Cultural History

The history of cultural history (by Joseph Brooks)

The tradition of cultural history appeared in the West during the eighteenth century. It resulted from the desire to synthesize the plethora of histories written about different strands of high culture, which had flourished since the Renaissance. This way of writing the history of culture envisaged it as holistic and belonging to the society of a given people, particularly a nation. Its essence was therefore believed to be present throughout all elements of that society. In this Romantic conception, culture was defined by its distinctive character or essence: 'the spirit of an age' in the words of one of its chief proponents, Jacob Burckhardt.

The methodological challenges of cultural history: the example of African cultural history (by Joe Mc Donagh)

What is African History? Well there is no simple answer due to the sheer physical immensity and great diversity within Africa. There is general agreement among historians about its exact definition; however, this ambiguity is due in main part to the fact that the serious historical study of Africa only started relatively recently. Before this the general European perception was that what happened in Africa was, to quote Professor Trevor-Roper, nothing more than ‘the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes’.

Cultural history as the history of style: the example of the Gothic revival (by James Knight)

Historians and art historians alike conventionally refer to previous ‘cultural’ and ‘period-styles’ in an attempt to divulge and make better understanding of past visual cultures. Notable names and definitions certainly manifested, above all, throughout the nineteenth century. Styles provide and inform us with rich insights into the societies associated with them. Yet, equally, and, more importantly in this case, they also demonstrate the process of creating historical narratives, whilst the styles also tell us about the vocabulary that both facilitates and limits how we think about the past.

Cultural history as the history of style: the example of Romanticism (by J.A. Ward)

Romanticism. 

The very word evokes the mind’s most sweeping and imaginary thoughts: a collection of phantasmagorical introspections; concerning the heart and soul, expressed in order to attempt, as Tennyson described in his Memoriam, to “reveal…the soul within”. 

Historians of literacy (by Jean Muir)

Cultural history means many things, but perhaps above all it is the exploration of how people thought and how they interpreted the world around them. The ability to read and write is now taken almost for granted in the developed world, but past societies had a fundamentally different relationship to the written word. Literacy profoundly shapes lives. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, the subject of the history of literacy received little attention from historians before the 1960s. The history of literacy can be an important interface between cultural and social history. 

Cultural history through objects (by Jamalta Bediako) 

To the undiscerning eye, an object is simply an object. We use them at various times in the day without really realising the history surrounding them and, more importantly, their global cultural significance. 

Cultural history and the history of heritage and conservation (by Louise Crawley)

 Cultural history is above all the attempt to understand past mentalities. This is achieved by searching beyond dates and superficial histories and researching particularly into the context of key events and moments.

Cultural history and art plunder (by Cris Spinks)

Disputes over who owns cultural property today touch on international law and international relations. But, as historians have also shown, the history of seizing cultural property and the history of demanding its restitution also reveal much about past mentalities. 

 

Collecting and Cultural History (by Cris Spinks)

Since the 1980s, the history of collecting has become an increasingly important sub-genre of cultural history. The decisions of individuals and groups to discard some objects and to gather, order, display and use other objects provide historians with windows into past mentalities. 


The history of cultural history (by Joseph Brooks)

The tradition of cultural history appeared in the West during the eighteenth century. It resulted from the desire to synthesize the plethora of histories written about different strands of high culture, which had flourished since the Renaissance. This way of writing the history of culture envisaged it as holistic and belonging to the society of a given people, particularly a nation. Its essence was therefore believed to be present throughout all elements of that society. In this Romantic conception, culture was defined by its distinctive character or essence: 'the spirit of an age' in the words of one of its chief proponents, Jacob Burckhardt.

This 'classic' tradition of cultural history was criticized during the second half of the twentieth century. It was considered elitist for excluding less sophisticated cultural forms. However, Burckhardt was constrained by the understanding of culture peculiar to his own era (expressed and defined by his Victorian contemporary, Matthew Arnold.)[1] Burckhardt was concerned with the highest achievements of his beloved Renaissance, but also the temperament of the mass of Italians in that era. Noteworthy cultural achievements, in Burckhardt's view, could only be explained with reference to the zeitgeist (the ‘spirit of the age’), which, for the Renaissance, he identified as individualism. His understanding of non-elite culture never moved beyond generalizations.[2]

Parallels can be drawn between that zeitgeist model of cultural history and the Mentalites approach, which arose during the middle of the twentieth century. The founders of the Annales, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, wanted to write intellectual history that captured the intellectual outlook of wider society, rather than focusing exclusively on the thought of intellectuals. They attempted to trace ideas, beliefs and assumptions to see how they interconnected, influenced one another, and determined what was possible for an individual to think in a given place and time. Proponents of this approach made the first steps toward writing a history of the beliefs and values of non-elites.

