sábado, 26 de noviembre de 2016

How thick are the boundaries which separate one historical era from another?

Facts Do Not Train Affections, Subjective Judgments Do

by Joshua Gibbs

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth…”

I. How thick are the boundaries which separate one historical era from another? Who can say when the Medieval era became the Renaissance? What has the authority to declare the beginning of the Reformation?

Historians love to argue over periodization, the art and science of describing historical epochs. Some date the Medieval era from the sack of Rome, some date the Medieval era from Pope Gregory in the late 6th century, and some argue that “the Medieval era” unfairly, unnaturally binds together too many disparate and incompatible threads of history. There was no Medieval era, really.

A great many historians are leery of heavily demarcating one era from another. The periods of history are not like the periods of a hockey game. There was no buzzer which sounded at the end of the Medieval era. There was no brief intermission between the Medieval and the Renaissance wherein subsistence farmers walked from their hillside homes into previously unoccupied cities and resumed their lives, now become sellers and tinkerers. The prudent historian recognizes that the shift from one epoch to another is glacial, massive, and that the tenants of an epoch are constantly up for revision. History does not move homogenously forward. The effects of “the Renaissance” may have been felt more acutely in one Italian city long before another, or else Russia might have remained Medieval long after the Reformation. Given the circuitous path of news, it is possible the first shot of World War III was fired weeks ago and that we will not know about it for several years, or historians of the future may determine that WWIII came and went sometime between 9/11 and Obama’s reelection.

While I recognize the difficulties of periodization, as a teacher of history to high school students, I have relied heavily on periodization. At worst, periodization is still helpful in establishing frameworks for study. A child’s catechism and a grad student’s catechism may have many points of departure. I teach my little girls that God “lives everywhere,” but I teach my philosophy students that “God is beyond place, for God is place itself.” While drawing thick, heavy lines between Late Antique and Medieval, early on as a teacher, at very least, I always thought to myself that my work was sufficient for high school students and that, if any went off to study history in college, they would gain a far more nuanced understanding of how one era gives way to another.

However, more than a decade into my career as a teacher, I have slowly found myself comfortable with the heavy lines. I have read painstaking mosaics of epochal shifts (Hillerbrand’s work on the 16th century, say) and found them immensely valuable, and yet that value is of curious relation to the realm of theology and ontology— what man is, as opposed to what he does or has. Eight or nine years ago, I was speaking with a devoutly secularist friend about V For Vendetta. “The film was quite alarmist,” I said, and then, “It’s not as though homosexuality is going to be banned by the government anytime soon. Your people are winning the political end of the argument, after all.” With unfeigned confusion, he replied, “What? Wrong. The homosexual community is under eminent threat by the government. The film will prove prescient.” We both assumed the other side was obviously on the ascendant. 

Viewing the fallout from the latest election cycle, it seems man is genuinely incapable of reading the progress of history in any kind of reasonable manner. Regardless of where you place your sympathies, we think in terms of the Golden Age and the Dark Age. The average man is incapable of arranging “the facts” in such a way that he judges the world to be merely carrying on as it always does. I worked in market research for years and, while conducting political surveys, regularly asked people, “Is the country headed in the right direction, or have things gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track?” I never once heard a person balk at the options. While some historians sketch out the minutiae of change and hesitate to make judgments about this era becoming that era, the layman views history as a spiritual story. In the same way you must convince the layman there is no god, so you must convince him there is no god of the age. We believe in the divine as naturally as we believe in the zeitgeist.


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