Randall J. Stephens
Were they like us? Historians and non-historians often ask that question about the people of the past. Certainly we share less with the Hittites of ancient history than we do with the city dwellers in the early modern era. Time, space, and culture shape our relationships with the dead and with dead civilizations.
(It would be interesting to ask historians which of the following eras are most like ours: Revolutionary American, the Age of Western Exploration, Imperial Rome, late-19th Century Britain, the Han Dynasty, Mayan civilization at its apex, Viking Norway. . .)
What of the men and women of the Middle Ages? Their enchanted universe is quite different from ours. Their views about cause and effect, providence, and how the natural world works is very unlike the views most westerners have now.
Paul Freedman's review of The Axe and the Oath in the TLS ("From ordalie to ordure," 22 October 2010) traces some of these questions and concerns.
Riffing off Robert Fossier's book, Freedman says, "Despite our superiority, our lives are hemmed in by the same worries, unpredictability, limitations and even diversions as those experienced by Medieval Europeans."
Scholars must think through the contingencies of the period. "For most historians," says Freedman, "the inhabitants of this different [Medieval] world are to be regarded on their own terms rather than as either progressive originators of the modern (parliaments, universities, common law) or, backwards in their living standards and superstitions."
Historians should always cultivate a bit of sympathy and humility regarding their subjects. Long ago the New Left English historian E. P. Thompson warned against "the enormous condescension of posterity." That's still useful advice.