This established an important precedent that prefigured the focus later in the century of the semiotic approach to social history that was developed by historians imitating the methods of structuralist anthropology.  This new approach was part of a wider 'linguistic turn' in the humanities and social sciences. The cultural turn in historiography thus represented a move towards semiotics as a way of understanding social reality. It resulted from the integration of a semiotic understanding of culture with the work of social historians. In the 1960s and 1970s, anthropologists such as Claude Levi-Strauss, Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz developed a new understanding of culture. It emphasised the dependence of cultural behaviour on networks of signs and symbols created by man, rather than treating it as a response to requirements imposed on humans by social structures.

This new approach, which represents the beginning of what has since come to be known as the ‘New Cultural History’, produced works that focussed on the analysis of representations and social practices. The term 'representation' refers to an object, located within the nexus of significations that constitute a culture, the meaning of which is communicated to the reader by its position in that network. Practices occasion the actualisation in social reality of the meanings signified in culture. This approach resulted in studies such as Robert Darnton's The Great Cat Massacre and Natalie Zemon Davis' The Rites of Violence. In these pioneering works, the authors sought to explicate protagonists’ actions by locating them within webs of meaning. They deciphered those webs through analysing rituals in which cultural representations were thickly concentrated that expressed fundamental values, beliefs and assumptions. In both cases, the historical actors seemed to make creative use of a cultural script in order to respond to social circumstances.

Post-structuralism challenged the holistic understanding of language and culture inherent in structuralist linguistic theory upon which the former approach depended, and rejected the notion that the type of influence exercised by a text can be understood only with reference to the intention of its author. As a result, historians who have been attentive to the criticisms of post-structuralism have displayed a keen awareness that meaning and intent are necessarily different, particularly with regard to the interpretation of texts. A central dichotomy to grasp here is the distinction between the meaning that a cultural representation holds for its author, and that which it may present for different audiences. In this new style of cultural history, the different meanings which can attach to cultural representations - making them, in fact, representations of different things - are sought out and emphasised by historians.[3] Another way of interpreting this development is that "the scholar's principal task became less explanation and the search for causes of events, than [the cataloguing and interpretation of] ... meanings".[4]

A brief overview of cultural history therefore reveals how its development was closely tied to the development of the idea of culture. An equally important influence on the emergence of the discipline has been the shift in historians' concerns since the nineteenth century. The cultural turn resulted from demands for a more satisfying way of understanding the behaviour of non-elites, whose lives had hitherto been understood only through the lenses of the 'hard' social sciences (economics and demography). By writing about their beliefs and lived experiences, cultural historians were able to attain a more penetrating and enlightened understanding of the lives of ordinary people.

The New Cultural History has also situated traditional subjects of historical inquiry - intellectual, political, diplomatic and military affairs, to name a few- in a wider cultural nexus: a web of meaning comprised of representations, or categories of thought, what Dominique Kalifa has recently suggested renaming "appreciations"[5], which help people to define, and thereby comprehend, the world around them. It might be said that Burckhardt's task of uniting the culture of elites and the masses is in the process of being achieved in reverse, as aspects of elite culture are increasingly analysed through the lens of semiotics, which was originally deployed to explicate the behaviour of ordinary people.

Further reading

  1. Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy. Edited by Jane Garnet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006 (first published, 1859.)
  2. Block, Marc. The Royal Touch: Sacred Monarchy and Scrofula in England and France. Translated by J.E. Anderson. Chatham: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, 1973 (first published, 1924).
  3. Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. New York: Dover Publications Inc, 2010 (first published, 1860).
  4. Burke, Peter. What is Cultural History? Cambridge: Polity, 2008 (first published, 2004). 
  5. Burrow, John. A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances & Inquiries from Herodotus & Thucydides to the Twentieth Century. London: Penguins Books Ltd, 2007.
  6. Darnton, Robert. The Great Cat massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. New York: Basic Books Ltd, 1984.
  7. Davis, Zemon Natalie. "The Rites of Violence: Religious Riots in Sixteenth Century France". In Past and Present, No. 59 (May, 1973), pp. 51-91.
  8. Febvre, Lucien. The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais. London: Harvard University Press, 1982 (first published, 1942).
  9. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books Ltd, 1995 (first published, 1975).
  10. Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books Ltd, 1973.
  11. Green, Anna. Cultural History. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
  12. Huizinga, Johan. The Waning of the Middle Ages. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1990 (first published, 1924).
  13. Hunt, Lynn, ed. The New Cultural History. London: University of California Press Ltd, 1989.
  14. Jones, Colin. "Peter Mandler's 'Problem with Cultural History', or, Is Playtime Over?". In Cultural and Social History, 2004, pp. 209-215.
  15. Jones,- Gareth Stedman. Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History, 1832-1982. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  16. Kalifa, Dominique. Kelly, Michael. "What is Cultural History Now About?". In Writing Contemporary History, edited by Robert Gildea and Anne Simonin, pp. 47-68. London: Holder Education, 2008.
  17. Kitch, Malcolm. "Jacob Burckhardt: Romanticism and Cultural History". In Historical Controversies and Historians, edited by William Lamont, pp. 135-148. London: UCL Press, 1998. 
  18. Reddy, M. William. "Anthropology and the History of Culture". In A Companion to Western Historical Thought, edited by Lloyd Kramer and Sarah Maza, pp. 277-296. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006 (first published, 2002).
  19. Riegelhaupt, F. Joyce. Review of The Holy Greyhound: Guinefort, Healer of Children Since the Thirteenth Century. In American Anthroplogist, Vol. 12, No. 1, (Feb., 1985), pp. 153-154.  
  20. Roberts, Michael. "Postmodernism and the Linguistic Turn". In Making History: an introduction to the history and practices of a discipline, edited by Peter Lambert and Phillipp Schofield, pp. 227-244. London: Routledge, 2004.
  21. Schmitt, Jean-Claud. The Holy Greyhound: Guinefort, Healer of Children Since the Thirteenth Century. Translated by Martin Thom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Endnotes

