Why Good History Books Are Like Clocks
On my constant return to Natalie Zemon Davis's classic history of Martin Guerre
In today’s essay, we leave the world of politics for a bit: I have noticed from the stats that many of you like it when I write about history, and I will do a little more of that.
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The Second Unicorn Tapestry, The Cloisters. Courtesy of The Public Domain Review.
One of the courses I regularly teach for our history graduate program has the super-sexy title “Historical Methods." Did you laugh? OK, but the truth is (call me a nerd now and get it over with), I do think that historical methods are enjoyable to teach. I always have, ever since I started teaching a version of this course to undergrads in 1993.
As history moves to the center of a new American culture war and conservative activists invest in false stories about the past, more than ever, I value teaching that brings us back to the bones of historical truth-telling.
I also love the course because so many scholars who should know better promote arguments on social media that are less attached to evidence than maintaining an ideological position. It's not that ideology doesn't matter, in life or when you are teaching methods, or that I am a person with no ideology. Quite the opposite, in fact. It's that historical methods can offer us relief from ideology while still allowing me to remain attached to a deeply-held belief system.
Arguably, a methods course puts ideology at the center. When a historian strips away the most prominent characteristics of a book to identify its methodological bones (which, by the way, are nearly always concealed), ideology can be isolated and clarified as part of the process. This, in turn, makes it is easier to see how ideology is working in tandem with other tools--historiography, data, archives, structural constraints—to frame the available evidence and produce an argument about the past. The historian then decides whether the ideological framework is necessary to establish a method and whether, working together, they help reveal a history that seems true.
Let me emphasize: when I use the words "true" and "truth," I am not defending materialism, or structuralism, as paths to objective reality. I also doubt that any form of historical writing can be done free of ideology or theory, which is often a systematic form of ideology. But ideology alone never persuades me: I need evidence. I read like a certain nineteenth-century Missouri congressman. "I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats," Missouri Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver is said to have declared at a political dinner in 1899, "and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me....You have got to show me."
Many good books don't meet that standard, but in a Historical Methods class, you have to rely on those that do. These are books that are your old friends; their authors are your allies and co-teachers. Sitting with a group of M.A. candidates in history, along with (because this is The New School for Social Research) a smattering of Ph.D. candidates from other departments, and dissecting how a book or an article came to be, is the most fun ever.
It’s like taking a clock apart and putting it back together. See? It works! Or, alternatively, See? However you try to tinker with it, this clock has a fatal flaw and will always stop at half-past three. That's the kind of clock it is.
There is one book I have loved ever since I read it in graduate school that I never fail to teach in my methods course: Natalie Zemon Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre. First published in 1983, the year I entered a Ph.D. program in history, the book and I have grown up together.
When it first landed in my hands, this slim volume, bearing the name of a French film released the year before, was remarkable and thrilling. When women's history was becoming a real field within the discipline, Davis showed, with elegance and grace, that the most rigorous historical methods championed by men (in her case, the Annalistes) could easily be turned to the recovery of women's lives. In the introduction, Davis invokes the scientism of the late nineteenth century when she notes that during the writing process, her desk became a "laboratory" where she scrutinized "every scrap of paper left me by the past."
Davis wrote Martin Guerre because she was a consultant on the film, a role that historians, in general, were rarely asked to perform back then, but one unheard of for women historians. But Davis also conveys the thrill of being captured by the past as she worked. When she first read the legal case, she saw stories that would appeal to the modern reader. There was the story of Martin Guerre’s disappearance and return. There was a crafty Guerre imposter Arnaud "Pansette" de Tilh. There was Guerre’s wife, the pragmatic Bertrande de Rols, who chose one man, then another, and then another again, to craft her own fate in the narrow path of freedom open to her in Basque peasant culture.
Davis said she knew the case had to be a movie. But historian that she was, she was also intrigued by the complexities and contradictions of the story. Films must smooth over or resolve these incongruities: historians must explain them. Thus, after completing her work on the script, Davis returned to her craft to re-insert "the uncertainties, 'the perhaps's,' the `may-have-beens,' to which the historian has recourse when the evidence is inadequate or perplexing [.]"
