Literary Perceptions and Social Change: Watching the Fall of the Roman Empire
The Southern African Society for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (SASMARS)
It is more and more common in history-writing to cast doubt on the totalising nature of major social changes. The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and many more recent as well, used to be seen as major breaks, for better or for worse: in political structures, economic structures, cultural patterns, religion, language, all at once. It is increasingly argued that this is an illusion, or at best a half-truth. Above all at the cultural level; for the men and women who made these changes, or lived through them, or were subjected to them, had grown up in different worlds, with pre-revolutionary beliefs, systems of representation, and expectations, much of which inevitably survived the postrevolutionary environment, and inevitably contributed to the construction of that new environment itself. When dealing with something as emotive as revolutions in the late modern period, some of this style of analysis is clearly polemical: hostile historians can move from the idea that revolution is a Bad Thing to the possibly more reassuring position that in people’s hearts and minds it never actually took place at all. But this searching for continuities goes well beyond politically contested moments like these. Increasingly, historical analyses come to smooth every change away: in England, for example, the Norman Conquest, Henry VIII’s break with Rome, the Civil War, and the Industrial Revolution have all been very substantially relativised in recent years. This tendency indeed seems to me, as a British historian, particularly strong in England, because one of the abiding English myths about their own history has been that it has no breaks (at least since 1688), dominated as the English supposedly are by sensible pragmatism—we do not have leaps in the dark into unknown futures, unlike the unruly (and largely Catholic) Continentals and Celts, not to speak of the world outside Europe—and recent English historiography has had the great generosity to export the image of seamless pragmatism to other times and places as well. This caution about historical change is much less common in countries like France or Italy or Spain, by contrast; the argument that the Pétain government in Vichy France shared strong continuities in its practices, values and representations with the Third Republic before it and the Fourth after it remains a controversial one in France, for example, however obvious it may seem to outsiders.
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