[1] See Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy. Edited by Jane Garnet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006 (first published, 1859).

[2] See, for example, his chapter on "Society and Festivals", and within that chapter his section on "Costumes and Fashions", where he expatiates on the "national passion for external display" (of dress) on the basis of what he has observed in a few paintings. This assertion is vague enough not to warrant substantiation.

[3] See Jean-Claud Schmitt, The Holy Greyhound: Guinefort, Healer of Children Since the Thirteenth Century (trans. Martin Thom), (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983). Alternatively, see the review of this book by Joyce F. Riegelhaupt in American Anthroplogist, Vol. 12, No. 1, (Feb., 1985) pp. 153-154.  

[4] Michael Roberts,"Post Modernism and the Linguistic Turn", in Making History: an introduction to the history and practices of a discipline, edited by Peter Lambert and Phillipp Schofield (New York, Routledge, 2004), p. 228.

[5] Dominique Kalifa and Michael Kelly, "What is Cultural History Now About?", in Writing Contemporary History, edited by Robert Gildea and Anne Simonin, pp. 47-68 (London: Holder Education, 2008), p. 50. 


The methodological challenges of cultural history: the example of African cultural history (by Joe Mc Donagh)

What is African History? Well there is no simple answer due to the sheer physical immensity and great diversity within Africa. There is general agreement among historians about its exact definition; however, this ambiguity is due in main part to the fact that the serious historical study of Africa only started relatively recently. Before this the general European perception was that what happened in Africa was, to quote Professor Trevor-Roper, nothing more than ‘the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes’.

My mind, as I’m sure yours does too, then leads me to wonder why a continent, so rich in history, culture and diversity, has only been a recent academic endeavour. The answer is the sheer lack of conventional evidence, particularly written sources. The strong western belief in the transcendent power of the written word and its permanent placement at the cornerstone of European tradition and academia has lead Western historians to doubt the very existence of African History. This idea is embodied by A.P. Newton who argues that ‘History, only begins when men take to writing’.

This lack of conventional evidence led African history to be considered part of Imperial history as historians such as A.P. Newton argue that ‘Africa had no history before it was colonized by Europeans’. This presents us with a number of issues as European sources on Africa, despite giving us a tangible basis to work with, have many methodological problems themselves. One such problem is the fact they present a picture of Africa heavily shaped and constructed by the West which is a major problem as it regards Africans as objects rather than actors in their own history. A similar issue is they tell us more about the racist ideology of Europeans rather than the intricacies of African culture. These are both problematic for cultural historians who need the ‘authentic African voice’ to help construct an understanding of reality. A good example of the existence of this European construct is in Edward Said’s Orientalism, in which he examined the European vision of an exotic, decadent and corrupt ‘Orient’. Despite being criticised for constructing an inverted orientalism, Said inspired greater reflection on our understanding of the cultures of the world. One such disciple of Said was African historian V.Y. Mudimbe who, in his most famous piece ‘The Invention of Africa’, argued that the ‘idea of Africa’ was initially fashioned by non-Africans rather than Africans themselves as a ‘paradigm of difference’. This therefore presents a major problem for cultural historians who are seeking the story of Africa through African rather than European eyes.

These Western/Imperial sources highlight the serious problems historians of Africa face. However, academics are managing to salvage this mysterious and exotic culture that has potential implications for Africa and the world.

