Messy History

Maurice Sand Legendes Rustiques illustration
Messy? Werewolves hang around outside “to have a fag” (in the words of another folklorist I know), in Maurice Sand’s illustration for his mother George Sand’s book of “rustic legends”…


I haven’t posted much here recently, mainly because I have been trying to both finish my thesis, and get a job. As of yet, no luck on either front, but something someone said to me in a recent job interview did get me thinking, so I figured I could come up for air to write a little blog post about it. All that happened was that a literature specialist told me that I seemed drawn to ambiguities. This interviewer meant it as a compliment, but also meant that my self-image as a historian was locked in combat with this taste for messiness. Historians, the interviewer suggested, like more certainty.

I think there is some truth in this. I remember a conversation from a recent conference, where several participants were complaining that when pushed on a hard question, a speaker simple replied that it was “complicated”. They felt – and I agreed – that this was a cop-out. The feeling seems to be among historians that you can’t just say an answer is complicated. And yet many of the historians I admire, know, and read do flirt with their fair share of ambiguity. Yes, we often like to provide an answer that takes the form of “the rise of X”, “the birth of the modern Y”, “the Z revolution” (most ingenious, to my mind, is “the smile revolution” that Colin Jones’s forthcoming book suggests Yet most historians are cautious to speak of the limitations to any one answer, questions of geography, or social differentiation by class, gender, age, race, sexuality, and so on. They provide a solid argument, because that is what historiography is made up of, a series of competing stories of what happened, but very few shy away from all ambiguity.

In fact, messy topics, it seems to me, always appeal to historians. I’m thinking of the enduring popularity of witchcraft, or the fraught territories of past sexualities, topics which both confront us with the radical difference of the past, and its absolute messiness. Part of my fascination with the materials collected by Félix Arnaudin, despite my personal feelings about the man himself ( comes from what might be thought of as messiness… juiciness… bodilyness. The songs Arnaudin collected are among the dirtiest collected by any folklorist in nineteenth-century France, and they are significantly over-represented in the categories of the French folk-song catalogue devoted to “smut” and “obscenities” ( And it isn’t just smutty songs that make his notes a particularly compelling and fleshy source. Arnaudin also collected three of the four first-hand accounts of encounters with werewolves collected in the last two centuries (the remaining 123 legends I have found in the sources are either anonymous, or refer to a “friend-of-a-friend”). He spoke to historically-identifiable men and women who believed they had seen neighbours transform into animals to pester local households. This kind of material, I have always felt, confronts historians with the often very strange, but deeply felt, deeply fleshy aspects of the recent past. As one narrator said to Arnaudin at the end of a legend: “That happened to me, yes!”

Well, those weird and wonderful bodily experiences, they are the kind of messiness, I suspect, that very few historians are actually scared of. They impart a sense that the past was once alive, even if that vitality was profoundly different. And isn’t this also the kind of mess that appeals more than anything to a wider reading public, beyond the academy?

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