it had been just like living in a Regency book and it was really a sudden dip into pre-modern estimations of space and time — useful for historians of earlier periods to learn from personal experience, in addition to in concept.
As we cope with the odd experience of isolation, it’s also been widely popular to make comparisons with the lifestyles of medieval anchorites, or monks and nuns. Though in many ways that these are just surface contrasts, it might turn more scholarly curiosity about the direction of the manner of life, even until today so foreign to most of us. As historians, there’s 1 thing we could learn from these: physical isolation doesn’t need to restrict the reach of your interests or the liberty of mind. In their cells and cloisters, medieval historians did regularly write what we would currently call history, chronicles of the own associations and surrounding regions, and quite helpful they’re too. However they also wrote challenging’world chronicles’, aspiring to inform the background of human civilisation known to themwith a huge temporal and geographic remit covering areas and individuals they had never seen, except for creativity. Maybe that’s the type of ambition we’ll need during the upcoming few decades.
Eleanor Parker is Lecturer in Medieval English Literature in Brasenose College, Oxford and writes a website at aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk.