Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Potential Paper Topics

I thought I'd go ahead and throw out some paper topics that have been rattling around in my mind for the past few weeks. One of the biggest differences between being an undergraduate and being a graduate student is in the amount of writing that is required of you. In sense, we have less writing, considering that we have fewer total papers to write than undergrads, but of course the papers that we are required to write are thirty, forty, fifty pages, not counting the thesis, which we are theoretically supposed to be working sporadically on for the next two years. The big project for my historiography class is a paper comparing the differences in method, theory, and approach to historical writing of two historians, examining especially how their own historical time periods shaped them and how their biases or their their time periods' biases shine through in their works. Our professor encourages any historical comparisons, but the idea of the project is to compare a historian that we've actually read in class with someone in whom we're personally interested. He also advocates choosing historians that belong to different historical eras and different nationalities as this highlights national as well as periodizational comparisons. In any case, most of the class seems to have settled on a topic and while I haven't exactly, I have a couple of ideas that I feel merit further exploration:

A Jungian Analysis of the Archetypal Hero in Eusebius' Life of Constantine and Einhard's Life of Charlemagne

To me, Eusebius and Einhard, though they don't demarcate any bookends in terms of historical writing, both write about figures who did bookend a historical period that truly demonstrates the emergence and culmination of the Christian Romano-German synthesis and the creation of a distinct European culture. Eusebius certainly belongs to the ancient world even if he was a Christian writing for a primarily Christian audience, and, like Augustine and Jerome, he certainly bridges the gap between ancient and medieval: he relies on the rhetorical style of writers like Cicero but is philosophically grounded in Christian thought (though, interestingly, he held a moderate position between Orthodox and Arian Christianities). Einhard is certainly a typical medieval chronicler but by virtue of his proximity to the Emperor Charlemagne, he had recourse to write about a man who was arguably the most powerful Christian ruler on the Continent since Constantine. Many scholars, Henri Pirenne, Alouis Reigl, and notably the inimitable Peter Brown, have remarked that the tripartite periodization of European history into ancient, medieval, and modern eras is obviously simplistic and does not account for the transitional politico-religious realignments, but replacing these ossified categories is a difficult task even for the most of eminent of historians. Brown argues for the use of a "bridging" period between the 2nd century imperial crises and the Islamic conquests through the 8th century. Norman Davies, in his monumental general history Europe divides the ancient (Roma) and medieval (Medium) periods with his Origio on the cultural birth of Western civilization rising from the ashes of the Greco-Roman world, and it is telling that he dates this period from 330 (the founding of Constantinople) to 800 (the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor). In any case, politically, Constantine and Charlemagne provide convenient markers on either side of the "late antique divide" that one could point to as cohesive Christian polities unifying vast culturally and ethnically diverse landscapes, the latter consciously modeling on the former. In terms of the historians who wrote on these figures, I'm interested in looking at the archetypal models on which Eusebius and Einhard based their "characters" of Constantine and Charlemagne and whether or not, for example, they used Biblical precedent and/or the ancient Greco-Roman biographers of the kings, consuls, and Caesars (Livy, Tacitus, Suetonius, etc.) Since Jung himself compared the idea of "archetypes of the collective unconscious" to the Platonic world of forms, it seems fruitful to also examine the impact of Platonic thought on these compositions, especially because Eusebius was likely familiar with his work and Einhard was not (I'm actually not sure of this supposition; it's just an educated guess).

Pirenne and Brown: The Problem of Periodization in Late Antique and Early Medieval Historiography

