‘Smudges on Paper’

Electron Probability Pattern

The black dots represent all the probable locations for a single electron. Why should historians be interested in the search for subatomic particles? (Artwork by Richard Parsons, Wikimedia commons).

Do you remember Debbie Downer? (“Always there to tell you ’bout a new disease, a car accident or killer bees…”). It’s probably one of the funniest Saturday Night Live skits I ever remember seeing. Why do I mention it? Well, you may want to click over to that video when you’re done reading. It may be Christmas season, but this isn’t a post bringing “good tidings and cheer.” The opposite, actually.

I’ve been working on a piece about the history of the nativity (debut: here). It’s not exactly the most uplifting reflection on the “first Christmas,” though, as will soon be clear. (Last week, art historian Jessica Hughes also published a good piece on the ever shifting starting line up the players. Lobsters? George Clooney? Check. And check. I love the way we’ve been casually updating that classic scene, remembering it in highly idiosyncratic ways.)

My piece looks at forgetting. Specifically, I focus on the mysterious ancient woman who’s currently missing from our nativity sets. Who was she? I’m not going to give anything away. (Hint: I’ve written about “her” before.) Here, I wanted to write about the backstory to my piece.

For some time, I’ve been researching the ways that religious ideas about “the end of the world” have shaped political rhetoric throughout history. That exploration has already taken me to Vienna, and much of what I’ve been working on will be published soon, in my forthcoming book, coming in March. Broadly, what I’ve been working in on is finding the right tools so that we can talk, in a nuanced way, about what happened during one of the most hotly contested periods in history: the “Fall of Rome.” My belief (to give some preview of what drops in March) is that scholars of Roman and Late Antique history have, for too long now, been turning a blind eye to some key data. This period was no picnic party at which Christians succeeded in evangelizing, through a mild mannered, spiritually uplifting dialogue, their “pagan” peers; the old world did not go quietly into the night with the rise of a new Christian empire. This was a decisive and — let’s be frank — divisive time in Rome’s history. But the battle was not the one we think we know.

All of my suspicions began to grow, years ago, from a critical comment — a keen observation, really — offered by another historian, Richard Landes. Landes wrote the preface to a collection of essays exploring the range of fears that accompanied the arrival of the year A.D. 1000, which was published to coincide with the arrival of another anxious moment on the calendar, A.D. 2000. Landes’ words are somewhat opaque, but his vivid metaphor, which inspired the artwork for this post, was what got me thinking. I quote them in full, as I do in my book:

Until historians become familiar with the nature of millennial hopes and the dynamics of apocalyptic excitation and disappointment, until their radar screens have been adjusted to pick up certain kinds of data and to follow its effects past the period when it is most visible, they may most resemble some hypothetical nuclear scientists who deny the existence of subatomic particles by dismissing the shady traces of their trails as smudges on paper (2003, 11).

For me, this is pretty insightful stuff. I like it because it poses a challenge. Landes is asking scholars trained in fields like ancient languages, history, even archaeology, to look at their evidence a little more carefully for “traces of beliefs” that have traditionally been the focus of “religious studies.” The implication is that the nature of what people believed about their world, intangible things which could easily be dismissed by historians as “smudges on paper,” might be pointing us towards new avenues of research or new approaches to the social problems of the past. You can play this game at home: Pick a book, any book, on religion in Rome or Late Antiquity and search the index for an “apocalyptic worldview.” I’m no Penn and Teller, but I have a feeling you won’t find very many references to it, anywhere. There’s a gapping hole in the research on what exactly “transformed” the Roman Empire. Everyone wants to talk about Christian conversion and the rise of a Christian majority, even the death of “paganism.” The most embarrassing parts of Christianity? They get brushed aside.

Modern historians already know how important it is to look for this stuff. Medieval and Renaissance historians have been doing it for some time, too. Biblical scholars are experts in it, and the world that gave rise to Muhammad’s followers is increasingly a source of study for it also (Bibliographies: here). It might be time to go back and look anew at Roman history. And maybe then we can finally start to ask an inconvenient question: Why is it that some people were predicting “the fall of Rome” before it “happened”? And what does that mean?

(“Debbie, you’ve ruined my trip to Disney World!”)

Method, Publications