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 academia.edu).

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.