African historians can use written documents, which are not entirely absent. Examples of writing can be seen in the hieroglyphs and old scripts of Ancient Egypt, translations of the Bible, and other important social rituals in a language called Ge’ez used by the Ethiopian Coptic Church. As we can see from Ge’ez in Ethiopia, religion played a vital part in recording Africa’s past in writing. The spread of Islam throughout Africa gave us a window into Africa’s past, such as locally written Arabic chronicles south of the Sahara, for instance, the ‘Kilwa Chronicle’ which recounts the history of the coastal town of Kilwa in present day Tanzania. This undermines the claims that African History began with colonialization and allows us to begin to hear distinct African voices. Arabic script has also been very useful by providing the basis for the transliteration of 3 major African languages: Hausa, Fulfulde and Swahili. This has provided historians with even greater means of intellectual expansion and subsequent cultural understanding. Christianity also played a vital role in preserving Africa’s past. Unlike the Qur’an, which must ideally be heard and read in Arabic, the Bible was much more accessible, meaning missionaries were more open to its translation. This lead to the transformation of many languages from oral to written and started a process of linguistic development, especially within the Christianised areas of Coastal West Africa.  From this process of evangelisation spawned Africa’s first attempts at writing a self-contained history, Samuel Johnson’s ‘History of the Yorubas’ (1897). This combined dense ethnographic observations, traditions of origin and detailed historical narratives constructed from a combination of oral history and personal experience. Despite being largely ignored by the historical community of the time it has helped expand both our historical and cultural understanding of Africa, this time through the perception of Africans themselves, which has proved vital for modern day cultural historians and anthropologists.

Now where written sources can be somewhat rare and limited in scope, the study of African art has huge potential despite only being in its infancy. Material culture in Africa is rich and diverse, ranging from ancient rock art to sophisticated bronze statues. The extent of ‘art’ in Africa has allowed historians, such as Jacob K. Olupona, not only a greater understanding of indigenous African perceptions and tribal iconography but also greater knowledge of cultural norms/customs, particularly those that are religious. A good example of this can be seen in the minkisi statues from west-central Africa. These wooden anthropomorphic statues often have nails driven into them and so it is natural to assume a type of voodoo and torment, however from greater cultural study it has been found that instead the nails are points of power and the figure is one of healing not death. This highlights the intricacies of African culture and the importance of social context in its ‘art’. However in Western museums African sacred objects are often stripped of their cultural and religious contexts and instead are classified as examples of primitive art or simple ornamentation. This is a major problem as we lose an important cultural dynamic to the art for which it was created. For example without understanding Zulu cosmology and the significance of colours/patterns within their culture, it would be difficult to understand the meanings of the intimate beading patterns the Zulu use in their artwork to communicate the perceptions of their lives. Similarly museums typically encourage viewers to see an object as static which is another problem as African art objects are designed to be interactive as they fulfil important religious purposes, many of which take place in vibrant and dynamic festivals and celebrations. Overall African art has great potential by offering us a window into the cultural heart of African society and helping us de-mystify these ceremonies and religious concepts, which to us Europeans, seems strange but never inferior. That being said, work must be done in museums to promote their cultural/religious significance. However, this may be a struggle as in the Western world art has lost its religious and cultural significance, now it is mostly appreciated for its aesthetic value, something African’s, we must remember, have not lost.

Alternatively historian Alan Ryder argues that one of the most hopeful means of filling the yawning gaps in our knowledge of Africa’s past is contained in the enormous body of material which historians know as oral tradition. This comes in the form of accounts of events that have occurred within the lifetime of those who are speaking about them; these are particularly valuable to historians as they replace written sources such as diaries/biographies. This idea is supported by J.D. Fage who states that a characteristic feature of many pre-literate societies in tropical Africa is what may be described as the ‘continuous application’ of the past to matters of everyday life. This therefore means present African society has a strong link with the past and so these accounts can take on a political dimension as well. Frequently the affairs of government are conducted with reference to memorised narratives transmitted verbally from generation to generation, e.g. territorial boundaries between two communities will be defined with reference to a historic agreement between two hunters/warriors. This is also important as unlike what many European scholars believed, history or even a concept of the past plays an important part in their culture. Despite the promise of oral tradition, Alan Ryder has also addressed the problems that are involved in this more radical form of historical research. One such issue is that oral tradition tends to interpret events in terms of personal drama and highlights the spectacular over the ordinary due to its highly subjective nature. For example, in Benin traditions, wars are usually presented as the outcome of a personal clash between the ruler and ambitious subject, and women usually feature as the root of the conflict. Overall however, oral tradition can be very valuable to historians as through it we can obtain access to the events, ideas and culture that have come to pass not only in the lifetime of the living men but in the time of their ancestors. Similarly its heavily subjective view offers a refreshing African dynamic to events which provides greater cultural understanding than the alien observations of the Europeans.

In conclusion, African history is a relatively new area of academic focus which has pushed historical methodology and historiography to extreme measures due to the continent’s unique past and unfortunate present. Due to a series of complications such as; colonialism, slavery, war and famine much of Africa’s history remains buried in the sand or lost in the dense rainforest which may take years to recover, and some sadly will remain forever lost. However there are those brave and ingenious historians that are pioneering new types of methodology that are helping to recover this lost past and helping us to understand this exotic and mysterious culture that as Europeans we have always found so alluring. In the end African history is a challenge, but one that is definitely worth it.