The Return of Martin Guerre is such a wonderful book to teach because Davis, having seduced us with the story itself, reinserts layers of historiographical and theoretical literature to show exactly how such a "clock" might be made correctly. She also takes the bold step that few scholars do. She creates a parallel between the village's capacity to assuage its own doubts about Pansette, the Martin imposter, and historians' capacity to create certainty about events they cannot ever completely know.
Just as Pansette’s deception falls apart when the real Martin returns, historians can expect their own certainty to collapse like a house of cards when new evidence appears or their methods are found to be flawed. But it also reminds us that no matter how daunting, a dedicated historian can always imagine a past, if not a definitive one. "The story of Martin Guerre is told again and again," Davis writes at the end of the book, "because it reminds us that astonishing things are possible...I think I have uncovered the true face of the past. Or has Pansette done it again?"
Davis’s admission that she might have been wrong about the whole thing was an astonishingly brave thing to do. It also opened the door for a severe critique of the book by historian Robert Finlay in the American Historical Review (June 1988), to which Davis then responded. It is one of the best and most illuminating exchanges between historians that I know, illustrating beautifully what the stakes were for the field of women's history as it was gaining traction.
Almost ten years ago, I wrote about why I teach this exchange along with the book. But to quote a relevant paragraph from that post, Davis's contribution is "one of the most lucid essays I have ever read," I wrote. "Not only does Davis `recover' the story of a woman, one principal task of women’s history, but she also uses that as a path to recover a better history of men and to illuminate what it meant to be human in a particular world."
What "the other thing that the Davis-Finlay exchange demonstrates," I continued,
is how to argue in a civilized way. Of course, they had editors, and bloggers don’t. But Finlay avoids an error that some historians, young and old, would do well to contemplate: do not use a machine gun when a .22, carefully aimed, will do; and be respectful of other people’s achievements even when you question their findings. Similarly, Davis avoids an error by not over-arguing or becoming defensive; and by illuminating a point of genuine disagreement about scholarly method while elaborating on why she thinks she is right.
Today, I might not use the word "civilized: "I may have chosen it at the time because I was resident in a department that had many good points and functioned astonishingly well, but also had a reputation for incivility that broke heavily along ideological lines.
Perhaps I longed for a colleague like Finlay, a man who exposed his blunt prejudices but provided ample evidence of why he believed them to be correct; perhaps I aspired to become Davis, who parried Finaly’s criticisms with a rapier wit and reiteration of her methods. Or perhaps I just wanted the editors of the AHR to moderate a department meeting. I don't know.
On the other hand, the same department came together over the importance of teaching historical methods. We had not only devised this course but put together a diverse team of teachers to teach it every year, one that was consciously but unspokenly drawn from the different ideological points of our little death star.
Together, we taught our students to take apart those clocks and reassemble them.
And in that way, by agreeing to agree that certain books were worth constant return and reflection, we in the department often surprised each other by what we had in common: the practice of history. So it isn't strange that I find, decades later, that revisiting all three of these texts with my marvelous graduate students is an immensely satisfying experience. It’s not because of my nostalgia for a time when such argumentation was possible, but because I believe that it still is.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
What I’m writing:
Title IX had unintended consequences: Yale law prof Amy Chua, accused of “boundary-pushing behavior” with students, falls prey to them. (Alternet, June 11, 2021)
Stacey Abrams's new thriller, While Justice Sleeps, offers insight into her political imagination, says Scott Stern at The New Republic. Written in the best tradition of the airport novel, the book “is a sober, accessible survey of the myriad ways conservatives are attempting to restrict the right to vote (especially for working people and people of color), from closing polling places to purging voter rolls to manipulating the census.” ( June 10, 2021)
John Stoehr directs our attention to one public school in a swanky, liberal, Connecticut shoreline town to show how the culture war against “critical race theory” plays out locally. “Critics are so certain they `know’ what they need to know about critical race theory, without actually knowing, that denials are seen as proof and explanations are seen as censorship.” (June 10, 2020)
At the Washington Post, Philip Bump observes that the GOP reviles social media companies as “as hopelessly liberal.” But they know that the MAGA movement cannot be successful without Facebook—so they are fighting like their lives depended on it to portray limits on the fakery they circulate there as censorship. (June 9, 2021)