Studying History and Literature

What is History Deficiency Syndrome?

Are you having trouble keeping track of who's who in the Middle Ages? Can't remember the who the Picts and the Scots are? You may be suffering from a serious ailment known as HDS: History Deficiency Syndrome. This disease is spreading virus-like across the country and has begun to threaten other countries as well. The main symptoms are extreme difficulties in remembering names and dates from before one's lifetime and the inability to locate places on a map.

Seriously speaking, HDS is a function of the sometimes antihistorical, but mostly ahistorical culture we live in. People are not trained to process historical material from a very young age for a variety of reasons. Political and geographical isolation in the United States diverts people's attention from the histories of other countries, and most American history before the eighteenth century has been lost to us. Recently, educational philosophy has discouraged teachers from using the 'rote learning method' on their students, making historical names, dates, and events very hard to teach. Moves towards multiculturalism have also led to debates over what history to teach, and many educators have 'compromised' by simply teaching less of it. The computer culture and rise of web-based resources also discourage the learning of history. After all, if you need information, you can always log on and get it. But more important than all of these factors is society's struggle to maintain acceptable standards of literacy and numeracy. In recent decades increasing amounts of educational resources have been directed towards these areas. Those extra resources have to come from somewhere, and they have come from the teaching of history (and foreign languages).

Hence most students of literature have some form of HDS. To their credit, most of them are unhappy that they have not had the opportunity to learn history earlier and also that they have not acquired  the skills to learn that history now. Although a few English majors with really bad cases of HDS think that they shouldn't need to learn history because they do literature, most students know that a sophisticated and intelligent as well as more interesting and fun understanding of literature can be gained with a fuller understanding of its historical context. The problem is simply making it stick in your head.

But all is not lost. If you have History Deficiency Syndrome, THERE IS SOMETHING YOU CAN DO! For only $24.99 you can purchase bottle of CHRONAGRA. It will jump start your history receptors and you'll remember the date of the The Battle of Maldon as if you were there!


Practical Advice

OK, I haven't got a pill which will solve your problems, but I do have some advice:

  1. Commit information you encounter to your long-term memory. As for your short-term memory forget it. There are several implications to this rule.
  2. Don't take dates for granted: it is important to memorise them permanently. More to the point, history is composed of both sequential and simultaneously occurring events, some of them short incidents and others long-term developments. Having dates in your mind allows your brain to construct a mental timeline. This allows you to make connections between events and developments and to keep from confusing the order of events. Another way to look at this mental timeline is as a mental map of history. A recent study of London taxi drivers has shown that their brains actually expand from the construction of a mental city map of London (presumably, legal limits on the expansion of suburbia will prevent anyone's head from exploding). Since London taxi drivers are famously infallible, it seems possible to achieve a similarly detailed mental map of history. So take some extra time to memorise dates; you'll then find history a lot easier to navigate.
  3. Learning history is cumulative. Once you have the beginnings of a mental timeline, it is easier to slot new material in. So the more you know, the faster you learn. All the tedious memorisation will cease to be tedious. It fact, it will be fun to fill in gaps in the timeline.
  4. Historical events are causes of effects. When you learn about the event, consider what its effects may be, particularly those effects which are not immediate. Immediately stop and think of what effects the event will have in five years' time, ten years, fifty years, one hundred years, and five hundred years. For each time period consider the effects on places. What are the local effects, what are the regional effects, what are the national effects, and what are the international effects? Then do the same thing for people. How are the people involved affected? How are people not directly involved with the event affected? You may think you can't answer this question for, say, the 'hundred years later' category, but you can. You simply ask what the effect of the event is on their reputations or how they are remembered by future generations. Obviously, not all of these questions will have significant or important answers, but, if you systematically consider them all, you will find that history opens up as one grand soap opera.
  5. History is easiest to learn when we look for the soap opera in it. OK, this may require us to exercise the basest elements of our nature, but let me say a bit more. The distancing event of time is like the distancing effect of TV. We are fascinated by the slightly absurd and unreal situations the characters get into, and then we're that bit more shocked when we realise that something seems a bit too familiar. When you are learning history think of how the effects of historical events help to produce those unreal and absurd situations. You don't need to worry about finding the familiar. Your brain will do that anyway.
  6. In soap operas, everyday people encounter slightly absurd and unreal scenarios through the magic of television. In history, time itself is the screenplay writer that makes scenarios absurd and unreal for us. As with a soap opera, we should find this fun and entertaining. But we also have to remember that real people had to respond to these strange scenarios, and for the most part we have no records of what motivated them to respond the way they did. So we have to fill in these motivations; we become the screenplay writers. And for that we can only draw on our own 'real person' intuitions. Learning history thus becomes a job of merging the real and the unreal, the strange and the familiar. It is important to realise that writers of literature go through the same process, and part of our reading literature from an historical perspective can be examining how they did this.
  7. Be careful of 'folk history'. When people today commonly hold a belief about the past but have not acquired that belief through actual research directed to confirming or refuting it, this is called 'folk history'. Sometimes folk history can be based on the assumption (conscious or unconscious) that somebody somewhere must have confirmed it. Generally folk histories are based on the reputation of a period in recent times. For instance, statements like 'medieval people never took baths' or 'in the Middle Ages women were subjugated'. One way to identify such folk histories is that they are stated in simplistic or absolute terms ('medieval people never took baths'). Folk histories often contain a certain amount of truth but have distorted the results of more in-depth research ignored the complexity of the issue. For these reasons, you want to be sure that you do not form conclusions about historical literature based on premises that are fact 'folk history'.

