Joseph Dahmus, A History of the Middle Ages

In the last post on Carlo Ginzburg, I said, truthfully, that I prefer academic history to those intended for a wider readership.  On vacation, in a friend’s house, I ran out of books to read, so I picked up Joseph DahmusA History of the Middle Ages off their shelf.  It was the first textbook I’d read in easily 20 years.

There two types of history textbooks: those written by committee and those written by individuals.  Neither is entirely satisfactory, but the second is generally more valuable.  The textbook written by an individual is likely to be a better read, which matters when one is reading a textbook, something one would prefer to avoid.  Dahmus has some sort of authorial voice in his prose.  A second and probably more important point is that an individual author is more likely to make some sort of argument or, rather, to do so more or less transparently.  All textbooks, of course, make arguments.  The problem with those written by a group with the sole purpose of tapping into the lucrative textbook market is that they hide their arguments behind a veil of objectivity.  The arguments are made in the selection and omission of facts.  Dahmus, to his credit, will make statements like “so-and-so argues this about that, but is wrong for this reason and this other.”  We know when an argument is being made.


Carlo Ginzburg, Clues, Myths, and Historical Method

I studied history in school because I liked it, and I can say that I like reading academic history more than histories intended for the general public, most of the time. I say this not to sound elitist, but because the best academic history operates on a much greater level of detail than popular histories, and I find that detail interesting. One of my big questions as a person is that of the relationship between general and specific.

A number of years ago a friend TA’d for a course in which the prof had assigned Carlo Ginzburg‘s The Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries, which on my friend’s recommendation I purchased. I began reading it, liked it, got distracted, and gave it away with the rest of my library when I moved to Senegal. In the intervening years, however, I’ve thought about it quite a bit, and for my birthday I asked my parents each to get me some Ginsburg books. This one, Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, I actually bought myself to round out the set, breaking my rule about not buying books any more. The library didn’t have it, I say in my defense.

The book is a series of articles, the contents of which I checked out before buying it, which seemed most interesting to me when they focus on what Ginsburg is justly famous for: documenting popular culture, witchcraft particularly, using sources hostile to the subject. One title explains the basic point: “The Inquisitor as Anthropologist.” We might actually as a general rule reverse the two and note the Anthropologist as Inquisitor, had not Vine Deloria already done so so beautifully. Ginzburg, however, is dealing with an extreme example of the basic methodological question in history, which is that of source material. Ginsburg uses inquisitorial records of heresy to examine popular religious belief. To do this, he needs to compensate for the inherent bias of the source material, in particular the tendency of inquisitors to understand statements of the accused as recitations of the Church’s notions of heresy–everything leads up to the Witches’ Sabbat–rather than as statements in and of themselves. Nor are the accused speaking freely. Everything the accused says is an attempt to on the one hand be credible to the inquisitor and at the same time innocent of capital crime.

This to me is a fascinating inquiry. As such, the most interesting–and without question, my primary concern to me in reading anything is whether or not I happen to find it interesting–articles in the book are the ones that deal with popular religion and methodology. Codification of eros in Titian is of abstract interest to me, but I’d rather have been told the point in conversation with someone over pints than have taken the time to read the article. I did so as a point of principle, having paid for the book.

Definitely not a starting point for Ginzburg’s work. The Night Battles or, I am told, The Worms and the Cheese are certainly worth anyone’s time. I have those both waiting near my bed to finish by summer’s end.

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