Last weekend I was sitting around with my family. If we can help it we try not to sit around. My mother in particular thinks this is bad idea because if we sit around we tend to all sit in separate rooms of the house. So we decided we would take a trip to the
It is moments like these which make me wonder why I decided to become a Medieval Historian. I will admit that a large part of my decision to study Vikings as opposed to anything that might have had more sources, something like monastic history, is largely because of the implicit connection that Viking Studies has with Canadian History. But how did I come to this decision in
Similarly, there are not that many South Asian historians in
Monuments like the Stephen Leacock museum are focal points of their community. They give the surrounding area that sense of community and they are important locations for local Historical Societies. They are the physical manifestations of that personal connection that someone feels with their history, and for the more romantic amongst us, these monuments give you that tingly feeling of History, capital H. I count myself amongst them, otherwise I don’t think I would have become an historian. And a monument like the Stephen Leacock Museum or the Plains of Abraham are better representations of that overwhelming sense of history because they also happen to be the geographical locations where the event occurred. This certainly adds to the romanticism of the monument.
It is both this romanticism surrounding history and that sense that history and historical monuments are focal points of communities which really helps to keep history relevant. You can argue as well that history teaches valuable lessons, which is true, but that is not really why people study it, nor is it why people visit museums.
No one struggles with relevance like Medievalists; particularly Medievalists who work outside of the geographical locations they study. There are no monuments which incite the interest of the populace here. There may be artefacts which arrive at our local or metropolitan museums, but they are devoid of that geographical connection. And if you study Vikings you may get an axe, or a brooch, but in reality the artifacts are few and far between. Viking weapons and armoury are largely made of leather and wood. Their houses were often turf houses, or halls with inside timber frames, insulated with turf. Ship burials and mounds are some of the more exciting archaeological finds, but a great majority of the work is done with high tech imagery which studies depths and variations in soils so we can see where the post markings of halls had been. The rune stones of
So where does that personal connection, or that curiosity come from if not from the monuments to the culture. Instead of physical evidence, for the many of us who study things exterior to our community we are incited by what we might call a mental monument. Let me explain; when I say mental monument I am looking to find the key elements that make us want to study a history when we can not be moved by its physical monuments.
As Canadians this may be easy enough to do because, arguably, up until recently our historians and teachers were more concerned with teaching us the far off history of Europe than they were with teaching us our own. However, that is part of our history as well, this intense connection (on the part of the visible majority) to our European roots. Our culture is very similar to that of Europeans, and many Canadians claim descent from
Physical monuments, however, are not the only way our interest is piqued. Literature as well gives us something tangible that connects us with history. For instance, you don’t have to have visited the
Therefore it is these distant physical remains and an increasingly readily available body of literature which creates these mental monuments, these impressions which stir the romantic in us. Yet one could argue the most crucial element is not necessarily these artifacts, but instead it is the tradition around them created by previous historians, whose traditions we are inheriting. They decided this history was important because of the literature and monuments that they had access to. And because it was studied by them it is more easily studied by us, who were delighted with the tales they told. In addition, this history has become part of our wider (popular) culture so that the history is self-perpetuating. Because a pseudo Medievalism becomes of interest to the popular culture a new generation of Medievalists develops an interest, and hence a personal connection with that history.
Let’s return to the South Asian historian. It is this process of globalization that brings that mental monument to
North American Medievalists have it easier than South Asian Historians because of the geographical and (arguable) ethnic connection with the historiography, if not the history. But when I visit my local historic sites I still find myself doubting my choice. When I read a saga I don’t. The romanticism surrounding the Vikings will always capture my imagination but I will also always have a soft spot for Canadian History. Many different histories excite my interest.
We actually didn’t get a chance to go into the