Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Historical Consumerism

Original post 7/12/2006

Another Damn Medievalist pointed me to the Observers posting of this speech by UK Historian Stephen Fry about why history matters. (Fry is promoting the "History Matters - Pass it on" campaign that is currently underway in the UK). Fry's speech is a very accessible introduction to the sort of high-brow, jargon laden debate in which historians engage all of the time. That is why it's so important. Hopefully, the discussion that Fry has instigated amongst historians will be just as accessible. (In answer to Ralph's question: Yes, I'd say this is worthy of a Cliopatria Symposia) .

Jeffrey Cohen at In The Middle solicited his readers to explain why history mattered to them, which led to a discussion of the different motivations for why Americans and British study the Middle Ages. Cohen admited that Tolkien was a motivation for his entrance into the field of Medieval History. The same goes for me, but my interest in history preceded my exposure to Tolkien and other Fantasy authors. (Aside: I used to read a lot of "high Fantasy", but now I'm too busy reading "real" stuff to spend time on reading fiction...I should change that. Historians can learn a lot about the craft of writing from works of fiction). For that matter, I also liked comic books (what 11 year old boy didn't?) and fantasy movies. Looking back, Conan ("To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women!") probably had an influence on my interest in those Early M.A. barbarians. However, I'd have to say that the "tipping point" for my entry into formal historical study was genealogy.

To begin with, I learned that my last name wasn't always the last name of my patrilineal line. In fact, "Comtois" is a "dit" name. "Dit" is basically the French equivalent of the English "aka" (also known as). The "real" last name of my paternal ancestors was Gilbert dit Comtois: "Gilbert known as Comtois" or "Gilbert the Comtois". As for the name "Comtois," it means "of, or being from Franche Comte," a historic region in Eastern France. "Franche Comte" means "Free County" and it was historically known as the "Free County of Burgundy". Some time during the late 19th century, while my ancestors and many other French-Canadians were making the seasonal transit between Quebec and the New England textile mills, the "Gilbert" got dropped by those in my direct line. (Some of my "way back" uncles kept the "Gilbert" instead, so I could have just as easily have been Marc Gilbert as Marc Comtois).

As I was tracing my patrilineal line back through New England, Quebec and finally to Besancon in Franche Comte (now Besancon is part of the Department of Doubs), I also studied the history of those places. As I went further and further back, I finally bumped into the Burgundians of the Early M.A. and the Sequani of Antiquity. Before I knew it, I was taking a Grad level Medieval History class at Providence College and considering going for an MA in my "free" time. The rest is history (I couldn't resist!).

I believe that my story can serve as an example of how personalized interest can lead to deeper historical learning. My initial interest in history was antiquarian--I just liked old stuff (still do). Then I became interested in not only my particular family history, but also the larger historical forces that shaped the decisions they made and, subsequently, their lives. In this way, I gained a deeper understanding of both my personal past and the past of my country.

Well written and accessible history can make people realize that they have a stake in the past. The success of popular histories, particularly biographies, in recent years can attest to that. But even these histories appeal only to those who already have a curiosity about history in and of itself. What about the rest of the people who don't neither have an intrinsic interest in history nor think that history is important to them?

Part of this attitude may be because the "average Joe" doesn't have anyone "famous" in his past. This may be an unfortunate side effect of history as biography. Of course there are many historical biographies about average folks living during compelling times, but these biographies often serve as an introduction to a previously unknown person. Without a historical radar, so to speak, how can someone not looking for such a history know it exists?

This brings me back to genealogy and how it led me to history. As I said, I was already a consumer of history, so I'm not a perfect example of a disinterested person suddenly having his historical fire sparked by personal interest. But there is something about the "appeal to the personal" that historians may be able use as a toehold in the public conscience. Perhaps in our "me" culture, the easiest path to a more widespread acknowledgment of the importance of history is to explain to people that everyone has their own history. It's there, you just have to take ownership of it.

Genealogy is just one avenue that could be used to pique those personal interests. Pop culture is another with historical movies and tv shows. ("So you like this movie, guess what is based on?"). These are not new ideas--the History Channel(s) and others devote hours of programming to just this sort of thing. But taken together, they can be viewed as parts of a whole: an approach to history that I'd call historical consumerism. Find out what people are interested in, and then deliver a little history with it. To quote Mary Poppins, "A spoonful of sugar..."


Nathanael said...

You could also read that coming from Franche-Comte, your ancestors were not French--apart from the connection with Switzerland (the Jura being the lower Alps), the territory belonged to the County of Burgundy, not the Duchy, which put in into the purview of the Holy Roman Empire. The Valois dukes incorporated Franche-Comte into their territories west of the Soane (along with Greater Lorraine.) However, western and eastern territories could not be consolidated into a single holding--the west had to remain in France, the east in the HRE, and the dukes would give up on neither (even though the emperorship was dangled before them.) The final status of Franche-Comte was not determined until the 17th C. In fact, your ancestors migration to the Americas may have been a long term result of the wars of the 17th C (much as the "Germans" who came from French Moselle.)

Marc said...

Thanks for the comment. It shows that our concepts of nationality aren't all cut and dried. Incidentally, my ancestor, Louis Gilbert dit Comtois, was born in Besancon c. 1689 and migrated to Quebec around 1720, possibly as a soldier and married into the Jacques family. (The data I linked to isn't my research, but mine is similar up until Generation 4).

Anonymous said...

Funny story. My father's name was Marc Gilbert (he passed away in 1982) and his elder son was born in Besançon in 1955.

Charlie said...

There is a small community in Eastern Allen County Indiana near the Ohio border which was settled by immigrants from Besancon in the late 1700's early 1800's. There is a small Church there named St. Louis. The general vicinity is referred to as Besancon.
Just thought you'd like to know.