Punching back

Academic history writing is not emotion-less. Academics often consciously express – or evoke – anger, sadness, regret, or hope in their writing.

But when it comes to tone, how many academics write humourously?

My thoughts have been drawn back to this after I found the following image and reposted it on Twitter.

Why do I find this so funny?

Among the many things I could say, one point I chose to pick out when I posted it was that it hardly seems a legitimate method of historical inquiry to argue that a source is ‘too strange to be fake’. But, as Helen Cornish pointed out to me, wouldn’t ‘Too Strange to be Fake’ be a great history module?

And this got me thinking about a slightly different proposal: ‘Too Funny to be Fake’. Imagine a podcast where historical researchers talk about something from their work that is absolutely a true story, but also absolutely hilarious.

A project like this would need some ground rules.

Rule 1: ‘no punching back’.

Can we agree that what is funny about history is never our supposed superiority to our ancestors? I think about this a lot, researching supernatural beliefs. It has proved easy for many researchers to mock the beliefs they are writing about, not least since historians often draw on elite sources about popular cultures which already adopt this attitude to these beliefs.

So what would be fair game for ‘Too Funny to be Fake’, then?

I think what is funny about history is our relationship to the past. So what I find most amusing about the Civil War pterosaur is not the blatant incongruity – that is just a pretext for thinking about how on earth someone could attempt to historicise and criticise that picture in good faith.

What is too funny to be fake, then, is our own misunderstandings and ignorance about the past. It is:

  • Laughing at our own relationships to the past
  • Or the things that we cannot bring ourselves to believe about the past

I’ve really enjoyed the podcast ‘You’re Dead to Me’, partly because I think it does those two things so well. The comedians who feature alongside the historians act as a kind of foil for their expertise and specialisms. Their role is often to be surprised, astounded, befuddled.

But I think what is funny about history can also affect the specialist. We are all more or less ignorant about the past. Too funny to be fake can also be:

  • Excavating what people in the past found funny
  • Or the dead ‘punching forward’

Voltaire famously remarked that history ‘is a pack of tricks we play upon the dead’. But the historian Lynn White wasn’t so sure: isn’t it the ‘tricks which the dead have played upon historians’?

So: who is in?

See White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change. The Voltaire quote is from a letter of February 9, 1757, to Pierre Robert Le Cornier de Cideville, where he talks of a ‘ramas de tracasseries’.

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