by Kristof Smeyers
Into the fog
When we travel into unchartered territory, we go prepared. We have a survival kit. It includes a compass that is built by literature, experience, and trawling through archive inventories. But it isn’t until we arrive in the unknown that we know whether the needle is indeed pointing north. If the past is a foreign land, but even if it’s not (and I’m not convinced that it is) we need to be able to rely on our compass. Armed with a survival kit of academically justifiable presumptions we arrive on site. And, as often as not, all compasses and roadmaps notwithstanding, we get lost.
To some degree this is a voluntary, even conscious decision; we are still professionals.
And no survival kit is ever complete. We are aware of this, there’s always something you forget to pack for a trip. This blogpost isn’t so much a warning—‘Be prepared for everything, kids!’—as it is a deconstruction of a historian’s toolkit. What to do when you’ve ventured deep into the fog, and you not only wonder how to get out but also how you got here in the first place? We have all read Hayden White, even if we do not reflect on it or feel uncomfortable about his writings. Maybe this blogpost is a warning, after all: be prepared to use your imagination.
Last October I travelled to Youghal, co. Cork in Ireland, with the generous funding of the Michael Williams Research Fund (Catholic Record Society), to track down the short, intense history of local stigmatics in 1843. I packed pencils, a scarf, sunglasses, notepads (some empty, some full of hopeful references to sources), contextual literature on Irish Catholic history and supernatural beliefs, adapters, itineraries, bus tickets, the material that referred in vague terms to the scandal of 1843. I did, however and much to my detriment, not pack candles. My kit was incomplete, then, but I was pretty confident I had the bare necessities to make this a success: the navigational tools were there. But they, too, often conjure up a world draped in fog, obfuscating more than they help reveal or drawing a map on which the contours of whole continents may be missing or plain wrong.
Sometimes, as in Youghal, the historian’s journey is like trying to find your way through a fog equipped with only a hairdryer.