It’s hard to keep up with the thinking…

This has been a full week, which is good, but it does cut into my lower priority writing time and that includes PBS blog updates. I have found a few minutes to rub together so here is an update.

Actually, one problem I have found since coming to Oxford is that there is often more things to think about than time in which to do the thinking. For example, the keynote paper at the Friday conference—”Military History – Into the 21st Century”—had a lot to say about the place of the discipline in higher education, in the broader audience of mixed media, in social and political policy, the arts, humanities, and culture in the broad sense. As stimulating as the paper was, I have done absolutely nothing to record or articulate any of the ideas it prompted.

Danny Steed, a new member of faculty in the strategic studies unit at Exeter, gave a fascinating (if noticeably short) paper on the Suez crisis and the odd historiographic blind-spot that kept any of that from helping the US in Iraq, circa 2003 (blame the Cold War, apparently). The hidden message was, naturally, that history does repeat itself, first as tragedy then as farce.

Kathleen Sherit, an ABD (all-but-dissertation) doctoral student at King’s College London gave a compelling (and humorous) paper about the progression towards women in combat roles in the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. The question period showed just how hard it is for historians to separate their moral and ideological judgements from some topics. One comment was, perhaps as insightful as it was unhistorical, suggesting that removing restrictions on who can ‘fight’ is a sort of moral failing. Another member if the audience suggested that there was a social stigma against women in arms, not out of misogyny but because it would, inevitably, lead to more brutalizing warfare (and cited examples from the Balkans and the Soviets during both World Wars). He was, at least, chastised mildly by the convener for not actually having a question.

And that reminded me of another exchange at a subject seminar earlier last week. Several people in the audience got bent out of shape at the suggestion that X or Y, in the 16th century were actually ‘Catholics’ because they didn’t attend mass, rejected the Pope, etc. “Who called X Catholic?” went the question. “Uh… all those other people I mentioned called him Catholic.” The response to that was almost, but not quite, “well they were wrong.” It is a rare thing to run into a historical discussion that actually has very little to do with the historical past and more to do with the present and some cultural connection with that past that endures. Modern Catholics might cringe at the suggestion that a recusant was a Catholic, but in the context of the 16th century, the criteria for who was and was not Catholic was not the same issue as it is today. When a secret Catholic in Elizabethan England asked another “Is X a Catholic?” he was not asking if he attended mass or believed in the Pope, he was asking “will X rat on us to the Protestants if we talk about saints to him?” Similarly, if a Protestant asks another “is Y a Catholic” he is actually asking “Is Y a secret agent of Spain and the Pope, intent on the destruction of our entire state and way of life?” It was odd to hear a half dozen academics fail to understand the historicity of what was being discussed.

Oh, and yesterday I got to see three 15th century copies of the Canterbury Tales, notable for their corrections and scribal idiosyncrasies. These were explained to us by Oxford’s first Jeremy Griffiths Professor in Paleography.

You see, it’s hard to keep all of this straight each week. It’s harder to sort it out and write it down.

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