Cultural history as the history of style: the example of the Gothic revival (by James Knight)

Historians and art historians alike conventionally refer to previous ‘cultural’ and ‘period-styles’ in an attempt to divulge and make better understanding of past visual cultures. Notable names and definitions certainly manifested, above all, throughout the nineteenth century. Styles provide and inform us with rich insights into the societies associated with them. Yet, equally, and, more importantly in this case, they also demonstrate the process of creating historical narratives, whilst the styles also tell us about the vocabulary that both facilitates and limits how we think about the past.

An alternate viewpoint of the nineteenth century’s fascination with past architectural style is that architects no longer sought to innovate; instead they thought it prudent to recreate and draw from the pasty styles that most resonated for them. For some, the architecture of the ‘middle ages’ demonstrated a perfect period of European unity prior to the Reformation, and also before the materialism and urbanism associated with industrialisation. The dominant, and most relevant style, therefore, was the so-called ‘Gothic style’, which they saw as the embodiment of medieval culture. 

The style was intended to portray, as suggested by Frankl and Crossley, ‘man as a religious being, dependent on a higher, metaphysical and spiritual realm’. Given that common medieval culture was strongly associated to religion, this assessment of the ‘Gothic-style’ holds strong credibility. Augustus Pugin (1812-1852) was one of the century’s most influential architects on Gothic revivalism. Most of his early life was spent examining the styles of medieval gothic architecture, and even wrote in his book Contrasts (1836) that buildings should be honest, that, ‘fitness of design to the purpose to which is intended, and that the style should so correspond with its use that the spectator may at once perceive the purpose for which it was created’.[1] This idea neatly carries over to his contributions towards the redesigning of the House of Commons, where he was requested to draw up the outside elevation, and to design the interior. As a result of the reconstruction, Clive Wainwright has stated that, ‘Pugin is now wholly associated in our minds with the Gothic Revival Style’.[2]

On the flip-side, however, it has been suggested that his influence on gothic architecture throughout the nineteenth century can take credit in explaining why the gothic style embodied the Christian faith.[3] Pugin had dedicated a lot of his early life into researching the gothic style, often travelling to places such as Belgium to explore the intricacies of medieval churches. However, this continuity of culture, largely seen throughout the medieval period, has limitations; Rosemary Hill, whom wrote a biography of Pugin, titled God’s architect, claims that despite his unimpaired knowledge of what true gothic architecture was, ‘the ideal schemes are marked also by anachronisms and mistakes, pieces of renaissance design and inauthentic details’.[4] Moreover, further limitations can be found when recognising his plans to rebuild Balliol College in Oxford were renounced, due to his conversion to Roman-Catholicism.[5] The argument here is that if true gothic architecture really did symbolically represent Christendom, then how could Pugin truly replicate this belief if he himself was not of the Christian faith?

On similar ground lies the work of Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, who too believed that the period focused around the ‘Catholic organ of the Gothic revival’,[6]yet he himself was not committed to the faith, but rather an agnostic. Given that the majority of his work was recognised through restorative projects, such as Notre-Dame de Paris and Carcassonne, he often removed and replaced the original medieval stonemason work in order to reimagine it himself. Although, with specific reference to Notre-Dame, features such as flying buttresses and lancet windows were prominently included by le-Duc, he often still    removed original designs from the medieval period.

In conclusion, it is a useful exercise to understand how the past is understood and interpreted through the dominant ‘period-styles’ of history. However, it should not become a pre-conception that this idea should be confined solely to the Gothic Style. Instead, what has been highlighted in this piece should act as an example; a small sample set in the wider context of cultural history. As Bergdoll explains, Egyptian and renaissance revivalist styles were used in various architectural endeavours to represent new cultural associations: the ‘middle ages’ of course represented Christianity, whilst Egyptian provided a nexus to the pharaohs, death and eternity, with renaissance revivalism linked to the rise of the Medici, banking and commerce.[7] With this in mind, it makes sense as to why most churches were built with the medieval mind-set, prisons with Egyptian revivalism and banks with Renaissance inspiration; they echoed the cultures seen throughout history.

The Palace of Westminster, London

Saint Peter's Church in Leuven, Flemish Brabant, Belgium- Note how the exterior design between both Saint Peter’s Church and the Palace of Westminster are similar- tall spires and similar brick-work design.

 

[1] A W N Pugin, Contrasts (New York, 1969) (reprinted first edition, 1836), 1.

[2] Clive Wainwright, 1994, “Principles True and False: Pugin and the Foundation of the Museum of Manufactures”. The Burlington Magazine 136 (1095). The Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd.: 357–64. http://www.jstor.org/stable/886049.

