A Brief Note on ‘Politically Correct’ History

Last week saw the publication of the latest volume of Studies in Church History, this year on the theme of ‘Christianity and Religious Plurality’. Nestled near the beginning is a short essay by me on Christian perceptions of religious ‘others’, which was based on a lecture I gave to the Ecclesiastical History Society in January 2014. It was a chance for me to bring together a number of themes and ideas which had developed in my own and other people’s research over the last decade, on early medieval historical writing, apocalypticism and missionary work. The long and the short of the argument is probably this: explicitly religious conflict was not necessarily normal in early medieval society (I’m excluding heresy here) but that this began to change with the diversification and proliferation of Western micro-Christendoms.[1]

Towards the end of the article, I clearly start to get a little anxious about accusations of writing ‘politically correct history’, because I say so. To write about medieval religions is at least to skirt around some rather political territory.

The so-called ‘politically correct’ side is prominently exemplified by studies of religious tolerance in Spain, a topic promoted by María Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World (2003) and Chris Lowney’s A Vanished World (2006) as particularly germane to the post-9/11 world for obvious reasons. It’s not all cuddly, of course. To be balanced, one might want to point out atrocities on both sides, just like President Obama did earlier this year when he pointed out that Crusaders did some bad things.

Not everyone sees the world in such terms. Obama’s words quickly provoked a storm. (Examples here, here, and all over the place). There was a bit of name-calling and also some more (and some less) serious discussion about how one aligns talking about the past with present political issues. It’s not just about the Crusades, of course. I’ve written here before about the Arab conquests in the seventh century being absorbed into an age-old ‘us vs them’/ ‘Europe vs the East’ narrative associated with the modern political right. But then, as John Arnold said (and was quoted as saying in one of the more difficult exam questions I set this year): ‘Framing the Middle Ages… has always been and will always be a political act’. Even an attempt to sidestep the politics would be a political act.

What does one do as a historian here? I would hope that in my own writing I do more than pick the kind of narrative or analysis which best fits my political outlook. I have been teaching a module on historiography for the last two years and I keep coming back to a potentially relevant point about ‘theory’: ‘theory’ is there to help you to ask all the questions, not to tell you all the answers, because the best history will also allow the evidence to reshape the ‘theory’ and to find new things. In a similar vein, history shouldn’t be limited by the story you set out to tell or, necessarily, the way you set out to tell it. There may be other processes at work and you might not care for all of them. But you should be open to their implications.

All of which, I think, leads me to think back to an old maxim of the late Tim Reuter’s: never believe anything too much. And embrace complexity. (But never conclude an essay by saying that it everything was really very complicated… even when it was). To be be politically correct in history one should judge, but one should not attempt to prejudge.

St Boniface happily being killed by pagans

St Boniface happily being killed by pagans

[1] I should say that this argument was not written with Moore’s The Formation of a Persecuting Society in mind. But it could have been.