History is Not Static

I had the pleasure this morning of attending the inaugural event of the “Tisch Talks in the Humanities,” an effort in the public humanities which seeks to explore areas of mutual interest to the humanities and the public sphere.

This morning’s talk, Source @Sourcing, featured the work of two Tufts faculty members: Marie-Claire Beaulieu, Assistant Professor, Department of Classics and Jennifer Eyl, Assistant Professor, Department of Religion.

While their work covers different spheres, a common theme emerged from the two talks: ancient text aren’t as static as you might think.

In someways, this is not so surprising – how many times have you heard history conveniently edited as someone earnestly insists, but marriage has always been a monogamous relationship between a man and a woman!

That’s not really true, but it feels like history anyway.

What’s interesting from a classicists perspective is that this processes of reinterpreting is constantly happening – and is constantly being framed, not as an adaptation of the past, but a simple articulation of it.

For example, Eyl, who has studied the writings of the Apostle Paul and who is launching an initiative exploring the language of the Old Testament, pointed out that the idea of “Original Sin” was an invention of Augustine. That understanding is central to how we understand Christianity today, but at the time, it was a reinterpretation of Genesis.

Similarly, in early Biblical writings you won’t find references to Christians as a group – it was only after Christianity grew that the idea of Christians as a collective whole emerged.

But translations of early texts into modern English, bring all these years of subtle understanding and reinterpretation with them.

Beaulieu, meanwhile, shared her work with Tufts’ Project Perseus Digital Library. A rich, annotated, open sources collection of texts, Perseus has many cool features – including the ability to compare the evolution of texts over time.

For example, one Latin text told the first person narrative of a monk who traveled to China. A French translation of that text – framing itself as true to the source material – shifted the story to third person, adjusted some of the details, and added some linguistical flourishes.

That’s not to say the author of the French version intentional altered the translation, but the reality is that as a text goes through translations over time, it is naturally reinterpreted over time, as new authors read through the lens of the sensibilities of the day.

But what is the point of all this?

Well, I suppose, while it’s common to remember that “history is told by the winners,” I think it is also helpful to remember that history is always told by modernity.

In a very literal sense, what happened in the past is static in the past, but in a more practical sense – history is not static. What happened in the past is constantly being reimagined, reinterpreted, and reframed.

We talk about English as a “living language.” Well, I suppose, ideas are growing too. And they constantly shift to fit the needs of the day.


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