Absence-Minded Historians

For the last three years my research has focused on the history of the body. I wanted to know more about the everyday feelings of ordinary people in the past, to do a kind of historical phenomenology.

This kind of history quickly confronts a serious obstacle. People do not often talk about the most basic experiences of life: sleeping, itching, defecating, growing tired. And this is not just a problem of the prudishness of historical sources. Experientially, the human body is often what the philosopher Drew Leder has called an “absent presence”. What Leder meant by this is that, despite always being there, despite in fact being the condition for us being anywhere at all, the body tends to recede from conscious perception. My research has had to face this issue head on, asking about where the body is absent in historical sources, and why. What are the historical dimensions of what people have and have not noticed about their own bodies in everyday life?

But I think that absence is a much wider problem for historians. Ironically, absence won’t go away. All of the problems of absence are already raised by the issue of the history of the body: to what extent is absence a question of the poverty of sources? Which absences do we notice, and why? What can we infer from these lacunae?

Another topic where absence has played – irony again! – a prominent role is the question of oral tradition and written culture. (Perhaps it is no accident that my research focuses on folklore sources: absence dogs me at every turn…) I subscribe to the view, based on the ethnographic research of two centuries of folklorists and anthropologists, that all communities transmit culture informally, whether through an oral tradition, or more technological means, such as letter writing, graffiti, text messages, and the internet. What this view implies is that ordinary people have a degree of cultural agency. They choose what jokes to pass on, which legends they find scary, which images are compelling. (This is not, of course, to say that their choices are absolutely free. They are undoubtedly influenced by their culture, and constrained by political and economic considerations. Choices they nonetheless are.)

Such a position, which asserts the cultural agency of ordinary people, is not without its critics. In 2009, for instance, Ruth Bottigheimer published a short book called Fairy Tales: A New History. The point of Bottigheimer’s book was to knock what she calls the “oralist” orthodoxy concerning fairy tales. Rather than ancient folk creation and oral transmission, Bottigheimer suggested that fairy tales are recent literary works that were transmitted by print culture.

The first thing to note about this is the way that Bottigheimer builds a straw man which she calls the “oralists”. She claims that these oralists, who have held sway over both academic and public opinion concerning fairy tales, held that the fairy tales originated thousands of years ago among the common folk and have been passed down unchanged ever since. I doubt there has been a single serious scholar of folklore since the 1930s who would subscribe to every part of that account of fairy tale creation and dissemination.

But such a straw man is necessary for Bottigheimer’s argument because of the way it is structured. Her book is presented as a revision, even a revelation, a revolution. It overturns the overlooked, overcoming the underexplored. It is not, I would argue, very good history.

There are two related reasons for this: the structure and the way it treats absence as evidence. Structurally, the book is less like history, and more like genealogy (in its common-sense rather than Foucauldian meaning). Beginning with the Brothers Grimm, Bottigheimer traces history backwards, finding the sources for the Grimms tales in the eighteenth- and seventeenth-century aristocratic French authors such as Perrault and Mme d’Aulnoy. She then traces the sources these authors drew on back to Renaissance Italy. Having traced a neat lineage, she thinks her claim is established: fairy tales are literary. The reason I don’t think this is good history, is because it is backwards. It is one thing to prove that all of these writers – only the last of whom (the Grimms) came close to claiming they were folklorists – in fact got their materials from other writers, and it is quite another to prove that this was the only way these materials moved. If you trace backwards, you get a straight line, but if you move forwards through time, you perceive ripples.

A few years ago I wrote something about a beggar storyteller and singer named Nanette Lévesque, who was born when the Grimms were first collecting tales, and died a few decades after they did (see http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0015587X.2010.481150). Nannette told stories that were obviously drawn from printed collections, such as the Grimms and popular print versions of Perrault. But she did not tell them exactly the same. Instead, she adapted them to her own narrative style, turning the stories into conflicts between mothers and daughters, set in the world of Counter-Reformation piety that she had grown up in, in the isolated Massif Central. We don’t know where exactly Nanette got these stories from. She herself could not read. Did someone else read them to her, or did someone read them to someone else who told them to her? Was the chain even longer than that? None of this disproves Bottigheimer’s point that fairy tales (a very, very specific type of tale, not, she suggest, to be confused with folk tales) might have been created by literary authors, but neither does it confirm it. Tale creation is a thorny issue, but also one that does not have to matter. If we care about how people use and adapt culture, rather than fetishizing a Romantic ideal of the original author, as Bottigheimer’s approach tends to, then what matters is how people like Nanette performed and appropriated stories. This, in itself, is a creative act. And if Nanette could take these tales and make them her own, relevant to her life, so could other storytellers. It is entirely plausible that there was a conduit of folk transmission from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century.

This is where absence comes in, because that “plausible” chain of oral transmission simply is not documented in any significant detail. I would suggest that Bottigheimer’s book isn’t good history because of the way it treats absence. When I did my first archival research, I was struck by what I found, and didn’t find. I remember boxes full of papers, some of which bizarrely survive, and many of which have been inexplicably destroyed or lost. This gave me a strong feeling of the contingency of evidence. Just because the evidence of oral transmission is fugitive does not mean that the theories must be dismissed out of hand. And, in fact, it is not as if the evidence is completely and absolutely absent in any case. (This could be an aphorism for the study of absence: nothing (think of the body again) is ever as absent as it seems at first sight. The very act of realising as a historian that something is missing has effect of drawing attention to clues, the places where things are missing…) The evidence is not definitively absent because Perrault and the Grimms did make claims about tales being told between rural people, or servants and children. There is also a whole vein of pedagogical literature from the early-modern period which inveighed against the harms of tales told to children or the futility of peasant “superstitions”. Bottigheimer might object that they did not specify that these were fairy tales, rather than folk tales, but the fact that Nanette, like many other storytellers of the period, incorporated fairy tales into her folk tale repertoire suggests that Bottigheimer’s argument only works if we concentrate on literary sources. The people who told oral tales told fairy tales as well as folk tales, and did not necessarily differentiate them as dramatically as a modern scholars might.

Seek and you shall find: read literary tales, and become, like Bottigheimer, convinced they are the answer to all the questions. But what I’m trying to argue is that historians should be more absence-minded. Does the absence of sources really mean an absence of conduits? What traces do we find when he hunt for this absence? Contemporary ethnographies, and sources from the nineteenth century, such as the tales and songs noted from Nanette by the folklorist Victor Smith, suggest that ordinary people can and do creatively appropriate old stories – whether taken from oral tradition or print. The absence of sources reflecting this before the nineteenth century is simply part of a story of the mistrust between different classes in a society of orders, where every individual had a fixed place in a hierarchy, from king to swineherd. An eloquent absence, then.

This leaves me wondering. What kinds of absence do other historians deal with? How do we most successfully argue from absence? Are absences ever absolute?


One thought on “Absence-Minded Historians

  1. An uninvited sidenote: I’m an Ancient History student interested primarily in Dark Age Greece and Early Rome, and we have to deal with a rather peculiar hidden absence. The reality of history is hidden behind the moralising aspersions of literary historians, and it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that people even realised there was an absence to look for.


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