Jan Vermeer, The Art of Painting, circa 1670. Painter and model depicting Clio, muse of history (section).
Jan Vermeer, The Art of Painting, circa 1670. Painter and model depicting Clio, muse of history (section). Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Some light reflections on history

Over is over. The past is finished, set, unchangeable. History, on the other hand, is open, vivid, changeable, and thus disputable. Is there any such thing as certain knowledge? Yes – just not for ever.

Kurt Messmer

Kurt Messmer

Kurt Messmer is a freelance historian with a focus on history in public space.

The past is a dark, endless, immeasurable space. And like everything endless and immeasurable it can be difficult to understand. In fact, it’s impossible. The past is everything a) that ever happened and b) that never happened. It’s mind-boggling, requiring an almost Zeus-like talent for balance. So what should we do? We must use the spotlight of history to illuminate, methodically picking out the detail, and always letting questions lead the way. That’s easier said than done, of course. For example, if you wanted to know what trade passed over the Gotthard after the Schöllenen Gorge was opened in around 1200, you’d have a challenge where the first 300 years are concerned. There are no notes of volumes, or weights, and you can’t find anything if there’s nothing to find. Neither the most extensive archive nor the brightest spotlight will help. Goods volumes along the Gotthard transit route were recorded for the first time for ten short years from 1493 to 1503, then there’s another 40-year gap. This source situation cannot be changed. So then you try another way around, looking for qualitative information instead of quantitative. You deduce that there was a dispute about transport rights on Lake Lucerne around 1300, and at least 21 Lucerne merchants were trading with Milan and Como. There are no actual statistics, just clues, but when pooled with indications from a range of sources you begin to get a rough idea.
The past only becomes history if we bring it out of the darkness and into the light.
The past only becomes history if we bring it out of the darkness and into the light.
At different times this light has been shone by different people with different interests and intentions, working with different methods and tools.

What is important to each period? And how important?

History in the Middle Ages was the history of salvation. There was no challenging the divine order. In the 18th century, the philosophers of the Enlightenment recognised that historical judgement depends on the individual viewpoint. It was revolutionary. Historical knowledge became relative. The historicism of the 19th century was meticulous about sources. Not the slightest piece of invention was permitted. Attention focused on the nation and its ruling elites, and the everyday lives of the anonymous masses were ignored. Then Karl Marx (1818–1883) turned history on its head. He suggested that, from the point of view of historical materialism, an age was not shaped by the big thinkers and rulers, but by the prevailing factors of production, the specific living conditions and balance of power at the time. “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life”, he said. It was an earth-shattering concept. In the industrial age, history expanded to include sociology, economics and politics. In the 20th century, the French Annales school of history brought in the ordinary people’s perspective with the aim of establishing a ‘total history’. This shifted away from the individualised view. In his 1967 ‘History of Civilisations’, Fernand Braudel examined topics such as the earth’s population, food and drink, housing and clothing, technology and sources of energy, money and cities. It was all about people’s everyday lives; continuities and circumstances rather than short-lived events. It was history from the bottom up, in keeping with the revolution in consciousness of 1968. It was a revelation.

Nothing in the future will change the past. But knowledge of the past is progressive.

Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft (1944/2002).
Since the 1990s the writers of history have increasingly taken a broader, global view as borders between nations were dismantled. In his seminal work Mitten in Europa (‘In the Middle of Europe’, 2014) Swiss historian André Holenstein describes transnationality as a condition of Switzerland’s existence. In his 2018 Schweizer Migrationsgeschichte on the story of migration in Switzerland, he and co-authors Patrik Kury and Kristina Schulz conclude that migration has always been a normal part of history. In other words, history has been evolving for 2,500 years.

