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History by Text and Thing

For researchers, history is a thing we do. It is an activity, a handling of old books, a building seen from the vantage point of its past. 

As working historians, we submerge ourselves in the cultural pools of an earlier time. Those who write about Isambard Kingdom Brunel know, too, the streets of Victorian London, “firebox” and “tender” and all the terminology of the steam train, the timeline of the Crimean War, what one might eat with tea (subdivided by social class), when tea might be taken (subdivided by social class), perhaps even the fashionable eccentricities of Beau Brummel in exile or the conduct of the first Opium War in China. In short, they know all the collected scientific, cultural, and political knowledge of the time and place inhabited by Brunel, their chief subject of study. 

Scholars who work on Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate have seen Kabuki theater, visited Dejima Island and the Edo castle, perhaps purchased a print showing Ainu hunters in bearskins or a room screen depicting alternate attendance at the Tokugawa court. In their lives as in their work, they have surrounded themselves with the material things of a bygone past. We know our subjects well precisely because we have enough historical perspective to partially inhabit a foreign time and place in our mind’s eye—and, if we’re lucky, in the real world too.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History