by Samuel Jones
We’re currently developing some work around the idea of cultural literacy. Both Cultural Diplomacy and As You Like It raised the need to focus on a new skill. Mass communication enables us to express and focus on individual interests to a greater degree than ever before and culture has come to the fore as a means by which, and space in which, we relate to each other. But do we have the skills to interpret and navigate this world to best effect?
At the moment, I’m reading Lauro Martines’ account of the history of Savonarola, the Dominican friar and demagogue whose influence shaped politics and society in Florence of the 1490s. Martines begins his account with some thoughts on the role of the historian. Thinking beyond historiography, they struck a chord, both with some of the themes we are thinking about in relation to cultural literacy, and also with quite a lot of the rest of the work we do.
‘Historical writing has two different stories to tell. There is first of all the one that passed before the eyes of contemporaries: a panorama of individuals, crowds, incidents, and dramatic scenes. Anecdote and colour are likely to govern this narrative. Streaming through all of it, however, in shifting forms of consciousness, is the second story: that is, a constant flow of cultural and political phenomena, the so-called impersonal forces. We dare not forget these for the simple reason that they both precede and succeed the life of every individual, every group, every singular event. And the job of the historian, surely, is to weave back and forth between the two stories; or at the very least, to keep the impersonal and seemingly formless story constantly in mind, for there, in and among the ‘forces’ without faces, is the ground of historical analysis, the social settings that serve to turn the actions of men and women into something more than unrelated fragments – indeed, into tapestries of historical meaning.
‘It follows that one thing we should not do to the men and women of past time, and particularly if they ghost through to us as larger than life, is to take them out of their historical contexts. To do so is to turn them into monsters, whom we can then denounce for our own (frequently political) motives – an insidious game, because we are condemning in their make-up that which is likely to belong to a whole social world, the world that helped to fashion them and that is deviously reflected or distorted in them. Censure of this sort is the work of petty moralists and propagandists, not historians’.
Martines, L., Scourge and Fire: Savonarola and Renaissance Italy, (London, 2006), 4-5