Friday, 22 March 2019


As I venture ever deeper into the nostalgia labyrinth, I'm becoming more aware of the real danger of conceptual slippage.  There are so many ways of thinking about the past, and there is such an enormous array of scholarship on memory, that it is tempting to adopt the most capacious view of my subject.  But nostalgia is a very particular way of thinking about the past - and I'm going to be really careful to avoid discussing memory more generally.  It will be a useful exercise to think through some tempting areas which really are not nostalgia.  There's a further reason for doing this, in that 'nostalgic' is so often used as a polemical term to diminish the value of people's response to the past ('you're just nostalgic, reactionary' - whatever - it's an effective way to crush a particular way of thinking).

I may as well begin reflexively.  I gave a seminar paper on the subject of nostalgia earlier this term, and was asked the very perceptive question why more historians are not working on this intriguing topic.  The answer is, as ever, multi-facetted - but one reason, I think, is that many scholars are nervous about being accused of being nostalgic themselves (in literary analysis of nostalgia - more common for a later period - this is a common apologetic trope).  I can just about see how you could become a bit nostalgic if you worked only on the most exquisite manuscripts, or medieval music - but interest in the past and nostalgia are very different.

I am emphatically not nostalgic for the fourteenth century.  Were I able to time-travel, I would reject the invitation (though I do feel rather differently about the C16th  - I really would love to have a conversation with Michel de Montaigne, and Henry IV of France - not at the same time).

Henri IV (image source, Wikipedia): to whom is nostalgically ascribed the phrase: 'no peasant in my realm shall lack a chicken in his pot on Sundays'

But how could one possibly be nostalgic for a period of mass mortality, high levels of physical violence, revolting food and intensive labour?  A few years ago, I had a series of pretty melodramatic health issues - one doctor, realising I worked on the Middle Ages, pointed out that I should be very grateful to live now, because in a former age, I would have been dead many times over.  It wasn't a desperately kind thing to say, but he did have a point.

In other words, there isn't any problem in disaggregating interest in the past and nostalgia for us as historians - so too, for the medieval people I'm studying, I need to be careful to distinguish between their interest in, and their longing for, the past.

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