Traces of life and colour in dusty archives

Archaeologists and conservators whom I copyedit for, sometimes speak of the muddy brown sludge they come across in their excavations, which on careful examination turns out to be fragments of colourful textiles from bygone times.

Historians too can have similar experiences with archive material. There is a special moment, where one opens an archive box, sifts through the contents and suddenly gets lost in time. For a moment, one can feel the frisson of history.

Sometimes, it is those least expected finds, a pithy hand-written comment by a famous 20th-century statesman on the margins of a civil servant’s report, or as my colleague Sidsel Frisch found in an archive the other day, a doodle on a letter from a 17th-century statesman, that give life and colour to brittle paper.

By chance, I came across the most marvelous of archives, in an article by the late Yedida Kalfon Stillman who researched into female dress in medieval Egypt through the material in the old Cairo Geniza, “The importance of the Cairo Geniza Manuscripts for the History of Medieval female Attire”. The hues of the textiles she mentions in “Cover her Face”, p. 27 in T. Parfitt, ed., 2000:

Sky blue, cloud blue, chick pea, the hue of partridge eyes, emerald, pearl, pistachio green, pomegranate red, peppery grey, saffron, turmeric, apricot, quince coloured, mandrake

…are colours that spring out from the dusty papers in the Genizah manuscripts. They allow us a glimpse of the international textile trade in colorful fabrics and dyes in medieval times that stretched from the North African desert, through the Mediterranean and Red Sea ports to India and China.

The thousands of documents, mostly in fragments languished in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat, Old Cairo where they had been stored in its genizah (a room where documents containing references to the divine were put, as they could not be thrown away as rubbish). Thus, not an archive in the traditional sense where papers are carefully preserved for later generations, but “sacred trash” as a book about the subject is entitled.

Over a 1000 years, from the 9th to the 19th centuries, these documents, in various languages including Judeo Arabic, accumulated and gathered dust. Religious, poetical and texts on magic and alchemy, legal documents, dowry lists, business and family letters and trading accounts, and above all, the very writings of the philosopher Maimonides, and what could technically be called the fusion music of Obadiah the Proselyte from Apulia. Over 75 libraries and collections around the world hold various fragments of the documents, including a single precious document, a letter, here in Copenhagen. Today, a great deal of scholarship is done worldwide, and exciting digital projects afoot to piece them together and make them accessible to the world online.

Volunteering in a real life archive, observing life behind the scenes, the interaction of the townspeople with the archive, the research enquiries that come in, and above all, the archive’s treasures – the as yet untold stories waiting to be found in the archive shelves, enable me to see the crafting of history in a new light.

There’s tears in things

The historian Jerzy Topolski stated in an interview that thanks to Le Roy Ladurie and Carlo Ginzburg, human individuals from the past were now “closer to us. Because of them we see those people in their direct actions and with their everyday worries” (Domanska, Encounters: Philosophy of History after Postmodernism 1998, p. 130). The statements in the records of the Inquisition, on which their seminal works on microhistory, Montaillou (1975) and Cheese and the Worm (1976) respectively are based, are from a different time of persecution from the large deposits of witness statements made in more recent times on the Shoah.

Recently, listening to a lecture on YouTube by Saul Friedländer with a panel discussion from May 2012, I heard a panelist mention how it was impossible to listen to a witness who cried throughout the statement, whereas it was relatively easier to listen when a witness only cried a little. Emotions and the affective being popular areas of study among historians, an email to one elicited names of two historians whose works I might usefully look at: Dominick La Capra and Amos Goldberg. (La Capra will be considered in a future blog post on Camus).

Goldberg offers us insight into history writing on the Shoah, with a thought-provoking outline in his 2009 review in History and Theory where, among others, he names the danger of the melodramatic, by concentrating too much on the individual voice.

Although, he may have a valid point, my visceral reaction was a desire to protest. When a suffering human being makes a supreme effort and allows open the floodgates of memory, does this not deserve our respect? If we lose our ability to feel pity and sorrow for the human beings who suffered in the Shoah, and indeed in any tragic event of historic persecution, what are we?  Even if the presentation does not appeal to our aesthetic sense?