A contemporary record from the Baroque period

Theory can explain, of course, but to really understand history we also need to know about people’s actual lives. Here is one example. It is 1670 and we are in a painter’s studio in Delft, Holland. A heavy curtain is drawn back on the setting. It is Baroque, but without the drama. Instead, everything is measured, calm, and balanced. It is a tableau, a moment of stillness from a film set, where nobody would dare to speak in more than a whisper. The only movement is in our eyes, as we trace the contrast between bright and dark, the skilled juxtaposition of light and shade. It is casual perfection, painted as if art were child’s play. Master and model are fully focused on their work, but in the left foreground is a chair inviting you to sit and watch for a while. The painter, likely Vermeer himself, features prominently. If we allow ourselves to rest on each element of his image in turn – beret, hair, slashed doublet, breeches, hose, shoes – we become lost in detail and admiration. Then we take in the attitude of the body and head. Although the painter is only visible from behind, we see from his position that his gaze moves from his model to guide his hand as it rests on the mahl stick. The master is just finishing the muse’s laurel crown. It may be a hint that he, too, has earned such an honour. In any case Vermeer knew exactly what he had achieved here, and this extraordinary advertisement for his services never left the studio.
Jan Vermeer (1632–1675), The Art of Painting, circa 1670, 120 x 100 cm.
Jan Vermeer (1632–1675), The Art of Painting, circa 1670, 120 x 100 cm. The client and exact year are unknown, and it was Vermeer’s widow, not he, who titled the work. Many questions remain unanswered, but they seem unimportant compared with the mastery that unfolds within the painting itself. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien / Wikimedia
The nearby window casts the muse of history in a gentle glow. Clio is reminiscent of the Madonna, both child-like and entirely composed. Her downcast eyes and voluminous dress signal unapproachability. She looks far too slight to bear the heavy book that lies open-clasped on the table in front of her. It is all a pose, from her carriage to the modest way she presents her attributes, the history book and the Baroque trumpet. Who would believe that this girl could ever take the instrument to her lips to sound the pomp and circumstance of a triumphal victory? There is something enigmatic about this setting. Might it be hinting at the unfathomable nature of the human fate? The larger-than-life mask on the table would fit, as a Baroque symbol of the thrust and parry between appearance and reality. Vermeer is in on the game. The silent serious girl is never really a muse, and the plush and respectable atmosphere is not his world. In the Baroque era it is enough to take costume and props, and simply play a part.

Vermeer painted very slowly, averaging only around two pictures per year.

Andreas Zimmermann, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien.

Of truth – or argument and counter-argument

The ornate chandelier that hangs over the painter, with its soaring double eagle, is not just for appearances. Rather, it is a sign that the Netherlands belong to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The illustrated map on the wall shows the 17 provinces of the country before 1609, when the Netherlands were divided into North and South. That was some 60 years earlier. The map is further embellished to the left and right with ten depictions each of major Dutch cities. It is all fact and truth, but that isn’t the problem here. Amsterdam became the most important trading centre in the world in the 17th century. There was big business to be done across the great oceans, and the Netherlands achieved unimaginable wealth in trade with South-East Asia, West Africa and America. It is the dawn of the Golden Age. Yet we must ask where the peoples of these distant lands stand amid all this wealth and gold. Are they starving while others line their pockets? We’re back to history as a point of view, and are cautioned to treat truths with care, especially when they appear so gilded. We must devote body and mind to the dialectic, meeting fresh argument with fresh counter-argument.

No sooner found than lost

Let’s switch tack, from big oceans to small bathtubs. This may seem abrupt, but there is method in the madness. In this image, a historian is diving for the AAA soap: Applicable, Authenticated and Acknowledged. (the three principles of historical research). He had it in his hand a second ago, but now it’s slipped from his grasp.
Der Historiker kann nie sagen: Ich hab‘s! (No ‘eureka!’ moments for historians)
Der Historiker kann nie sagen: Ich hab‘s! (No ‘eureka!’ moments for historians) Bruno Fritzsche, Hannes Binder (illustration), Tages-Anzeiger Magazin 13/1984 (emphasis added to soap).
The image and caption are on point, but this is just a snapshot. It depicts only the end of an extended phase in which the diver historian and his fraternity were convinced that the soap was the right product at the right time. For a generation indeed it was, but time and research never stand still, and the historian and his colleagues will have to go delving down again. After all, change is the only constant in life, as a look at almost any library will show. There is a striking difference between older and more modern historical works, from the contents page that provides the book’s calling card, to their design and physical form. N.B.: if we come across an obsolete history book today, we may be permitted a wry smile, but no conceit. Tomorrow we, too, will be things of yesterday.

