Friday, July 6, 2012

Metamorphosis and Historiography

I just picked up the now-decade-old volume by the eminent medieval historian Caroline Walker Bynum called Metamorphosis and Identity.  It is a collection of somewhat disparate essays spun together by the Ovidian thread of metamorphosis in 12th and 13th century Europe.  She uses the resurgent medieval fascination with concepts of the perduring individual identity among changes and transformations (including the quotidian aging, social changes, etc., but also the Ovidian radical changes in werewolf stories, the Eucharist, and so forth).  She uses these stories that challenge social structures and established boundaries, these stories that suggest fluidity and chaos, as a means to discuss the historian's task.  In an interesting historiographical reflection, she writes:
The history we attempt to write is always metamorphosis--a flux to which we have access only through texts and objects that bear vestiges of past lives to us from across time.  To historians as to poets, shapes carry stories.  Potsherds, tympana, illuminated manuscripts, field patterns from long ago revealed by aerial photography, and the texts themselves--texts of romances, saints' lives, chronicles, land transfers, laws--bring stories to us, changing because they have traveled through time but conveying also important vestiges of what was there.  Yet we, if we succeed in writing that past, are hybrids, monstrous combinations of past and present, paradoxically asserting through common, ordinary words such as "change" or "identity" a then and a now that may be incompatible, unknowable, inexpressible in those common, ordinary terms....  the history we write is less a synthesis and reconciliation than an assertion of opposites.  The most profound evocations and analyses of the past tend, I think, to put us in contact with the contradictory aspirations of the past and to keep us ever aware of the contradiction inherent in the arrogant effort to understand something radically other than ourselves.  In this sense, all history writing is not only comparative history but even paradoxical history.  Perhaps, then, the best we can hope for as historians is to achieve what Bernard of Clairvaux called in another context a "marvelous mixture":  a simultaneous assertion of past and present, self and other.  (Carolyn Walker Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity, 36)
 I miss teaching Ovid's Metamorphoses.

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