Reading Group: Studying the Past in 2017

This reading group centres around the public role of those studying the past, be they historians, literary scholars, or theologians. In the wake of the many discussions which have taken place recently (the fate of confederate statues in the US and the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in the UK, to name but two), many members of the public at large are looking for context and conversation about the past and what it means today. Our training as historians, literary scholars, or theologians does not always equip us with the tools to engage in these conversations. Therefore, this reading group aims to introduce some of the present debates and to invite reflection on what role we can play in these debates. It is not the purpose to be comprehensive or provide one, single, clear-cut answer to what are controversial topics. Rather, the format of a reading group allows many opinions and thoughts to develop and crystallise.

The texts selected are a mix of more abstract theories and concrete examples. This reading group takes place under the auspices of the early modern cluster at Keble College and aims in particular to engage earlymodernists. However, the broader conversation crosses time periods, and many of the concrete examples and most articulate discussions can be found among medievalists and in particular literature scholars. Since White Supremacists try to use the Middle Ages for their own purposes, medievalists have developed ways to counteract these. Even though the early modern period has (seemingly) escaped such pressure thus far, being aware of the discussions taking place and reflecting on one’s own position will be useful to develop a broader sense of why history matters.


1 Being public

This first session opens the broad themes on which we will build the next ones, and asks the questions at the heart of this reading group: To what extent can and should we take part in public debates? What forms could this participation take? Here’s a quick report on our conversations.

Main reading:

Suggested further reading:

2 The Present in Research

This session centres around ‘Presentism’. Looking at the past through the prism of the present used to be a sin, a dangerous anachronism. However, scholars increasingly realise that the questions of the present shape our understanding of the past. How and to what extent can present preoccupations and analytical frameworks illuminate the past? And how can we subvert biases inherent in the archive and not replicate past violence and abuses?

Main reading:

Suggested further reading:

  • Fashionings’, in: Natalie Zemon Davis, A Passion for History, Conversations with Denis Crouzet (Kirksville, 2010).
  • Patrick Boucheron, ‘Ce que peut l’histoire’Leçons inaugurales du Collège de France; 259 (Paris, 2016).


3 The Present in Teaching

At a time when students more readily make connections between past and present, we should ask whether and how we can discuss these in the classroom. How can we encourage students to use their historical thinking more broadly? And how, in acknowledging diversity, do we not fall in the trap of forcing identities and roles upon our students and colleagues?

Main Reading:

Suggested further Reading:

4 Uses and Abuses of History

The Middle Ages in particular have been the topic of interest of White Supremacists. This session introduces some of the main targets of White Supremacists, and opens wider conversations on how scholars can deal with such misappropriation.

Main Reading:

Suggested further reading:

  • Margaret MacMillan, The Uses and Abuses of History (London, 2008).
  • Many links to blogposts about medievalists and White Supremacy on the Public Medievalist in this twitter thread.
  • Newsletter: how to support a harassed scholar, Society for Classical Studies (September, 2017).
  • A bibliography on medievalists countering White Supremacy: Sarah. E. Bond, ‘Hold My Mead‘, History From Below Blog (September 2017).
  • In the Medieval Middle.
  • An overview and debunking of the Irish Slave myth: Liam Hogan, ‘You Best Don’t Miss‘, Medium (15 September 2017).


5 Awkward Pasts

A past filled with wars, discrimination, violence, and other abuses and a present which builds much of its identity on history leads not only to misrepresentations but to awkward silences and difficult positioning. This session highlights that awkwardness by focusing on its most explicit form: denial. But silence’s less overt forms are similarly influential.

Main Reading:

  • History Workshop Forum on Denial.

Suggested Further Reading:




For those in Oxford who wish to discuss these readings: We meet on Mondays at noon in the Stafford Crane Room, Keble College (F on this Map of Keble) on:

9 October
23 October
6 November
20 November
4 December

Everyone is welcome, but please send me an email so I have a sense of numbers. Looking forward to welcoming you then and there!

Anyone who cannot join us in person, but would like to participate in conversations, feel free to tweet along with the hashtag #ThePastIn2017. Tweets are collected here, and I intend to write reports on the various sessions, which can be followed on this blog. Any suggestions or additions to this reading list are very much welcomed.

Cartoon by Tom Toro.


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