[3] Grove Art Online- http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T070011?q=pugin&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit

[4] Rosemary Hill, God’s architect: Pugin and the building of Romantic Britain (Yale University Press, 2008), 102.

[5] Ibid, 143.

[6] Barry Bergdoll, “Nationalism and Stylistic Debates in Architecture” in European Architecture 1750-1890 (Oxford University Press, 2000), 169.

[7] Ibid, 140.


Cultural history as the history of style: the example of Romanticism (by J.A. Ward)

Romanticism. 

The very word evokes the mind’s most sweeping and imaginary thoughts: a collection of phantasmagorical introspections; concerning the heart and soul, expressed in order to attempt, as Tennyson described in his Memoriam, to “reveal…the soul within”. This quote, when said fully however reveals one of the key features of a Romantic’s predicament, a feature which inherently set them vast boundaries and yet humbled their practice:

I sometimes hold it half a sin,

To put in words the grief I feel: 

For words, like Nature, half reveal 

And half conceal the Soul within.

The chivalric Knight-errant of the idealised medieval world attempted to attain the unattainable: the star in his sky, his great Lady in waiting. In the same way, the Romantics sought to attain knowledge of the soul within; through exploration of their thoughts and feeling, ideals and interests, as expressed through the mediums of art, literature and music. It is this movement that certain Historians and metaphysical thinkers have attempted, some in vain, to try understand such a movement. But Romanticism is much more than a movement, or cultural ‘revolution’ as Tim Blanning calls it. It is a way of viewing a particular expression of art and culture; and a way through which one can try grasp the hidden secrets of the dark unconscious and mysteries of the soul.

The ‘dark’ unconscious of the Romantics was sometimes one of fear and terror (though there were exceptions to this rule- see the appendix item 1: Henry Fuseli’s ‘The Nightmare’) but it was more often a magical darkness. The imagination could take itself far from the observable and quantifiable world of day- and find itself within a dream-like transcendence, of which Novalis commented in 1799, was “meaningless and solitude”. This “wonder world of the night” was complemented by the light of day. The enlightenment had just succeeded in demonstrating the fundamental properties of light; the scientists and philosophers of the period were “fascinated”, as Novalis demonstrated, “….by the refraction of it’s rays… its mathematical obedience and freedom of movement”. Yet the Romantics were more interested in the play of light’s colours, its illumination- the freedom of light within the artistic imagination would be stifled by the very thinking of light being obedient and regiment. 

The Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti explained this paradigm through the medium of poetry. In his poem, Love’s Nocturn (see item 2), Rossetti describes with a great felicity and joy the limitless nature of the dream-world:

Vaporous, unaccountable,

Dreamland lies forlorn of light, 

Hollow like a breathing shell.

Ah! That from all dreams I might  

Choose one dream and guide its flight!

I know well

Well her sleep should tell tonight.

There the dreams are multitudes… 

Deep within the August woods...

Here Rossetti marvels at the world of dreams. He explains how it is forlorn of light, yet it is still a place of life and magic- “a breathing shell… deep within August woods”. The world he seeks is still one of hope and great joy. Another poet, Margaret L. Woods spoke of the “hidden sanctuaries of sleep”. The Romantics sought a world without limitation, in order to give their soul freedom, so that they could open up themselves for introspective exploration. 

The Romantics were unique in their views of religion and the divine. The enlightenment, with it’s scientific advancements and new philosophies of thought had led many to discount as mere superstition the ‘divinity’, the ‘miraculous’ nature of religion and belief, fables designed to wonder and enchant. Yet the Romantics saw this wonder and enchantment- and they took delight in it. Keats wrote to a friend in 1817, “I am certain of nothing except the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination”. Here we see as Michael Ferber writes, ‘leakage’, though a somewhat disparaging way of describing such a key frame of thought within the Romantic’s mind. The historian T.E. Hulme mentioned this acceptance in a rather depreciative manner in the first chapter of his 1924 book, Speculations, deducing that “…you begin to believe in a Heaven on Earth. In other words, you get Romanticism”. However Hulme is missing the point. The Romantics were inherently aesthetes, they had a built in sensitivity to beautiful, precious things that brought delight and wonder- the Romantics don’t believe in a Heaven on Earth, but saw, touched and heard the divinity. They searched for something holy, but it was always looking out to look and feel within. Romanticism encompassed the search for the divine within everything.  

The Romantics were received with mixed views, and shall always continue to be. The art and literature they produced was the apotheosis of the 19th century, produced by the paragons of their craft. Yet at the time, contemporaries- both critics and artists alike- were at times unwelcoming. Take, for example, the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The PRB, formed in 1849 by the three original members- Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais- were all dissatisfied RA students, whose yearning for excellence in painting and skill would cause them to transform the painting of the Victorian world. Inspired by the Natural world, with an assiduous interest in the medieval Chivalric world, female form, sacred and sensual beauty and paganistic as well as Christian themes; these men (and the artists who closely followed them- Edward Burne-Jones, Waterhouse and William Morris for example) created some of the most Romantic painting of all time. 