So that's a start. All six statements can be summed up in one. In order to learn and get the most out of history, you need to adopt a certain attitude towards it. This attitude mainly involves focusing the mind on details. I wish I had better advice for committing details to the long-term memory, but the one thing I have found useful is simply attaching more importance in my own mind to small details like names and dates. Another technique I have found useful is to make the time to draw timelines and organise on paper charts showing the relations and importance of names, places, dates, and events. Often I never use the timelines and charts again; the very act of making them has imprinted the material in my memory. It may also help to play the Mystery History Game. There's an added bonus to all this. The very techniques you use to stick small details in your long-term memory also help to cope with the bombardment of detail in a lengthy work of literature. If you are reading a six hundred-page Victorian novel, your ability to remember a seemingly tiny detail from page one hundred a few hundred pages later may come in handy.

But What About Medieval History?

Maybe you're finding medieval history harder than other periods. You might have had less of this in school, which is forcing you to do more catching up. The main thing is to start getting all the names and dates in your head. Start constructing that mental timeline. Here is some extra advice.

  1. Get a map of the appropriate area and keep it handy. Get to know the local geography. The cause and effect progression of history makes a lot more sense if you are aware of what is happening where.
  2. Be prepared to sort out confusing names. We live in a period where we use medieval names, sometimes on a daily basis, but not with the same meanings as they had in the Middle Ages. Three example should suffice.
  3. In the Middle Ages, fashion, technology, cultural institutions, and language were all different. Many terms associated with these things are still in current, but not frequent use. They are more likely to be used in educated and specialist writing than in every-day speech. If you find an unfamiliar term, look it up in a dictionary.
  4. See what you can find on the people, places, and events that seem to be important for the subject you are studying. Try to familiarise yourself with their history. Timeref Medieval is a web site that may be of some use. It contains a timeline, glossary, and small accounts of the crucial dates and important deeds of historical figures during the Middle Ages.
  5. Play the Mystery History Game.


How Do I Relate History to Literature?

I have already given some advice above, but here is a bit more. Finally, there is the question of how you relate this vast supply of information you are gaining to literature. Here is some advice.

  1. If you are into reading theory, do some reading on the approach known as New Historicism. The classic example is Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning. For the Middle Ages (fourteenth century), Lee Patterson's Chaucer and the Subject of History and Paul Strohm's Hochon's Arrow are good examples. But you might also find it helpful to start with the account of New Historicism given in any recent guide to literary theory.
  2. The issues which motivate historical events also motivate the writers of the time. Try to identify these issues and determine where the writers stand on them based on their writings.
  3. Sometimes medieval history can seem to be one battle after another. We may think this is barbaric, but, if we dismiss it as such, we are missing the point of all the battles. The fulfilled the same functions as a variety of our democratic institutions such as legislation and elections. In short, they served to determine the course of governmental policy (or of governments). So when you look at a battle, determine why it took place and what the consequences of the battle were for the issue. Just because they didn't have democracy in the Middle Ages doesn't mean they didn't have politics. Once you identify the politics, you tend to get back into the soap opera mentioned above.

These are some fairly random thoughts about the learning and use of history which I hope you will find useful in some capacity. I want to stress again that the main thing to do is approach history as something that you have to stop and commit to memory. Once you start doing this, the pace accelerates.