Saturday, November 26, 2011
Stalking the Wild Historian
There I was, face to face with one of my heroes. No, not a figure from the news of the day. Not a famous musician, actor, or artist. Not a respected statesman, not a wealthy philanthropist, but - a historian. The unassuming gentleman in question, who stood there blinking at me in alarm, is an expert on church history in the Italian communes in the 12th and 13th centuries, and I have found his work extremely lucid, insightful, and helpful for many years.
And there he was, clutching his briefcase, about to walk into a room where he would join a panel that included another of my heroes, the woman who wrote the definitive book on the Florentine magnates. To top it off, in the audience was a woman who has spent years studying domestic law in medieval Lucca.
Okay, so it's not exactly the equivalent of cornering Bono somewhere and getting your picture taken with him. For me, it was better. That one session alone would have been worth my trip to Kalamazoo for the International Medieval Conference, despite the dorm room and the cafeteria food.
And I couldn't stop babbling: "I have all your books! They're wonderful! You're wonderful! I should ask for your autograph!"
It was at that point I finally noticed the panicked expression on his face and realized I'd better back off. Note to self: historians tend not to think of themselves as rock stars. Many of them probably harbor a secret fear that not even their doctoral committees actually read their dissertations. They are simply not prepared for adulation from an aspiring historical novelist.
He mumbled something polite and scurried into the room, and I gave him a decent head start and then went in myself, sitting discreetly in the back. The session was every bit as absorbing as I had expected - my heroes did not disappoint. I spent the rest of the conference attending most of the same sessions he did, carefully avoiding eye contact. I didn't want the poor man to think I was stalking him.
Historians can be extraordinarily generous with their time and their knowledge, at least when one's approach is a little more sane than mine was on that occasion. I've had delightful email exchanges on topics ranging from doing laundry in the middle ages to how late the Cathar heresy survived in Florence (though that latter exchange was forwarded to the historian's graduate student under the heading "Best email of the year!", which I still wonder about). A woman who gave a presentation on medieval baptism rituals was gracious enough to field my questions afterwards and then to follow through with quite a bit of additional information via email, after the conference. A Dante expert, who was planning a Kalamazoo presentation in a year when I was unable to attend, was kind enough to send me a CD of his talk, complete with all illustrations.
Kalamazoo is a wonderful place to observe medievalists at work and at play. Kathleen Norris, in The Cloister Walk, describes the Conference's Saturday night dance thus: "... dances that provide a spectacle worthy of Chaucer--hundreds of tipsy medievalists, some of whom are evidently let out of the library once a year, abandoning themselves to a tape of 'Born to Run'..."
One year, while I was waiting with others for the bus to take us to the medieval concert, I watched an eager graduate student charge up to a distinguished professorial type. Pumping the older man's hand, the student rattled on familiarly for quite a while about an Anglo-Saxon manuscript he'd had the opportunity to examine. The older gentleman nodded, smiled, and murmured an occasional polite response. When at last the bus pulled up (its destination was proudly announced as "Medieval"), the graduate student said an effusive goodbye to the professor and moved on to his next target.
The older gentleman turned to his wife and asked mildly, "Who was that?"
I'll write more about the Kalamazoo conference another time. This post, though about modern historians, is illustrated with pictures of earlier historians, in this order: Herodotus and Thucydides (image released to public domain by the photographer); Bede (the Venerable Bede), Notker of St. Gall (Notker the Stammerer), Snorri Sturluson, and Matthew Paris (all U.S.-PD: expired copyright); and Niccolò Machiavelli (public domain in the U.S.).