Unrepentant Sinner Am I: Who gets to call themselves a historian?

I was going to post today about journals and symposiums that fiber/textile/fashion enthusiasts, professional and personal, might be interested in.  I was also going to write about why a non-professional might want to participate or submit an article.  However I hesitate today and instead I would like to write about the rift between professional historians and non professional living history enthusiasts.  This has been bugging me for a long time, since before graduate school when I was told by professors not to mention my membership in certain living history groups.  It’s been bugging me for a long time because I’ve meet closeted historians in the SCA who can neither admit their membership in the SCA to their professional friends for fear of being fired nor admit that they are historians to members of the SCA for fear of being outted.  Yes, they told me, and I’ll never tell who they are, and it came with a friendly death threat and all….and friendly advice about perusing a history career.  And I’ve been told numerous times by both members of the SCA and professional historians who were friends to always use the term “independent scholar” to get taken seriously by historians.  Why should a living history hobbyist label themselves as “independent scholars” just to get respect?  So bear with me, as I have given this some thought…

In part the term “independent scholar” is used to differentiate yourself from that one idiot with hoof-and-mouth disease who believes (not a bad day mistake but actually believes) that because they tried a medieval technique they know more about history then a PhD who studied it.  And it’s done in part to avoid the professional historian who has heard about (but not actually experienced firsthand) the living history community’s lousy reputation and believes it to be true.  Both reasons are valid.

But I think we are talking around the main issue instead of talking about the real heart of the argument: who has the right to call themselves a historian and who has the right to write and explain history.  Why do I think this is the real issue?  Well, consider for a moment the power a historian can have.  In recent events, for example, the US government at its highest levels issued an apology to the people of Guatemala for experiments conducted in the 1940’s by US doctors on prison inmates, women and mental patients resulting in the knowing infection of these people with syphilis, a deadly sexually transmitted disease.  These horrific and unethical experiments, were uncovered by Susan Reverby, a professor women’s studies at Wellesley College and might result in the US facing human rights violations in a international court.  While this example is dramatic, consider then, how historians shape our views of ourselves from revisionist histories to more subtle books about the fall of Rome which always strikes a chord with Americans when we see parallels in our own culture.  Or the idea of feudalism which gives the idea of legitimacy to top-down views of power, at odds with the American idea of democracy (rather than its reality).  And professional historians know that they shape how nations and individuals see themselves.  So I think it is understandable that historians guard their jobs jealously both from outsiders and by putting PhD candidates through the PhD process.

So when some arm-chair-quarterback of a history hobbyist comes along and says something stupid about what they know then I also understand why a professional historian would get angry.  And when those same living history hobbyists interact with the public at demos in a more dynamic way that most professionals can’t come close to, then there really is, I think, some credence to the argument about who is a historian and who is not.  The highly variable nature of members of living history does not make it any easier; some knowing a huge amount of history and historiography, and some knowing nothing about history ‘cause I’m here to put on armor and hit people with a stick for the adrenalin.

And I don’t think it’s the argument is about methodology, because there are many historians who believe in the “let’s try it” view of experiential archeology.  For example, let us consider the well respect work on Norse/Viking boats.   Or the well respect work at Colonial Williamsburg.  Nor do I believe that this is an objection to material culture studies, because material culture goes hand in hand with the very popular social history field.  Museums the world over, show vast amounts of material culture through artifacts.  Historians argue among themselves about approach and methodology all the time.

So if the stress between professional historians and living history is really about who gets to call themselves a historian and who gets to present history to the public, then what can be done to improve the situation?

For one, I am (though your own choice is your own and should not be made lightly) an unrepentant sinner when it comes to the SCA.  I admit to membership but it’s not on the resume because it has no place there.  My education informs my hobby a lot and my hobby informs studies only a little.  Does the SCA and living history have problems and can I get into trouble for admitting membership in it, yes. But I don’t care.  I think it’s more important to talk about these issues, to illustrate that the members of the SCA are not all cut from the same mould, and to actively try to fix the problems is too important to keep me in the closet.  And I find it frankly, insulting, that I should stay there.  Nothing will ever get better that way.

I think that if living history members/groups would like to start a dialog to fix this then, perhaps then local A&S events and Kingdom Universities should try to invite professional historians to come and talk/teach.  If you do this then don’t ask them to join the local group, don’t ask them to wear garb, and don’t be offended if they say no or ask to get paid.  It might be better to start with the smaller collages, make sure to advertize the event well and do be honest about the audience they will get (ranging from squeeing fan boyz to maybe kinda interested).  And if all goes well, perhaps kingdoms should consider a kingdom level position who is a go-between for the kingdom and professional historians, whose job it would be to handle problems and to represent the SCA/Kingdom.  And perhaps the hardest part of this job might be to explain why the SCA does not require more of its members and new comers when it comes to authenticity.

Why bother to fix this at all? Consider the successes: the interaction of living history and professional historians who worked on the 17th century embroidered jacket for Plymouth Plantation.   Over 250 volunteer embroiders worked on the jacket and many were members of the SCA.  I, in fact, got to see part of it at Pennsic.  It was outstanding work.  This is what we are capable of; this is what is at stake.  So I don’t think there are any excuses.

And on that last note, I think I would like to arrange a trip to the Philadelphia University Design Center Collection for any who are interested.  Want to see come Coptic textiles or Indian Saris, Japanese Kimonos up close/hands on (never mind the Chanel or Worth garments)? Let me know and I will organize a trip.  More in a later post.

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4 Responses to Unrepentant Sinner Am I: Who gets to call themselves a historian?

  1. notitiae says:

    Wondeer!! Thank for the post and you nice blog. I hope to
    link a good news by Vaite in reanaissance and expecially medieval on
    II mediueval period. It’s in Italian words and video about his history in
    Italy . Goog vision Jacopo Here is the link:


  2. Kat Anderson says:

    Wow, I really enjoyed reading this post. I just found your blog through a friends posting about the 15th/16th cent. textile find and became very excited after reading more of your blog. I’ve be interested in clothing and fashion history since I was little, but wasn’t sure how I wanted to turn it into a career since I wasn’t interested in choosing either museum curator or theater costumer. I’ve been gathering my ideas, somewhere between the PhD historian and the living history enthusiast. I would love to chat with you, at some point, about what you do and possibly bounce some of my ideas of you…?

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