A whole variety of perspectives

Every work is a product of its time, as is evident from the Handbuch der Schweizer Geschichte series of guides to Swiss history. A comparison of the past three generations of this compendium, published in 1972/1977, updated in 1982/1983, and again in 2014, shows how interpretations evolve. Each edition presents Swiss history during the Nazi period in a slightly different light, demonstrating this in no uncertain terms. In fact, the 2006 Hinschauen und Nachfragen teaching materials on the subject offer more than 20 points of access to this time of threat and confinement. It is multiperspectivity at its finest, and you could offer another 20 if you so wished. The problematic nature of this formula soon emerges, however. There is too much generalisation (Switzerland had, Switzerland was…), and not enough nuance.
In their 2006 set of teaching materials Barbara Bonhage, Peter Gautschi, Jan Hodel, and Gregor Spuhler shine a light on Switzerland during the Nazi era from more than 20 different vantage points.
In their 2006 set of teaching materials Barbara Bonhage, Peter Gautschi, Jan Hodel, and Gregor Spuhler shine a light on Switzerland during the Nazi era from more than 20 different vantage points.
Multiperspectivity is one of the most important principles for dealing correctly with the past. Verifiability is nonetheless key. You must be able to check historical information. Historians must therefore reference the sources they use, allowing facts to be disputed. Criticism expands knowledge, but the rules that apply to historians apply equally to critics. They must also give their sources so that their arguments can be verified.

Giants and dwarves, and the 21st century

In around 1100, philosopher Bernard of Chartres used a particular metaphor to express his regard for the great scholars of earlier ages. He described himself and his peers as dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants, and thus able to see more and farther than the latter. “And this is not at all because of the acuteness of our sight or the stature of our body, but because we are carried aloft and elevated by the magnitude of the giants“, so the quotation goes. It is a testimony of humility and respect. The first illustration of this metaphor can be found in Chartres Cathedral. Below the south rose window we see the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, borne aloft on the shoulders of the four Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.
Our Lady of Chartres Cathedral, stained glass from the first half of the 13th century.
Our Lady of Chartres Cathedral, stained glass from the first half of the 13th century. It was a high point of cultural history. The ‘giants’ are not much larger than the ‘dwarves’. The central window shows the Madonna and child. Wikipedia / PtrQs
In 1410 the giants and dwarves metaphor appears as an illustration in a manuscript from what is now southern Germany. An academic text on the giant’s robe distinguishes between the sciences, and explains the qualities of the sky, the earth, air and water, and humans with them. It is a précis of ancient knowledge, the words those of Isidore of Seville, bishop around 600 and a distinguished scholar. Isidore is regarded as a giant, but is simultaneously both giant and dwarf. Following the loss of many books in Late Antiquity, he produced his own digests of classical learning, and thus saw himself as perched on the shoulders of many who had gone before. Clearly it is not always easy to tell giants and dwarves apart.
A dwarf sitting on the shoulders of a giant. Southern Germany, circa 1410.
A dwarf sitting on the shoulders of a giant. Southern Germany, circa 1410. As if saying goodbye, the crowned giant raises his right hand to wave, rather feebly and hesitantly. The image is also a metaphor for old and young. Although the dwarf’s heel is only lightly supported on the thumb of the giant, he is carefree, safe and unbound. His child-like head looks over the top of the giant, and his left arm emphasises the outstretched right, pointing to something he has spotted in the distance that the giant himself cannot see. Library of Congress / Wikimedia
At the end of Umberto Eco’s 1980 novel, ‘The Name of the Rose’, William of Baskerville concludes: “The order that our mind imagines is like a net, or like a ladder, built to attain something. But afterward you must throw the ladder away, because you discover that, even if it was useful, it was meaningless.” Brother William may forgive us our own point of view. There is no need to get rid of the giants or throw away the ladders. Any notable contribution to the great body of knowledge, whether refuted, overtaken or borne out to a higher level, is part of progress in learning, and remains inscribed indelibly in this process. The giants of our times take different forms and have different names. They are many, but I would like to highlight two, both of incalculable value and accessible with a click. They are Wikipedia, an encyclopaedic giant that bestrides the world, and the HLS Historical Dictionary of Switzerland, our national giant. Some 2,500 dwarves (!) worked on the first printed edition, according to HLS co-founder and first, long-serving editor-in-chief, Marco Jorio. Around half of them were specialist historians, the other half specialists in neighbouring disciplines and laypeople with particular historical interests. Today, the giant is a dwarves’ collective, based on pooled resources and joint efforts.

Thought and action

Light reflections on history help us to understand the world, but they are not enough in themselves. Even in difficult times, our society must be able to climb its ladder together. And that’s a pretty heavy task.

Further posts