Adventures of a historian-in-training, comments about history and how it is done, and anything else related to history. This means essentially everything, for everything is history as soon as it slips into the past.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What Kind of Historian Am I? - part 2

So in my last post on this topic, I declared that I am a "historicist" - that is, I hold to the idea that we must evaluate historical persons and events in terms of their own times, not our times.

The next "school" of history and historiography I identify with is called the Annales school, named after a group of French historians led by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, publishers of the Annales d'histoire economique et sociale (Annals of Economic and Social History).  As with my historicism, I arrived at my congruence with the Annalistes by my own route, in thinking about why we do history and how we do history.  I figure things out on my own; I do not seek out ideologies to identify with.  In fact, I distrust and am highly suspicious of ideologies and ideologues.

The Annalistes got tired of the dominance of political and diplomatic history.  There's more to it than that, they realized.  They sought a holistic approach.  They looked at the big picture.  I like the big picture; too many people today are short-sighted, concentrating on minutiae, when they should step back and see the broader landscape.  That broader landscape is what I am after in my study of history.

Annalistes like Fernand Braudel embarked on massive studies.  Braudel produced a two-volume work, The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, which encompassed political, social, economic, intellectual and geographic factors.  This is the sort of thing I'm after in my study of St. Augustine, Florida, during the Second Spanish Period (1784-1821).  There were political factors at play, such as repeated attempts by British colonists, and later by Americans, to take Florida from Spain; there were economic factors -- shortages of cold cash and staple goods; there were social factors -- the Catholic church, practices concerning marriage and child-rearing, for instance; there were geographic factors -- St. Augustine is bordered by rivers and a swamp, and the presence of the swamp produced public health problems.  History, I have always been convinced, is a great deal more complex than we usually find it presented in books.

Basically, what I'm looking for is a Unified Field Theory of history!
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Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Little Florida History: the Midwives' Song

Today I am going to relate a tale from my own childhood, which reveals a little Florida history from the mid-twentieth century.

My aunt, Elizabeth Reed, was a public health nurse and in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, Director of Health Information for the State Board of Health, as it was known in those days.  Today it is the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

In this capacity, she traveled around the state of Florida, making speeches, observing conditions, and otherwise gathering data on Florida public health.  One experience she had was in the Florida panhandle, in Tallahassee, with a group of midwives who served the surrounding rural area, in the 1940s.  There was a shortage of doctors in these rural areas, so these midwives were on the front lines in assuring safe childbirth.  The state of Florida wanted to assure that they used the latest in aseptic practice (handwashing, sterilizing equipment, etc.).

These women were in the main not well-educated.  The nurses who trained them used "visual aids," as in one meeting where the nurse was making the point that the infant mortality rate was still too high, and emphasizing the need for good aseptic practice.  The nurse stood at the head of the group with a jar of beans, saying that for every bean in the jar, there had been a woman or child who died in childbirth as a result of carelessness on the part of a midwife or midwives.

Just then, two women entered the meeting late, and took seats in the back of the room.  Another woman seated up front looked back and saw them.  Then she turned forward again and said to the nurse who was training them, "You see Sister A---- what just come in?  Two of them beans is hers!"

The ladies had a song they sang for what today would be called "team building."  Here are the first two verses and the chorus.  Unfortunately, I cannot remember the third verse.

The Midwives' Song

We midwives will help you
As your dearest friend,
For we are all midwives indeed!
We help build the nation,
Assistance we lend,
For we are all midwives indeed!

For we are all midwives, indeed! (Hallelujah!)
For we are all midwives, indeed!
We know what is right,
And we work day and night,
For we are all midwives, indeed!

There are babies in Heaven,
Who should be on Earth,
For we are all midwives, indeed!
They had no good midwife
Assist them in birth,
For we are all midwives, indeed!

For we are all midwives, indeed! (Hallelujah!)
For we are all midwives, indeed!
We know what is right,
And we work day and night,
For we are all midwives, indeed!
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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What kind of historian am I?

That's a question I am spending some time this summer thinking about.  I am reading a book on historiography - the study of writing about history.  It is Caroline Hoefferle's The Essential Historiographic Reader, in which the author describes the various "schools" of historigraphy by discussing their history and development.  She starts with the Greeks and Romans and moves forward right up to the 21st century.

Some of the schools of historiography do not impress me, and many of them have been discredited by time and historical events - so history affects itself.  However, I have found out that I am, for one thing, a "historicist."  This school tells us we must examine the past on its own terms.  I have long been critical of "presentism" - judging the past by the standards of the present.  I have felt that the only fair way to examine history is to examine it in terms of its times.  Sure, these days we are convinced (well, most of us . . . ) that slavery was and is an evil.  But when we are talking about ancient Rome and its system of slavery, when we are talking about the events before and during the Civil War and about the causes of that war, we need to put ourselves in the ethos of those time periods.  Unless we do that, we cannot understand what the concept of slavery meant to those people, or to certain segments of the people, at that time, which means we cannot have a firm understanding of how these conditions came to exist in the first place.

Or, take the case of Prohibition, the era of the Volstead Act (1919-1933) in the U.S.  Nowadays, we are convinced that the Volstead Act was a mistake, a stupid law that did nothing to curb or eliminate excessive drinking, drunkenness, and the social toll they exact, and did everything to give rise to the modern specter of organized crime.  But when we want to examine the roots of the Volstead Act, the conditions and social movements that led up to its passage, we have to place ourselves in that time period, using the social and emotional tools that they people of the time had available.  We cannot look at it through 21st century eyes and give an accurate and reliable account of how it came about.

I arrived at this viewpoint through reading and thinking about history, and about how I would go about doing it.  So, okay, I'm a historicist.  And schools of historiography are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

I have several other books on historiography that I am going to plow through in the next several months.  I will post again on my explorations into what kind of historian I am.
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