While concentrating on an individual or single family may bring with it the danger of melodrama, it does enable the writer and the reader to explore what happens to a single human being in a sea of events, to see how the person acted. To see what a human being is capable of, in an extreme situation, maintaining the self’s identity in the face of another’s denial. In huge narratives, one can drown in numbers, and be numbed or frozen by the sheer magnitude of the horror and despair, to the point of getting lost.

Indeed, The Lost, A Search for Six of Six Million (2006) by Daniel Mendelsohn, in its very simple human story enables us to feel the depth of the suffering, without the melodrama. The quote from the Aeneid, “there are tears in things”, used in the book at a critical point of the tale allow us to sympathize and feel compassion. Is this a bad thing?

Now, historians write, not to elicit sympathy, but to shed light on events of the past.  By giving a voice to victims of persecution, historians can help bring them justice, and contribute to the work of mourning. As Ricoeur points out, it is not merely to “the victims, if they still exist, but to their descendants, kin, and allies, whose pain merits being honoured” (The Just, 2000, p. 138).

As Ricoeur reiterates in Memory, History, Forgetting (inspired among others by Carlo Ginzburg), ultimately the citizen has to choose between the historian and the judge, to weigh the evidence presented by both and make up one’s own mind. Hearing the words of suffering human beings, whether in the early 1300s, the 1500s or the 1900s, of those considered by some to be “others”, does bring us closer to our fellow human beings and our shared history.

Ricoeur vs. the Leviathan

By a happy coincidence, three items crossed my path during the Christmas holidays: a DVD of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film, Leviathan, Kissinger’s World Order and Ricoeur’s Kluge speech. Well, I had been puzzling over how best to present this speech for a long time. The other two items were presents for the family; one of which did end up wrapped under our Christmas tree, though the other never did, despite good intentions, and even having cut out some wrapping paper for it.

Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005), was awarded the Kluge prize in December 2004 by the US Library of Congress, in recognition of the humanism attributed to his life’s work, and in his acceptance speech, he reflects on the bases of this humanism. Encapsulating a lifetime’s work in a few minutes, his speech is entitled “Asserting personal capacities and pleading for mutual recognition“.

Here, he speaks of the two ends of the pole of human relations, the capacities a human agent attributes to him or herself, and the recourse to others required to give this personal certainty a social status, and he ends with the context in which this takes place, the social bond.

And this is where the Leviathan comes in. Being a speech, Ricoeur naturally leaves out references. And at the end of a busy work year, one’s brain and memory is in that suspended state where one cannot quite place a thing. So, when he proposes an alternative hypothesis to the myth of all against all in nature, it took both the film, and soon afterwards, an explanatory passage in Kissinger’s insightful history of international relations, for the penny to drop – Hobbes! We are so used to believing in Hobbes’ theory of all against all, that we forget it is merely a theory.

Ricoeur, when he speaks of good will, generosity and recognizing oneself in the other, and hearkens back to the ancient activities of gift exchange and celebration (a concept of Marcel Mauss’s which he studies in depth in The Course of Recognition, 2005, 225-245)* is proposing an equally valid scenario. One of compromise in the unpredictable encounters between fallible human beings.

By recognizing the other as oneself, do we perhaps not come nearer to Buber’s I and thou, instead of oneself and another?

*In an earlier section (161-171) of this work, Ricoeur devotes some thoughts to Hobbes, which will be the subject of a future blog post.

On wrapping, unwrapping and re-wrapping history

Recently, I attended the oral defence of a master’s thesis, The Practice of Wrapping in Tutankhamun’s Burial in a Comparative Perspective, at the University of Copenhagen by Ziff Jonker whom I’d once worked with.

Speaking of ancient Egyptian burials, she mentioned the phrase wrapping, unwrapping and re-wrapping. How the person or object that was wrapped, using certain rituals and values that we no longer know of, takes on another persona when unwrapped in a museum, and that museum attempts to re-wrap a mummy today would never achieve the same result, thus leaving the wrapped up body or object in a kind of limbo. A liminal space. At least, this is how I understood it, from her ensuing discussion with her two examiners.

