What does the German Peasants’ War have to do with cycling? How might climbing a ladder to examine monsters on maps raise larger questions about the pleasures and dangers of the archive in the age of digitization? On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Huizinga Institute, Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of History at the University of Oxford, spoke live from Oxford with Utrecht University cultural historians Dr Surekha Davies and Dr Rachel Gillett about the history of cultural history, new directions in the field, and its continuing relevance for both the present and the future. The conversation ranged widely through space and time, and from the individual to the collective. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, we managed to add the richness and breadth of multiple voices by gathering pre-recorded questions from fellow scholars and students. The result was surprisingly organic, sewing together the thoughts of Leiden University RMA students Tessa de Boer and Jessica den Oudsten, Huizinga PhD candidates and council members Anne Por and Jon Verriet, and University of Amsterdam cultural historians George Blaustein and Maartje van Gelder, with Roper’s responses and with the live discussions.
Professor Roper offered rich insights into doing cultural history using imagination, archival research, languages, and working groups. The discussion includes wonderful moments of personal reflection and concrete methods for working on landscape, soundscape, and materiality. Roper’s joy at hearing the crackle of a document that no-one but you has consulted before led to questions about whose voices are privileged in the archives and whether digitization democratizes or perpetuates particular topics or orders of thought. Is text-recognition software a boon for our discipline? Dr Davies’ vivid accounts of how getting to grips (literally) with the sources can yield fresh historical insights prompted conversations about scholarly training, embodiment, and the historical imaginary. Is the boundary between ourselves and the people and mentalities we examine impermeable? Dr. Davies’ provocative question about whether challenges and paradigm shifts in (cultural) history, such as women’s and gender history, get sidelined into subfields rather than changing larger narratives and becoming mainstream, led Roper to reflect on how her experiences intersected with developments in the field. Probing questions on using methods from psychoanalysis, and on scholarly paths not taken, continued this double-narrative.
Graduate students did not shy away from big questions currently animating (and sometimes dividing) the historical profession. Professor Roper’s response to how she, a scholar at Oxford, has experienced the #RhodesMustFall campaign since its inception 2015, captured a cultural difference. As an Australian, such conversations were not new to Roper, so she was surprised by the initial hesitancy of the press in the UK to tackle them, an observation that may tell us as much about the British mentalité as the sound and fury of whether physical objects should fall. Roper’s conclusion reflected on how students at Oxford addressing the #RhodesMustFall movement enriched her own thinking, and mused that if a field is not generating challenges and new questions, then perhaps we should worry about our students and about our discipline. This conversation testifies eloquently to the fact that we have nothing to worry about. Cultural history is alive, engaged, and incisive, and, twenty-five years after its founding, the Huizinga Institute continues to create space for it to be just that.
By Surekha Davies and Rachel Gillett