- What We Need to Know Right Now
Medievalist Jenifer Sutherland begins her essay in Virginity Revisited with a story told by Walter of Wimborne, a Franciscan living in England in the thirteenth century: "When the leaders of the city of Rome thought to honour its greatness with a visible image, they set about eagerly to have made out of bronze, with exquisite workmanship, the form of a woman, holding an orb in her right hand. The statue being of perfect and exceptional form, certain men alleged that her shins alone were inadequate to support such a mass. The craftsman replied that the shins would do until that time when a virgin gave birth, believing such a thing impossible." "You can see what's coming," Sutherland continues: "'When the birth of Christ was accomplished, the statue shattered and collapsed.' Walter uses the image of the monumental bronze woman to suggest the complete collapse of the ancient world: the virgin birth was not simply a miracle, it was a revolution. Yet the image of the shattered bronze woman is not removed but replaced, transformed, and so, in some way, continued by Mary" (128–29).
In other words, the ancient world both did and did not collapse. This story neatly sums up the way the gigantic shift from antiquity to Christendom was in some ways not a shift at all; the way the history of religion is as much the history of the West, and West-ness, as it is the history of the Rest; the way women's bodies continue to wind up, somehow, both holding up the world, and "shattered and collapsed." In opposition to Joan Scott's [End Page 268] recent critique of Judith Bennett's History Matters, I stand with Bennett: we will never understand the world we inhabit without a long view into the far past, a view open to finding continuities as well as changes.1
From where I sit when I work these days, in the Rome of 138 CE, it hardly seems like a foregone conclusion that either Christianity (a growing cult) or Islam (invisible over the horizon) would become hegemonic in their respective geographic zones. But they did, and in 2010 we are reaping the results. How did we get into our present predicament?
Historians' job is remembering; it is up to us to come up with answers. Now more than ever we need late ancient, early Islamic, medieval, and Byzantine history in history departments. But the last decade has seen these fields gutted as interest has focused more and more narrowly on the immediate past. Departments, stretching to cover more of the world while maintaining or building strengths in US and modern European history, have re-appropriated lines, or let them pass to departments of Classics, where priorities are different; the Berkshire Conference, even more than the AHA and CISH, has abandoned premodern history. Meanwhile, historians who specialize in anything premodern are expected to cover over a thousand years in their lecture courses, especially with the rise of world history, and gender can get lost in the process.2 What could we know if history departments increased gender-conscious personnel in these areas? Basically, more: these fields are seriously underpopulated, as three of the books to be considered here make clear. There's more material than the available faculty can handle. Specifically, we could better understand important long-range continuities and differences (and it's important to know one from the other; everything...