Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Cruise in the Baltic

What's the relationship between studying and teaching history, and travel? I've traveled before, but I've not reflected on the question.

Whenever I travel people say something along the lines of "Oh, you're a historian, it must be so fascinating to travel to those places."  I'm polite so I say yes it is.

In truth, when I travel, I'm just a tourist. I gawk and snap and sample and spend like any other tourist. My knowledge of European history sometimes influences my choice of destinations, but in this case choice is right off the table. I'm going on a cruise on the Disney Magic, where everything is packaged and bundled and carefully concierged. While it's easy to carp and find ways to deride such a tour, I'm determined to find unexpected benefits. One such is this matter of history and travel.  Or, I should say, history and touring, since one can travel for many reasons that leave on the blinders.

So, I intend to go on this tour as a historian. Not just a medievalist, mind you, for that would cause me to miss too much and some of our excursions are decidedly non-medieval. Rather, as a historian, I want to witness what I see, be it medieval or modern or even post-modern. My organizing principle is to use this exercise as a way to capture information, impressions, sights for my students; to bring back from this trip some insight or material that I can share with my students -- or, I suppose, even with friends and family -- as something specifically historical. Something that would be missing were I not a historian.

I have no idea if there is anything to be gained by this exercise, but I'm quite sure that I won't know but by trying.  I'm reminded of the anecdote told by Marc Bloch of his mentor, Henri Pirenne. This is recounted in "The Historian's Craft" so go there to read the correct account. My recollection has it that the two were in Bruges or some such place and Pirenne was looking at this or that modern building, commenting on them. Bloch wondered why the great man wasn't admiring the medieval stuff. Pirenne said that he was a student of human activity, or words to that effect, and that he would be remiss as a historian if he only looked at one slice of what society produced. I hope to be in the same spirit, even if I cannot be in the same company.

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