History’s Histories

Or why I study the Middle Ages and dress like the 1940s.

If you run in vaguely historical or vintage fashion-oriented circles online, you’ve probably run into the Vintage Egyptologist (whose work I can’t condone) or maybe, more recently, the Overdressed Archaeologist (whose work I absolutely encourage you to check out). These two women combine interests that are seemingly a bit at odds: a love of vintage fashion and style with the informed pursuit of ancient history. Why these things seem at odds is pretty immediately revealing. We often contrast women who are interested in their appearance with women of substance (though they are not mutually exclusive). We also see history as divided into distinct time periods and geographies that shouldn’t be combined – if you are interested in the very distant past, you must not care much for the more recent past, what with all its technology and liberal thought (ha!). But this particular combination of interests also feels very right and I can sum up why in one name: Indiana Jones. The most famous archaeologist, fictional or otherwise, unites interests in the study of the past with the aesthetics of the 1940s, the fantasy of a myth with the truth of what we find in the ground, and the tension between the order of museums/fascism with the freedom of being an American who can run around looting artifacts for a “good reason” and punching Nazis in the face along the way. Indiana Jones is all about fantasizing in two settings at the same time.

“But in Latin, Jehova is spelled with an I.”

You see, we don’t just want to be the discoverers of the past. We want to be people with style, just as we remember the recent past to have been, struggling against the limitations of our society to make sense of a far more distant one. We want to think of ourselves being remembered even as we are doing the remembering. We want to signal our importance by fashioning our personal images more intentionally. And we want to simplify our study of history by framing it, depending on your view of the 1940s, within a time that was either simpler and thus easier to do “objective” history within or with more clearly archetypal politics and thus easier to make current social critiques within. The 1940s (and the century of archaeology and history leading up to it) are an intentional choice for this setting. It was the end of an era, the imperial age, before it became taboo for large powerful nations to go into other countries and, while exploiting their natural resources and human labor, dig up their history and decide what it meant. At least, it became taboo to do that explicitly. It was during this time that the modern concept of history was defined. We looked at ourselves in the present and declared that we were outside of history, separate from the past, and that we could thus determine what the past was with pure objectivity. This is also the reason that time travel narratives don’t really exist in fiction before the late 19th century. This period saw the development of a complex and highly specific understanding of ourselves (by which I largely mean white Westerners) as our own creations, the end point of a series of choices about progress and civilization. As a result, we are both fascinated by and able to investigate all of the prior and “traditional” societies that did not seem to exhibit signs of such intentionality (although they are and have always been just as intentional). It’s for this same reason that a generation later, the kids raised on this kind of thinking and this approach to the past, felt there was nowhere left to go but up. “Space, the final frontier” encapsulates in four words an entire era’s dogma.

As an American medievalist, this period I’m describing from around the mid-19th century to the mid-20th is particularly important, because it’s when my field was created. America doesn’t have a medieval past, at least, not one that can serve as a foil and point of origin for a European society. Rather than find meaning in the Native American past that this country was rapidly erasing, Americans of European descent, particularly those with disposable wealth or some kind of European pedigree, wanted to stake their claim in European medieval history. They did this in very real, material ways, such as by collecting medieval antiquities, including entire buildings. This is a good moment for us to stop and appreciate what this kind of collecting really feels like, since it is the same process by which artifacts from all around the world have ended up in European and American art and cultural heritage institutions, now very controversial. In the wake of WWI, American art dealers traveled to Europe and picked through the remains of French towns destroyed by the war, then brought back everything from illuminated bibles to jeweled crosses to, again, entire buildings, and sold them to wealthy American industrialists like the Rockefellers or financiers like J.P. Morgan, who eventually donated them to museums as a kind of very conspicuous philanthropy. For white Americans, this kind of story might help illustrate why people might be very insistent that museums return artifacts to the countries they were found in – because the taking of those artifacts represents current political conflicts and violence. This is why romanticizing the era in which most of this collecting happened is at best oblivious – the lifestyles of the people who did this kind of antiquities collecting were very much a part of the disregard they exhibited toward the modern civilizations that lived on top of those antiquities. Appreciating archaeology as destruction (a favorite phrase of my college archaeology professor), also helps demonstrate how the perspective of one generation of men could influence a hundred years of the study of history – these objects and manuscripts became the basis for an American understanding of the medieval European past, complete with the idea that Americans have a connection to the medieval European past through our white ancestry. Said plainly – the study of the European Middle Ages in the US is based in white supremacy.

