Living in dark times

No other historical age has suffered more at the hands of historians than the so-called Dark Ages, the period between the 5th and 15th century AD. The medieval period as a dark age has been one of the most enduring legacies of past historiography, while scholars – medievalists, but not exclusively – have tried hardContinue reading “Living in dark times”

Of heroes and heroism

In 1898, the German pharmaceutical company Bayer developed a morphine substitute which they called ‘Heroin’. The name was inspired by the Greek word heros meaning hero. Instead of bravery and heroism, this Circean potion led many to doom and ruin. The ironic hero was born. I remember my first contact with heroes and heroism. It wasContinue reading “Of heroes and heroism”

Twitter and the ancient epigram

Whether we know it or not, we love epigrams. Whether we like it or not, the ancient epigram has never left us, although we may have left the term ‘epigram’ behind, except when scholars talk about it. The epigrammatic style has always been one of the most popular: concise, funny, incisive. Not anyone can doContinue reading “Twitter and the ancient epigram”

To put your quill where your mouth is

Each one of us is an archeologist, a witness, active or passive, of the history of the material and immaterial culture around us. We don’t have to be academically-minded grave-diggers or shovel-wielding students of antiquity to exercise our archeological sense. An archeologist is someone who understands that he or she is surrounded by ghosts, andContinue reading “To put your quill where your mouth is”

Let us make the past in our image, after our likeness

What can medieval manuscripts contribute to the current debate about whether questionable items from our past (the past understood as a shared experience and/or collective identity) should be excised from memory or removed from places of memory? Western medieval manuscript art testifies to the endurance of the human disposition to recreate the past in theContinue reading “Let us make the past in our image, after our likeness”

History and timelines

One thing which distinguishes medieval from ancient history-writing is the timeline. From Herodotus to the historians of the Roman Empire, time was a stream flowing in a circle. It’s not that ancient historians didn’t understand the passage of time – they had a very good idea of what time does to matter and human consciousnessContinue reading “History and timelines”

Fiction and non-fiction

One of the peculiarities of the Anglo-American book cultures is, to my mind, the habit of dividing prose into fiction and non-fiction. As far as I know, no other cultural tradition does it. In French bookshops, books are categorised as literature (novels) – subdivided into French novels, foreign novels, youth/teenager novels, fantasy/science-fiction and detective/thriller/crime novels,Continue reading “Fiction and non-fiction”

The enduring charm of hybridity

In at least one respect, we’re not too far away from the Middle Ages, and that’s in our cultural bend towards hybridity. I’m not taking about hybrid cars, or maybe I am. One question historians very rarely ask is: what’s in a hybrid? Sure, the word is familiar enough, and it conjures up images rangingContinue reading “The enduring charm of hybridity”

Of individuals and crowds

News travelled very slowly in the past. Just as it took months for individuals to reach distant lands, so did news reports reach different individuals and communities with significant retardation. In premodern Europe, oral information circulated more speedily than written reports. In the medieval period, necrologues travelled quickly from one monastic community to another. BeforeContinue reading “Of individuals and crowds”