Many Romantics, particularly painters members of the PRB, were fascinated by the medieval. Just as they were beginning to read Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur; in the words of Laurence des Cars, “the inspiration the Victorians found in the medieval world, a way of replacing the realities of modern life with romance and chivalry, was at the height of fashion”. Contemporary art and literature is rife with the medieval. As Val Prinsep commented in the summer of 1857 whilst painting the murals of the Oxford Union Library, “medievalism was our beau idéal”. Within this medieval mind-set, at the forefront stood romanticism and chivalry. Again, as mentioned in the first part of this study, the obsession of the chivalric Knight-errant with his chosen lady-lover, his assiduous pursuit of her love and adoration was something that the Romantics greatly admired. In particular however, and for many of the artists, it was the portrayal of the lady herself that they sought most to reproduce; both of her love, the love she represented and the love wished to be poured upon her. No such painter is as key to this as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The women featured in his paintings were a direct reflection of the search within his own soul; of the most desirable woman to any chivalric knight, who possessed the ideals of a Romantic. The women he paints are fragile, yet rebellious; innocent, yet lustful; they are sacred, and yet evoke a deeply sensual nature- they are made for the pursuit of pleasure, and all the while they do not seem to know it. Rossetti’s sister, Christina, wrote of this lady in her poem In an Artist’s Studio, written Christmas Eve 1856; at the height of the medieval fascination (see item 3). She speaks of her role as the ideal, always the unattainable goal for; exactly in the same fashion of the knight-errant:

Not as she is, but as when hope shone bright;

Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

The Romantics thus faced, and continue to face a mixture of feelings in admirers, fellow artists, writers and critics. However, the importance of Romanticism has, in the tendency that History bears witness to, seen itself grow from merely a collective, contemporary term to a movement as important as the Enlightenment, Renaissance or Reformation. Contemporary opinions were certainly divided; but mostly this was because of the difficulty people had- and indeed continue to have- in defining it. Romanticism can be expressed, as explained before through many creative mediums, yet it is elusive to definition. The men of science, literature and philosophy born of the enlightenment wanted things to be defined and subdivided, with determined rules and boundaries. Frederick W.H. Myers argued that the very nature of Romanticism, as a form of thought, was “to tell of beauties impalpable, spaces unfathomed, the setting and resurrection of no measurable or Earthly day”. Coleridge wrote of the “caverns measureless to man”, and places of “inaccessible solemnity” whilst Rossetti spoke of the soul “born somewhere that men forget”. In his 1768 Dictionary of Music, Rousseau claimed “the genius of a musician submits the whole universe to his art”. Sibelius had once asked fellow composer Mahler why his symphonies were always so long- Mahler simply replied “a symphony should contain a world”.

Unfortunately, it was the painters of the day who took more of hit from critics in their expressions of limitlessness. The PRB member, John Everett Millais was scorned for his revolutionary painting of ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’; whose astonishing realism was simply too much for some (see item 4). Most notable of these was Charles Dickens, who in the published his thoughts on the matter in the Dickens-edited weekly magazine Household Words; describing the Christ Child as a “wry-necked” and “blubbering” and the Virgin Mother apparently “so horrible in her ugliness… that she would stand out… as a monster”. The whole painting itself “[expressed] ugliness of feature, limb and attitude”.

Despite such frightful commentary, and a disillusionment at times; the romantics have endured all and given all. With the loss of our great British poet-painters by the end of the 19th century; it became individuals who admired and esteemed their work; the masses ceased to flock to see their work. Indeed, in 1933 upon the centenary of the birth of Edward Burne-Jones, at an exhibition of his work at the Tate Gallery, to the collector W. Graham Robertson the scene was “rather sad- a little crowd of forlorn old survivals their last homage to the beauty and poetry now utterly scorned and rejected.” This disparagement of the mid-20th century is according to Richard Dorment, “a rejection of cultural values [young men and women] associated with their parents’ generation”; coupled with a loss of “proud insularity” and interest that now laid with foreign painters and influential artists, as the inter-war generation somehow lost its visionary love for the amalgam of the British history and landscape, “the intermingling of art, literature and narration”. 