In case you couldn’t already tell, it’s a complicated time to be a medievalist.

When I think about my field, I now can’t help but think about the people who made it, the people whose interests guided how I have come to interact with this material. It’s not just something I’ve inherited. Charles Homer Haskins, the founder of American medieval studies, is the person whose claim I am directly arguing against in my dissertation. He said that we should study the brief period during which Latin Europeans controlled southern Italy in the 12th century because they brought back into Latin a knowledge of the Classical sciences that had been ceded to Arabic and Greek for hundreds of years. He justified an interest in this particular time and place based on the direct value it provided to the place we would come to understand as Europe. He drew a circle around all the people who could read Latin and left everyone else out. He articulated a sense of ownership over knowledge and not just any knowledge. Knowledge of the sciences, the thing that European empires would argue made them great. He told me, an Ashkenazi Jewish woman living a century after him, to find value in a peripheral corner of Europe because it would be the spark that would make Europe dominate the rest of the world in his lifetime. My struggle as a historian has been dismantling every assumption he made, trying to show continuity where he showed rupture, emphasizing diversity where he saw hegemony.

I don’t know that my habit of styling myself based on a mid-century aesthetic originally came out of my interest in medieval history, but both my interests and my aesthetic might have come from the same place. We often talk about our upbringing in terms of what our parents gave us, but I think my grandparents had a lot more influence over how I understood my history. They told me what history was, whether by taking me to museums or bringing me souvenirs from their trips or even by being part of history. My grandparents very much understood themselves or wanted to understand themselves as European, but the reality of being Jewish and American made that a little difficult (even more so in my grandfather’s case, as a Polish immigrant in occupied Palestine). Their generation, the same one as Haskins and Rockefeller Jr., produced all of the experiences through which I came to know about history. Perhaps unintentionally, they made it so that I couldn’t understand what came before them without having to see it through their eyes.

A sarcophagus-shaped pencil case, now sold at the British Museum. My grandmother gave me a very similar one when I started school. https://www.britishmuseumshoponline.org/mummy-pencil-tin-nespernub.html

I didn’t start wearing mid-century clothes or wearing my hair in a vaguely Edwardian style until late in my grandmother’s life. As a kid, though, I was always wearing the biggest, fullest skirts possible. In my mind, they were better, more real maybe, because they were more “traditional”. I definitely had the sense that they were medieval, although I think back then the image in my mind was more 17th century. Probably the first spark that launched me into the mindset of the mid century was the movie The Hours, which I know is where I got my hairstyle. My grandmother’s apartment was something of a window into the past for me. I would go there and dig through the closets, finding treasures from what seemed like a very long time ago, like an old pocket camera or boxes of war bonds. I once found a copy of Treasure Island that I brought home and placed on my shelf because I liked the look of the green cover. I was inventing cottage core and dark academia out of the things I found in my grandmother’s closets. After my grandmother died when I was a teenager, I became more interested in understanding the time she grew up in, not for its own events, but for its perspective that had left a mark on the history I was consuming and the reality I was living. That especially became true as I became more aware of world events and struggled to understand her generation’s role in conflicts like Israel-Palestine.

To some extent, I think that the mid-century aesthetic is like an iconographic costume for historians. You put on your mid-century clothing to study history the same way you put on your deerstalker and pipe to solve a mystery.

Seriously, this is quite a visual trope.

But more than that, I think the mid-century is the filter through which we in the 21st century see history. We might acknowledge it more now, or maybe we have made that filter stronger over time. It’s certainly a product of how the history we consume has been written, but it might also reflect the way we choose to understand the ways that history has come to us. Whether intentionally or not, premodern history arrives in the 21st century translated into mid-century, and a lot of us historians (and archaeologists, etc.) need to get into translator mode to understand it. I can’t condone the impulse to try to live in the past – that kind of mental transposing is pretty ignorant and if you’re going to stoke an interest in any time period you have to be aware of what that time period means now. But appreciating the perspective of a past generation is an essential aspect of the study of history, so you might as well enjoy the fashion while you’re doing that.