How a Spy Led Me to History

A scene from episode one, season one of HBO’s Rome (case study used in my research paper for HSTY3903).
While I completed HSTY3903 in semester one last year, a lot has happened that warrants my post necessary. But first, who is this ‘spy’?
One of the intellectually memorable moments from this course, for me, was hearing Sheila Fitzpatrick talk about her experiences as a ‘spy’ during her stay in the Soviet Union. More than that, it was her chapter ‘In the Archives’, an assigned reading for that week that inspired me to take the leap for history. What I learnt was that to study history and conduct historical research is not an easy task. It takes effort and time. At that point during the course, I was not sure where I was headed. All I knew was that I wanted to find a connection between popular imagination and historical reality by studying HBO’s television series, Rome. Fitzpatrick showed me how to ask the necessary questions, to seek answers and how to research beyond simply searching through Internet databases.
However, that was what I initially learnt upon reading her fifth chapter. It was not until I finished her book that I realised that what we study in these courses at Sydney University can be more than just another assignment completed, another grade assigned. I decided to bring my work into the eyes of the public though social media. I made an account on Academia and Tweeted about my work. Within a few days, my work gained considerable traction, having spread from Twitter to other history sites. I already had thirty downloads of my paper.
Moreover, I had people messaging me about using my work for their postgraduate dissertations, and recently, I discovered that my work is now being used in history classrooms in New York! How exciting is that? I now have over a thousand views on Academia and have gained followers who study history, write history, make historical films, and have learnt a lot from them in the process.
The purpose of my post, although it has taken me so long to contribute to this blog, is to show how such subjects like HSTY3903 can make a difference in how a student of history interacts with the outside world. We can move beyond just simply writing up another assignment and make what we do known if we make the effort to, just as Fitzpatrick did. From all the subjects that I have taken, HSTY3903, for me, was extremely rewarding. And John Gagné’s tireless effort to make sure his students got the most out of their research was the biggest contributor to making HSTY3903 a memorable and successful experience.
If interested, you can see my work on here: Popular Imagination vs Historical Reality: What does HBOs Rome Reveal about the Practice of History?
If interested in Sheila Fitzpatrick’s book: A Spy in the Archives: A Memoir of Cold War Russia

Henri Pirenne, modern imperatives and medieval globalities

A student report on HSTY3903: History & Historians.
The Middle Ages may well occupy a distant past, but the period seems to have a persistent hold in one way or another, whether invoked by political leaders in the West to designate the religious fundamentalism of ISIS or car-parks offering up the remains of long-dead kings. I just had a lecture on medieval Spain where Hélène Sirantoine explained Francisco Franco’s appropriation of the Reconquista narrative to service his political goals during Spain’s civil war in the twentieth century.
Among historians, the Middle Ages continues to undergo new treatments and approaches. In recent years, as global history gains general momentum (or rides the crest of a wave), some historians have turned to the concept of a global Middle Ages, with dedicated journals, conference roundtables, teaching units and research centres in tow.
My project for History & Historians began with investigating this concept of a global Middle Ages and its development among historians. My research led me to the work of Henry Pirenne (1862–1935), a Belgian medievalist renown for his famous ‘Mohammed and Charlemagne’ thesis. Briefly, the thesis argued against the then conventional proposition that the Germanic barbarian invasions of the fifth century instigated a break from antiquity and the start of the Middle Ages. Instead, Pirenne proposed that these Germanic tribes embedded themselves in a continuing Roman world, establishing a syncretic Romano-Germanic culture, while it was the much later seventh-century event of Islam’s rise (Mohammed) that broke Mediterranean unity and gave rise to the Middle Ages, Western Christendom and Charlemagne. Pirenne made the bold statement that without Mohammed there would be no Charlemagne.
Reading Mohammed and Charlemagne for the first time, it struck me that not only was he writing about the early Middle Ages, but also a post-war Europe of the 1920s. In making a case against Germanic exceptionalism in late antiquity, Pirenne seemed to be challenging the triumphalism of the German nation-state with medieval roots as written by German historians of his time (and suggesting a modern Romano-Germanic culture, which is particularly relevant for a Belgian).
I then turned to his historiographical writing and a speech he made as president of the International Congress of Historical Science (Brussels, 1923). A consistent theme across these sources is his criticism of German historicism, Rankean political history, theories of race and ‘the nation’ as adequate frames for understanding the Middle Ages. Pirenne felt they were limiting, unscientific and/or dangerous. While it’s unlikely he would have used the word ‘global’ (though he might use ‘international’), I discovered in his post-war works a vision one could call global — looking beyond Europe, enthused by 1920s internationalism and concerned with connections between peoples.
This is, of course, Pirenne at the end of a long, successful career. His influence would be felt by his successors. After hearing Pirenne present his thesis in Algiers in 1931, Fernand Braudel wrote: ‘His lectures seemed prodigious to me; his hand opened and shut, and the entire Mediterranean was by turns free and locked in!’
In a 1924 article, ‘De l’influence allemande sur le mouvement historique contemporain’, Pirenne criticised German historians for valorising the Prussian state and ignoring the reality of events around them. He wrote, ‘Ces historiens se placaient volontairement dehors l’histoire’ (‘These historians willingly placed themselves outside history’). And while Pirenne’s words may be charged with the experience of war, occupation, detention and collegiate betrayal, they are a firm reminder that historians are themselves historical actors.
‘HSTY3903: History and Historians’ was a great opportunity to place history and historians in their own historical contexts.

Kinetic Thinking & History

…REFLECTIONS on leading HSTY 3903 in semester 1, 2015…:
A surprise nudge, then a step: a new centre of gravity.
Some of the most stimulating intellectual environments encourage movement in our thinking even when we might not expect it. Thoughts are like bodies: they jostle, touch, struggle, fall, and leap. Discussion is a motive force, and I was thrilled by the directions we travelled as individuals and as a group in “History and Historians” – or “H&H” as we came to call it.
For teachers, building a new class always entails an ideal projection: “this is where we’ll start, and that is where we’ll end up.” But a class like H&H – by inviting its members to shape the direction of the semester, particularly in its last month, when we share our research in roundtable discussions – challenges that projection in exciting ways. My generic conception of what we’d learn by semester’s end had to be reformulated and expanded. My centre of gravity had shifted. The questions H&H members were asking were excitingly diverse; they dug into the construction of histories on at least five continents and over 10 centuries. Everyone had to learn how to “talk history” across those spaces and times while still addressing central questions about the craft of interpreting the past.
But amidst that diversity were some remarkable consonances. I hadn’t foreseen the thematic accords that would bind the projects of the 2015 cohort together: a questing after the nature of nationalism and its relationship to memory and politics; a concern for histories of global social justice and Indigenous peoples; a dissatisfaction with existing periodizations and a pursuit of new methods; a debate over the way that historians engage with the world outside the university; a desire to open up to analysis our accepted histories of class and gender. These were just some of the many links we forged.
By the end, it seemed to me as if we had all been nudged in new directions, prodded forward by the curiosity of our peers. In 2016 it will happen again, energized in different ways by a new group’s perspectives. And we’ll all step forward once more.
For those who don’t know the class, here’s the official description:
HSTY 3903: History and Historians
In this unit you will independently frame, research and write an original essay analyzing how historians have written about the past. In choosing your topic you may draw upon historical issues, approaches and debates encountered throughout your previous studies in history. The lectures and tutorials introduce you to new methodologies and approaches to the past, and guide you through the stages of identifying an issue or debate, researching and understanding its different aspects, and shaping your own argument in response.