Despite this, as Dorment continues, “the candle never quite guttered out”; and the individuals mentioned before, with the rise of disposable income, greater free time and freedom of interest, could now buy the artwork for themselves and make collections of it (such as the impressive collection of Pre-Raphaelite works held by Andrew Lloyd Webber), or reproduce it in books or produce works inspired by the Romantics. The poets of the Romantic era- Keats, Byron, Coleridge, but to name a few- have continued to enchant and capture the imagination of the dreamer, or anyone who wishes to glimpse and try grasp the meaning of Romanticism themselves. Their music still captivates us and lulls us into blissful, dead dreamless sleep, or vitalizes our thoughts and emotions. Furthermore, Romanticism itself is still something almost hesitantly whispered about- in today’s society it is something that demands much greater respect and reverence than it is given by some; by those leading a busy and astute lifestyle. It almost belongs to a time before; and yet it exists within those who keep the afore mentioned candle burning alive; to those who wish to find their soul amongst the furthest cosmic heights, or who see it, glimpse it for the slightest moment in the divine around them. But Romanticism always looked ahead as well as behind- an enduring, admirable quality that made it such an innovative and intriguing movement. Writing around the turn of the century, the poet James Elroy Flecker wrote words which seem a truly Romanticized end to this short essay, on an aesthetic movement which produced some of the greatest art and literature ever produced in British history.

West of these, out to seas, colder than the Hebrides I must go 

Where the fleet of stars is anchored, and the young star-captains glow.

 

Appendix

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1781)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Love’s Nocturn

Master of the murmuring courts
Where the shapes of sleep convene!--
Lo! my spirit here exhorts
All the powers of thy demesne
For their aid to woo my queen.
What reports
Yield thy jealous courts unseen?

Vaporous, unaccountable,
Dreamland lies forlorn of light,
Hollow like a breathing shell.
Ah! that from all dreams I might
Choose one dream and guide its flight!
I know well
What her sleep should tell to-night.

There the dreams are multitudes:
Some that will not wait for sleep,
Deep within the August woods;
Some that hum while rest may steep
Weary labour laid a-heap;
Interludes,
Some, of grievous moods that weep.

Poets' fancies all are there:
There the elf-girls flood with wings
Valleys full of plaintive air;
There breathe perfumes; there in rings
Whirl the foam-bewildered springs;
Siren there
Winds her dizzy hair and sings.

Thence the one dream mutually
Dreamed in bridal unison,
Less than waking ecstasy;
Half-formed visions that make moan
In the house of birth alone;
And what we
At death's wicket see, unknown.

But for mine own sleep, it lies
In one gracious form's control,
Fair with honourable eyes,
Lamps of a translucent soul:
O their glance is loftiest dole,
Sweet and wise,
Wherein Love descries his goal.

Reft of her, my dreams are all
Clammy trance that fears the sky:
Changing footpaths shift and fall;
From polluted coverts nigh,
Miserable phantoms sigh;
Quakes the pall,
And the funeral goes by.

Master, is it soothly said
That, as echoes of man's speech
Far in secret clefts are made,
So do all men's bodies reach
Shadows o'er thy sunken beach,--
Shape or shade
In those halls pourtrayed of each?

Ah! might I, by thy good grace
Groping in the windy stair,
(Darkness and the breath of space
Like loud waters everywhere,)
Meeting mine own image there
Face to face,
Send it from that place to her!

Nay, not I; but oh! do thou,
Master, from thy shadowkind
Call my body's phantom now:
Bid it bear its face declin'd
Till its flight her slumbers find,
And her brow
Feel its presence bow like wind.

Where in groves the gracile Spring
Trembles, with mute orison
Confidently strengthening,
Water's voice and wind's as one
Shed an echo in the sun.
Soft as Spring,
Master, bid it sing and moan.

Song shall tell how glad and strong
Is the night she soothes alway;
Moan shall grieve with that parched tongue
Of the brazen hours of day:
Sounds as of the springtide they,
Moan and song,
While the chill months long for May.

Not the prayers which with all leave
The world's fluent woes prefer,--
Not the praise the world doth give,
Dulcet fulsome whisperer;--
Let it yield my love to her,
And achieve
Strength that shall not grieve or err.

Wheresoe'er my dreams befall,
Both at night-watch, (let it say,)
And where round the sundial
The reluctant hours of day,
Heartless, hopeless of their way,
Rest and call;--
There her glance doth fall and stay.

Suddenly her face is there:
So do mounting vapours wreathe
Subtle-scented transports where
The black firwood sets its teeth.
Part the boughs and look beneath,--
Lilies share
Secret waters there, and breathe.

Master, bid my shadow bend
Whispering thus till birth of light,
Lest new shapes that sleep may send
Scatter all its work to flight;--
Master, master of the night,
Bid it spend
Speech, song, prayer, and end aright.

Yet, ah me! if at her head
There another phantom lean
Murmuring o'er the fragrant bed,--
Ah! and if my spirit's queen
Smile those alien prayers between,--
Ah! poor shade!
Shall it strive, or fade unseen?

How should love's own messenger
Strive with love and be love's foe?
Master, nay! If thus, in her,
Sleep a wedded heart should show,--
Silent let mine image go,
Its old share
Of thy spell-bound air to know.

Like a vapour wan and mute,
Like a flame, so let it pass;
One low sigh across her lute,
One dull breath against her glass;
And to my sad soul, alas!
One salute
Cold as when Death's foot shall pass.