This made me reflect on history. On reconstruction. On re-enactment. We unwrap history, and we re-wrap it, but what we uncover can never be what was once wrapped away. The past is gone. It occurs once. And nevermore. Yet, traces remain. We carry them within us.

Biologically, we know that the past lives on in us. For, in our genes lie those of our earliest ancestors.* And our memories carry not only past events in our own lives, but also memories of the lives of others. Not through reincarnation but through collective memory.

At our town’s local archives, where I occasionally volunteer, I once overheard a conversation between a visitor and our archivist. The visitor, an elderly gentleman was pointing at a photograph, saying, you remember, the old water pump, and the archivist nodded his head in agreement. But while the visitor had grown up in our little town, and had seen the pump daily in his youth, i.e. it was his own memory, what our archivist, who grew up elsewhere was saying was, yes, I know it was there, in the sense that it was part of the town’s collective memory, that he’d once heard of or read about, and thus knew.

Memory traces are a huge topic in itself, and one that I’ll write more on when I’ve reread Ricoeur, but here, I’d just like to mention a related theme. In Time and Narrative, Ricoeur explores the conundrum that Augustine faced, that the past and the future are only present, in the here and now, in our present, so to speak. And this presence of the past can only be present in our present as a trace.

Thus, in unwrapping the past, what we present to the world’s gaze can never be exactly what once happened, but as historians, we endeavour to make the best and closest approximation of what may have happened, and why.

*In various news media, Lee R. Berger, the leader of the team that works with the Homo nadeli finds is quoted as saying: “This is like opening up Tutankhamen’s tomb…It is that extreme and perhaps that influential in this stage of our history.”

On enquiring into history and writing about history

Among the books I managed to finish reading in my Christmas holidays was a fascinating historiographical work by Sebastian Olden-Jørgensen, Ludvig Holberg som pragmatisk histroriker-En historiografisk-kritisk undersøgelse (Museum Tusculanum Press, 2005).

The Danish-Norwegian playwright, Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754) who, among others, wrote some of the funniest plays in the Danish language, was also an essayist, moral philosopher and historian. And it is the reception of his historical works, both among his contemporaries, and subsequent generations of historians, that Olden-Jørgensen addresses so well.

Midway through this thought-provoking historiographical work, the author raises the question that lies at the heart of our discipline – the professional historian who enquires into history and the other, who writes about history. Kristian Erslev (1852-1930), whose methodology all history students in Denmark are introduced to at the onset of their studies, in 1911 described how one was science and the other art; one objective, the other subjective.

This prompted two different lines of thought. Where would one place the memoirs of professional historians like George Iggers, Felix Gilbert, Peter Gay, Saul Friedländer and others who bear witness to the terrible historic events of their childhood or youth? (fn. see Jeremy Popkin’s History, Historians, and Autobiography (2005), Chapter 8, footnote 1, pp. 300-301 for a comprehensive list- and thanks to Albert Baumgarten for recommending Popkin’s book on

Is it merely history writing? And vastly subjective? Or are they valuable in themselves: specifically as an enquiry into their own history within the vortex of the Shoah, generally as sheding light on the difficulties of writing and publishing on the most difficult of themes, the Shoah, and finally, as unique testimonials of eminent historians who have enriched the discipline. For instance, Raul Hilberg’s passage on p. 74 of The Politics of Memory (1996), on the nature of a document, i.e. on what constitutes a document, is superb for its insight, and makes me wonder, if readers have similar examples from elsewhere.

Secondly, in my reading of Ricoeur, it seems to me that he, Ricoeur, addresses both these aspects, of writing history and doing history: in Time and Narrative he explores history writing at the borders of fiction writing, while a substantial part of History, Memory, and Forgetting is devoted to how historians do history. Do historians use these two works in their teaching, I wonder?

Marsilius of Padua’s Defensor pacis ca. 700 years later


With the 500th anniversary of the Protestant reformation soon to be commemorated, my thoughts wandered to the question of why different branches were successful in different areas, and specifically why England did not take to Lutheranism, in the way Denmark and Germany, for instance did. Being mostly interested in 20th-century history, my knowledge of earlier centuries depends partly on peregrinations occasioned by commemorations, book titles that catch my fancy, or work assignments that come my way.

