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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Monumentally Monument-less History

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 Stephen Leacock Museum, which is only twenty minutes from my house. The Museum itself is on a little inlet into Lake Couchiching, and on the Stephen Leacock grounds you can walk right out onto the point and look out onto the lake. From there it is very easy to imagine all the characters from Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town were real, and you can see them out in their row boats. You can also imagine that you look out and see the sinking of the Mariposa Belle. And surrounded by his things, and his house, and his gardens, you can very easily imagine cranky, crotchety old Stephen Leacock, academic and novelist, puttering around this home he had built for himself.

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 Southern Ontario, a place entirely devoid of markers, relevant geography (probably) and any sort of monument?

Similarly, there are not that many South Asian historians in Ontario. Arguably this is because there hasn’t been funding for them and because it is not traditionally the fare of your typical Ontario historian (not that much work has been in English). There is a growing demand for it now, and many departments are recognizing this by adding South Asian historians to their faculty. But, and perhaps I can say this without requiring too much evidence, we are becoming more globalized, and the fact that our academic culture now represents a more global community may be reflective of the fact that their audience is more globalized, and that many who will be in their class will have a personal connection with that particular history. Many of the professors (though not all) have a demonstrable personal connection with that particular history.

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 Sweden are particularly interesting, but in comparison with other great civilizations, and with the legacy that any (more) literate cultures have left, the physical remains are by no means overwhelming.

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 England and France in particular. Therefore the History that prevails there has been given importance here, as we have established a personal connection with it. Hence their local monuments are given significance in our culture because of their connection to us. And for Medievalists it is not hard to feel the History when you walk around in a Gothic Cathedral or in the still preserved medieval structure of a town.

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 Stephen Leacock Museum to enjoy Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town and to feel connected to the town of Orillia and the people that may or may not have been the basis for Leacock’s stories. Similarly you don’t ever have to have visited Iceland to enjoy Njal’s Saga. Literature (including the remnants of oral tales and histories) connects us with the time and place in which it was written (or composed).

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 Southern Ontario. Let us say that it is fair enough to assume that for the most part the first South Asian historians in Southern Ontario will, for the most part, be those who already have a personal connection to the monuments and literature and tradition of historiography from that particular culture. Just as how most Canadian history is done in Canada, and how most European history is done in Europe and its colonies, a direct personal connection with the geographical origins of the history is much more likely to stimulate interest. But how does someone originally from Southern Ontario, with no ostensible connection to South Asia, become interested enough to study that particular history. They have to tap into that particular mental monument. They have to engage with the literature, with the physical monuments (which the digital age is making more and more accessible from one’s own living room) and with the historiography. If we had to say what was most likely to have started them down that path we would point to probably a piece of translated literature (translated by someone with a personal connection most likely), a class, or exposure through popular culture, or even a visit to that foreign monument.

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 Stephen Leacock Museum. Turns out that after they send the high school kids back to school they keep it closed on weekends. Instead we just strolled around the grounds, which was clearly inspiring enough. The lake itself is also very beautiful, and I have always found that the beauty of the local geography helps me to imagine a rich history for a locale. On the grounds of the museum, right out by the point there is this flat stone, surrounded by rocks. The pattern of sun exposure made it clear that there had once been a plaque there. Because we didn’t get inside the museum I wasn’t sure if it was for Stephen Leacock or for the sinking of the Mariposa Belle, or for some other un-thought of historical or literary occurrence on Lake Couchiching. I just found it interesting that here, clearly, there used to be a monument and that now, for those people out for a stroll, it was monument-less. I was intrigued nonetheless.

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