Following the aforementioned difficulty in historiographical periodization, another related topic which very much interests me is that of the origins of the Middle Ages. This may strike any casual reader as a purely academic debate (and it is), but it is certainly important from a historiographical standpoint insofar as it is the in this period that what think of as Western civilization is really born--a messy combination of Roman law and institutions, Germanic and Latin-based languages, Germanic customs, and the Christian religion. The traditional date for the beginning of the Middle Ages is often marked as 476, the year of the deposition of the ironically named Romulus Augustulus and the end of the Roman Empire as completely independent from Germanic kings. In most general history books, the Middle Ages typically starts ca. 500 because it is a nice round number and because the year 500 in much of Europe is certainly quite different politically from the year 400 or any other "round number" from this era. Two historians have been at the forefront--one in early 20th century and one in mid to late 20th century--of a movement to change this traditional view. Brown, who I have mentioned, is among the popularizers of the "Late Antquity" model, positing a distinctly different time period between the Christianization of the Roman Empire and the Islamic conquests and reorganization of Europe into feudal kingdoms. Pirenne, who wrote earlier, was among the first historians to really challenge the 18th and 19th century enlightenment/positivist viewpoint of the Middle Ages as a dark time in Western history with little to no progress of any sort. The famous Pirenne thesis argues that the true beginning of the Middle Ages is not until the late 8th century after the Islamic conquest of the Middle East, North Africa, and Iberia cut off Europe from the major trade routes of the Mediterranean, and Pirenne gives ample evidence of continued trade throught the 6th and 7th centuries when merchants and traders saw their life change little and in some instances may have actually seen improvement. Both these points of view are endlessly debated and considering that both these historians challenge long held tenants of Western historiography, I think a comparison of their approaches to defining the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the medieval would be interesting.

The Church and Science: Late Twentieth Century Reassessments of the Draper-White Conflict Thesis of Medieval Science

This is the paper I'm currently leaning towards. This is a topic that has really driven my historical interest in the Middle Ages for the last couple of years, and I think it is among the most current and important modern issues in the historiography of science. I've written about the debate elsewhere and won't get into the details. Suffice to say, from a historiographical standpoint, this debate is very applicable to our current cultural climate where science and religion are pitted against one another as mortal enemies. The 19th century in general is such a bipolar age with regards to this topic in that the century saw both the rise of secular education and the belief, especially among European intellectuals, that empirical rationalism would soon supplant religious faith. It is also important to note that the late 19th century also witnessed the birth of Christian fundamentalism as we know it today. Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper both wrote of the great war raging between science and religion and of the modern triumph of enlightenment ideas over the superstition of the Middle Ages. It would take nearly a century for modern historians such as David C. Lindberg and Ronald Numbers to really argue against this viewpoint. It is certainly still very much popularly believed to be the case today. If I do end up writing on this topic, I'll be sure to post my research.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

On Organizing a Personal Library

"Good as it is to inherit a library, it is better to collect one."
~Augustine Birrell, Obiter Dicta, "Book Buying"

Despite the fact that I have been reading regularly since I was five or six and have been collecting books since I was at least a sophomore in college, I have never really sat down to organize my library or really put much thought at all in to how I arrange my books. Up till now, it's mostly been an issue of aesthetics, arranging books based on how well they looked on a particular shelf in a particular room; or on logistics, fitting an ever growing number of books onto ever shrinking shelf space. This may surprise some people since I tend to be a compulsive list-maker and categorizer, but I am, in general, an unorganized person, so developing a really well-planned-out library has never been at the top of my to-do list. It's been nearly three years since I have had all of my books in one location, and even when I did have them all together at my parents' house, the structure of the house was not terribly conducive to getting all of them in one place and shelving them on the basis of subject. Unfortunately, I was not able (nor really willing) to transport all of my collection from Indiana to South Carolina and ended up bringing down a little over a third of the books I own. I haven't been so anal as to count every book I own in two or three years, but at last count I had just short of 1600 and I'm sure I've accumulated at least another hundred since then. God bless Archives Book Shop and Curious Book Shop in East Lansing for providing me with an inexpensive, relatively wide array of books from which to choose. For obvious reasons, the books that made the cut are primarily non-fiction humanities and social sciences. Some major books left behind include almost my entire science fiction collection, most of my general and classic fiction and poetry, and even a fair amount of history not germane to my focus, such as the many general histories of the United States and World War II now whiling away in storage at my parents' house. It's always a tough decision to make, but after heaving the tenth or eleventh enormous box of books onto and off of the U-Haul I felt vindicated in leaving behind Page Smith's eight volume People's History of the United States and three years worth of Asimov's Science Fiction magazines.