A forthcoming copy-editing assignment led me to a book, which has long languished unread in my bookshelves, The English Reformation by A.G. Dickens (1964/1967). This marvellous work of historical craftsmanship, being both well-researched and beautifully written did provide me with a possible answer to my query on England and Lutheranism. But it also brought up the past, in the form of Marsilius of Padua (ca.1275/1283- ca. 1342/1343).

Back in 1982/83, as a master’s student at SOAS, I had attended a lecture by Prof. P.J. Vatikiotis, who to a question of mine about how it was that Europe managed to move away from the idea of religious leaders also heading the political life of a country, briefly answered: “Read Marsilius of Padua”. Today, I would have immediately googled this unknown name. Things were otherwise in the pre-digital days, and I soon forgot the matter.

However, when in 2004, having gloriously failed an oral exam in history philosophy in my first semester at the University of Copenhagen, I chose a new course, Stat og kirke i tusinde år (A thousand years of Church and State). Here, I decided to use the skill I had acquired in the history philosophy class, where we’d read a huge variety of exacting texts, by doing an exam paper on Marsilius of Padua’s Defensor pacis (Defender of the Peace).

Despite the polemical nature of the work, and its length, which could have dearly done with editing, Marsilius of Padua’s thoughts from the 14th century are simply mind blowing. Dickens terms them bold (p. 41); and Marsilius, the greatest of medieval rebels (p. 123).

Today, when human beings around the world are still held hostage to the perennial question of who has ultimate authority over the inner life and the outer life, the work of this outstanding thinker who was an early developer of the concept of people’s sovereignty and who profoundly influenced the Reformation, is still worth reading.

A footnote: In 2007 when the bombardment in 1807 of Copenhagen by the British during the Napoleonic Wars was commemorated, one of the items exhibited, was a damaged, printed copy of Defensor pacis from 1522.

Pico della Mirandola, Avery Dulles and WWII

The other day I picked up a small book from a book sale, Om Menneskets Værdighed. A cursory reading of this Danish translation of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Orotation on the Dignity of Man (Oratio de hominis dignitate 1486) somehow reminded me of my first reading of Martin Buber’s I and Thou (Ich und Du, 1923), why I could not quite say. But on reflection, perhaps it was the same sense of awe and wonder, in the face of both these texts, which I will write more on in later blogs.

However, reading the Wikipedia entry on Pico della Mirandola online (accessed 2nd March 2016) provided me with another surprise, for in the bibliography was Avery Dulles’ prize- winning Harvard Master’s thesis: Princeps Concordiae: Pico della Mirandola and the Scholatic Tradition—The Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Prize Essay for 1940, Cambridge, MA, 1941.

Back in 2005 when I wrote my own master’s thesis on Religion and the Cold War in the Truman period (see p.70 of PDF, i.e. p. 65 footnote 312), I had had dreams of following this up with perhaps a PhD thesis on the same topic but in the Eisenhower period, and with that in mind had contacted Avery Dulles  about access to his papers. He answered that his papers were not yet sorted out, although, he kindly included in his letter of rejection, a copy of a speech he’d given on his father John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under Eisenhower.

My interest in Avery Dulles (1918-2008) was not merely the amazing journey he took from his roots as a descendant of Presbyterian missionaries, to becoming a Catholic convert, Jesuit priest and later Cardinal, more that his conversion took place in the backdrop of WWII, that he received the Croix de Guerre from France for his naval liaison work during WWII, and that it was the Polish pope, John Paul II who raised him from Jesuit priest to cardinal at a very late stage in his life. This had made me wonder if in a Cold War context,  his papers could shed any light on the theme of Church-State in US-Vatican relations.

Googling him brought up another publication, The Holocaust, Never to be Forgotten: Reflections on the Holy See’s Document We Remember where Cardinal Dulles and Rabbi Leon Klenicki had commented on the Vatican’s document from 1998, We Remember: A Reflection On The Shoah, the subject of a future blog post.