History As It Really Was?

The 19th-century historian Leopold Von Ranke sought to tell history “as it actually was.” A hundred years later, theorists of the “cultural turn” overruled him. Have historians reached a dead end?

Author’s note: I wrote the first verison of this post in advance of the November 2015 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Justin Smith’s June 5, 2016, oped in the Sunday New York Times (“No, He’s Not Hitler. And Yet…”) led me to revisit it and revise it.


Last October, I visited with the Late Antiquity group at DUKE/UNC to discuss this neighborhood of the Eternal City in the context of “The Material Culture Turn.” As professionals will know, ten years ago, Duke University Press released an important contribution to Late Antique studies on the “cultural turn,” a methodological commitment which is still prevalent in religious studies today. In many ways, it was a watershed.

In the introduction to the volume, one of the co-editors, D. Martin (whom I will inevitably and, by the way, quite cheerfully say hi to at the hotel) explained why. It brought a breath of fresh air to a stuffy, dusty attic, where the study of Christianity in later Roman history had traditionally been conducted under the guise of doing “church history” — a practice that had, not surprisingly, struggled to attract anyone other than seminarians. With the rising interest in sociological and anthropological approaches to history in the 1970s, Martin explained, a new group of scholars, “who in a previous generation might have identified themselves as classicists, church historians, Roman historians, or patristics scholars,” would come to identity themselves as “scholars of ‘late antiquity.’”

With this turn, specifically, came several new, groundbreaking approaches. One involved the application of sophisticated theoretical concepts from linguistics. For the editors and contributors of the Duke volume, a greater attention to the complexities of written expression meant that it was no longer possible for any social or cultural historian to embark on a research program by “sail[ing] past the ‘epiphenomenon’ of language to arrive at the ‘real stuff’” of history. “Many historians have begun to realize,” Martin went on to explain in his 2005 Introduction, “that [in their studies] they are…always dealing with language, not directly with ‘the thing itself” (p. 6).

Texts fashion strict identities and erect rigid boundaries when, in reality, the social situation might have been more fluid and permeable. All well and good. But is that it?

There’s no need to list all the books where this method was applied. Its appeal was wide-spread; and its implications, profound. By casting a critical eye on the rhetorical nature of texts, scholars who embraced the “cultural turn” began to advocate quite forcefully and, in many cases, convincingly that our “primary sources” may not be as innocent we all once trusted they were.

Ten years later, the effects of this theoretical program can still be seen in the field’s journals and publications. Whether discussing the lives of early Christian women, foreigners in Rome, ascetics in the later empire, or even political opponents, texts — whether written in Latin, Greek, Syriac, Coptic or other — are regularly analyzed as rhetorical constructs. They fashion strict identities and erect rigid boundaries when, in reality, the social situation might have been more fluid and permeable. All well and good. But is that it?


On Team Late Antiquity, archaeologists, you will note, have either been subsumed into a higher-level category of “historians” by omission, or they were intentionally left un-drafted. I’m not interested in why. What I am interested in is the effect of under-theorizing material culture in history, including religious studies.

Too often still, archaeological sites and artifacts are relegated to the role of “dressing up,” or illustrating, the “real history” of the ancient texts. Ten years on from the “cultural turn,” a wide-spread doubt about the value of “the thing itself” may have even led to a presumption that, as historians are trapped by the language of our sources, we cannot know such “things” at all. Yet one look at major monuments, whether the church on the via Praenestina in Rome (the subject of my conference presentation) or Constantine’s buildings in Constantinople (discussed in my last book), suggests the extent of the conceptual and un-theorized problem.

“Things” like ceramics and mosaics and statues and houses and even racetracks actually do exist, and they can also be the starting point for historical investigation without having to “de-materialize” them — vaporizing them, in effect, into ethereal discussions about “discourse” or the rhetorical construction of class or gender (h/t here to two anthropological archaeologists, D. Hicks and M. Beaudry, who survey the changing theoretical landscape in their Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 1–21; Hicks’ contribution, “The Material Cultural Turn: Event and Effect,” p. 25–98, talks about the danger of “de-materializing” objects).

In short, one of the major theoretical advancements in religious studies in the last twenty years, “the cultural turn,” never articulated a place for material culture studies; and I think it’s about time (or well past time) we tried to bridge the divide. (Side note: In my own research, I use material culture from Rome to talk about the rise of Christianity, the social triumph of Christians living in the Roman Empire — and the changes that happened after the legalization of Christianity.)

My hope in shedding more light on this subject is that, by talking more about how scholars can use material culture to frame historical questions in new ways, we can get rid of even more of that old, stale air in the attic of “church history.” For the complicated issue of “how history actually happened” in the story of the early Christians is not a theoretical, academic matter. This is research which strikes at the very heart of the martyr accounts and alleged “persecution” stories that many modern Christians still rely upon to support their own harmful, hurtful and discriminatory interests and agendas today.

Originally published as “Dusting the Attic” at www.religiousdirt.com.

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