"I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves."
~Anna Quindlen, "Enough Bookshelves," New York Times, 7 August 1991

So the real question is, how does one arrange a personal library? Using an existing method, such as the Dewey Decimal system or Library of Congress? The way a bookstore would arrange by genre? Or something a little more personal that really underscores my own mental arrangement of information? I opted for the personal, since I feel a library is at best a material representation of one's education and knowledge base, but with some important advice from the previous tried and true systems. For one thing, it doesn't make too much sense to use, say, the Library of Congress system to the letter when the vast majority of my books fit into only a few of their categories. Something much broader, but also more specifically tailored to my collection is important. I'm probably making this sound like it was a lot bigger an ordeal than it actually was, but I have to admit that I spent a fair amount of time staring a the stacks of books scattered about the floor completely flabbergasted as to how I was going to arrange all of these on the limited bookcases I possess.

"Far more seemly were it for thee to have thy study full of books, than thy purse full of money. "
~John Lyly

First off, I essentially eliminated anything that did not fit roughly and broadly into the categories of history, political science, philosophy, religion/mythology/folklore, science (mostly human perspectives on), language, and psychology from the equation. About 95% of all the non-fiction I own can be categorized as such, and I used them as my macro-categories. Anything not in those categories went to the miscellaneous shelf in our bedroom. I arranged philosophy and religion together partially because I think they are (or at least can be) facets of the same inquiry but also because Clemson groups them both into the same academic department and because many of the philosophy books I have are on the philosophy of religion. Mythology and folklore are in the same bookcase buffered by psychology, as most of the psychology books I own pertain to an exploration of the collective unconscious, Jungian and non-Jungian, and the greater sociological factors related to cultural anthropology and group psychology. I have about a shelf's worth of language studies, mostly dictionaries and grammar books for French and Latin, but also a few works in these languages as well as Spanish and Italian dictionaries, a book on defunct ancient writing systems, several histories of the English language, and most of Kirsten's books on speech-language pathology, audiology, and communicative sciences and disorders. Political science was a difficult one to arrange, primarily because I have just enough to justify its having its own section, but not so many that it really distinguishes itself. I opted to include it as sort of an addendum to history, as I see it as related in the way that psychology is related to mythology, but I'm not terribly happy with its location and may change it in the future. History was paradoxically the easiest and the most difficult. It was easy, in that I arranged them chronologically by subject matter, but difficult in that it is by far the largest section and took me a long time to decide how to integrate primary sources and very specific topics that cover long periods of time not related to any particular chronological era (histories of witchcraft and astrology being the primary examples). It was also difficult to decide how I wanted to incorporate ancient and medieval authors. Do I put Plato and Aristotle in with philosophy or ancient history? If ancient history, do I put them in chronologically with all the secondary sources or do I group all ancient writers together in their own subsection? Needless to say, I put a fair amount of thought into what, in reality, are mostly trivial matters.

"Let your bookcases and your shelves be your gardens and your pleasure-grounds. Pluck the fruit that grows therein, gather the roses, the spices, and the myrrh."
~Judah Ibn Tibbon

It probably sounds like I have a lot more books than I actually do after going through all of that. As I mentioned earlier, only a fraction of my books made it down from Indiana. I think somewhere slightly over one-third, or between 500 and 600 are here, so I may be a bit overzealous in calling it a "library". But Alcuin of York's library at the court of Charlemagne in the early ninth century, the envy of many a medieval scholar, reputedly had only a few thousand texts and the far flung monasteries at Jarrow and Lindisfarne even fewer and they were no less important to their owners. Perhaps one day when we own a house or at least have a larger study/office/library and I have a stronger back, I'll get all of them in one place finally. For now, I'm pretty content with what we have arranged. And, being in graduate school, I've already accumulated somewhere in the vicinity of thirty new books just in the month we've been here in South Carolina, and I'm sure that number will continue to grow. Happy reading all!