Winter 2009

Perspectives, connections & objects: what’s happening in history now?

Caroline Walker Bynum

Caroline W. Bynum, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1993, is professor of Western European Medieval History in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study. Her most recent book, “Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond” (2007), received the American Academy of Religion's 2007 Award for Excellence in Historical Studies.

In 1997, Princeton University Press published a volume, What’s Happened to the Humanities?, which rang with alarm.1 Even contributors such as Francis Oakley, Carla Hesse, and Lynn Hunt, who tried to warn against despair by explaining how the current situation had come about, provided only a fragile defense against fundamental and deeply threatening change, while others such as Denis Donoghue and Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote in palpable fear of the future. As Frank Kermode, author of an earlier, brilliant study of our need for literary endings, phrased it in his essay for the volume, “If we wanted to be truly apocalyptic we should even consider the possibility that nothing of much present concern either to ‘humanists’ or to their opponents will long survive.” And it was clear from his essay that he was more afraid of the end of literature than of the demise of those who, as he put it, “mistrust or despise” it.2

Returning ten years later–and from the perspective of a historian–to the scenarios feared or envisioned in 1997, what strikes me is how wrong they were, but for reasons quite different from those given in the spate of recent publications alleging some sort of new “turn” (narrative, social, historical, material, eclectic, or performative, to name a few) “beyond” the earlier turn (linguistic, cultural, poststructural, postmodern, and so forth) that supposedly caused all the trouble in the first place. For as Keith Thomas remarked in an astute and upbeat assessment in 2006, historical scholarship has become broader, more nuanced and more creative over the past decade.3 It has done so exactly because the insights of the linguistic turn have been absorbed and utilized; and this has happened because those insights coincide in great part with what historians have always known.

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  • 1Alvin Kernan, ed., What’s Happened to the Humanities? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). For helpful discussion of the issues raised in my article and for bibliographical suggestions, I am grateful to Patricia Crone, Nicola di Cosmo, Jeffrey Hamburger, Jonathan Israel, Peter Jelavich, Joel Kaye, Barbara Kowalzig, Glenn Peers, Joan Scott, Heinrich von Staden, and Stephen D. White.
  • 2Frank Kermode, “Changing Epochs,” in What’s Happened to the Humanities? ed. Kernan, 162–178, especially 177. On literary endings, see Kermode, Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction: With a New Epilogue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
  • 3Keith Thomas, “History Revisited,” The Times Literary Supplement, October 11, 2006.
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