On the Need for a Broader Vision
Last week, I took a group of students on a field trip to some rural sites in the Judaean hills. When we encountered an arched doorway in an overgrown vaulted passage of a castle, I asked one of the students to jump down to photograph it from the other side. We had been taking about masons' marks and there were several that she could observe, and her enthusiasm was soon shared by the others as if they had found a real treasure. And indeed, they had, and I, after decades of acquaintance with these tiny squeaks from the past, am still enticed every time I come upon them.
One of the pleasures of teaching is that every so often one encounters real enthusiasm, a real sense, not just of interest but of delight. In my field, this sort of reaction is often experienced when a student suddenly comes face to face with a voice from the past. And it can be from something very minor. Indeed, it is perhaps best experienced when it is something minor, something that throws light on an individual, and not necessarily an important individual but someone like any one of us; or when we observe something that is very human, a button for example. Such an encountering makes the past far more real and easier to believe in.
I am not by any means belittling the importance of events that changed the lives of many individuals: wars, plagues, famines. We all need a bit of drama. A siege or a regicide makes for a good read, and how dull would history be if it were only a record of the sort of mundane things that are what life is about most of the time, for most people? We need the balance; the siege, the assassination, the dictator shouting at his generals; but also we need to hear about the laundress labouring over her washing, the child playing with his toys. We need to know what parliament has ruled, but also what is on the impoverished peasant's plate and how his wife endures childbirth. Believable history is the history of everything, or as one popular author more realistically put it, of "Nearly Everything". Good historians know this. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's masterful Montaillou gives us both an inquisition and a peek into the peasants' bedroom. In archaeology it is easy to hear both voices. Time, rain and wind have no prejudices and no preferences.