Favret, "Field of History, Field of Battle"

Romantic Frictions

"Field of History, Field of Battle"

Mary A. Favret
Indiana University



1.        My essay takes its title, “Field of History, Field of Battle,” not to assert that the field of history is somehow embattled, but rather to question the reflex that brings forward the metaphor of field, writes one field next to the other, so that when given a field, we imagine a battle,—or when presented with history, we conjure warfare. It happens often and in complicated ways. The reflex includes two motions: the first locates history spatially as a field, a terrain to be observed and surveyed; the second converts that terrain into battleground, to be won or lost through violent contestation. The motions seem hardly inevitable: surely many fields—magnetic fields, fields of dreams, strawberry fields—do not lead to warfare. But I will argue that especially in wartime (and indeed in a historiography that dates itself as “wartime” or even “post-war”) history-as-field inclines fatally to the battlefield. The metaphorics involved slide along a scale from far to near, at one end detached and analogical, at the other end nearly reaching identification. The double motion involved in recourse to this metaphor—terrain to be surveyed, site of contestation—itself complicates matters of distance and proximity. Here for instance is Thomas Babington Macauley, writing in 1828, defining the duty of a historian: it is “[t]o make the past present, to bring the distant near, to place us in the society of a great man on an eminence.” Up to this point Macauley’s prescription sounds familiar enough as it makes nearness its goal. Yet he continues: “to place us in the society of a great man on an eminence who overlooks the field of a mighty battle” (Macauley I: 310). [1]  Macauley’s image of proximity keeps its distance from the ugliness of battle per se, the metaphor of field securing more elevated and unifying impressions.

2.        So my title finds these two terms, field of history, field of battle, close to each other with a shared metaphor yet without a mediating conjunction, in order to open up the question: what relationship, if any, governs these two terms? The essay will press this metaphor and the accompanying questions of distance and proximity by situating their use first in the aftermath of war, in post-war writing, and then within wartime. In seeing the persistent war that governs much historical thinking, it brings together influential concepts of history from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century—a period of far-flung wars of European imperialism and expansion—with those of the late twentieth century. Precisely as “post-war” suggests a certain vantage upon and distance from a finite scene of war (a discernible field of study), “wartime” is where present history and the history of the present find it difficult to pull away from or “overlook” the inchoate scene of war. Indeed, my concluding example, a wartime consideration of historiography, will move down from Macauley’s eminence and measure history no longer by the metaphor of field but by the fallen human body, found in extreme proximity to the field of battle.

3.        In locating the field of history in relationship to the time of war, I take instruction from Macauley’s predecessors, British writers of the Romantic period. For them a governing question was how to tell of war given the mode of historiography they had inherited: one that aspired to write the gradual improvement of society and civilization, the progress of morals and mind—the historical mode inherited, in other words, from the Scottish Enlightenment. In a paradigmatic statement about recent “improvements” in the art of History, Hugh Blair in his well-known Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (published 1783; delivered in 1759-60), asserts,

It is now understood that it is the business of an able Historian to exhibit manners, as well as facts and events; and assuredly, whatever displays the state and life of mankind, in different periods, and illustrates the progress of the human mind, is more useful and interesting than the detail of sieges and battles (288; qtd. in Phillips 44).
For Blair, an influential professor at the University of Edinburgh and avowed admirer of David Hume’s innovative History of England, history kept its distance from battle. Hume, for instance, claimed a dispassionate distance, and to have “neglected present power, interest and authority, and the cry of popular prejudices” in depicting the wars and factionalism that had led to the formation of the current United Kingdom. He had examined the Protestant Succession, for instance, “as coolly and impartially as if I were removed a thousand Years from the present Period” (qtd. in Phillips 35, 36n.). Such a deliberately postwar historiographical style aimed, among other things, to free its readers from the claims of that earlier violence. The thought was, as Mark Salber Phillips points out, that through such a history
the conflicts of the previous century could finally be left behind, because they [could be shown to have] resulted in a new order of government as well as, more comprehensively, in accompanying changes in manners and opinions. The new order [would be written not as] . . . the work of any single party, but . . . as an indirect consequence of the irregular . . . politics of [past] times (Phillips 36).
In writing an account that transcended factional feeling, the Enlightenment historian could help produce a history of a nation itself transcending the violence of faction. The England (or Britain) of this new order and changed manners would be free to contemplate what Robert Henry, another Scottish historian of the period, dubbed “the more permanent and peaceful scenes of social life” (qtd. in Phillips 4). This form of cultural history deliberately situated itself apart from warfare and factional strife, in more convivial environs.

4.         By the end of the eighteenth century, however, faced with the incontrovertible fact of world-wide war and the repetitive and increasing impact of war throughout the century of Enlightenment, such an improved history began to look like wishful thinking. Even while responding to the sociable and even anti-military conceptualizations of history offered by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers such as Blair, Hume and Adam Smith, Romantic authors had to ponder in wartime the field of history. Writers such as Walter Scott and Anna Barbauld were crucial in formulating still-current protocols of cultural history and historicism in particular. Both suggest that it is primarily not approximation—not “bringing the distant near”—but rather distance in space and time that enables the field of history to take itself as a field of battle. Brought too close to the fighting, the field of history, especially the field of cultural history, threatens to lose definition and disappear. The focus on culture as a “field” which organizes and situates history as a comprehensive practice is, as we will see, a product of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century; yet its use discloses something which, at the very moment of its emergence, displays its vulnerability. [2] 

Looking Backward, Looking Forward

5.        To give this Romantic metaphor of field its proper scope and currency, it helps to look both before and after the nineteenth century, and I will do this by turning to two twentieth-century postwar theorists of history, Michel Foucault and Reinhart Koselleck, each writing a generation after world war about the modern field of history, and each locating that field in the eighteenth century, also in the aftermath of war. The problematic of distance from or nearness to the field of war reveals itself in these crucial thinkers as the problematic underlying our own contemporary understanding of history.

6.        In his lectures of 1975-78, Foucault turns for inspiration to Karl von Clausewitz, the great military theorist of the Napoleonic period, in order to propose warfare as the model through which to understand the infinitesimal workings of power in daily life. In perhaps his most provocative extension of this idea, Foucault argues that history itself is and ought to be engaged in war. In his lecture of February 26, 1976, history not only “decipher[s] the war and the struggle that is going on within the institutions of right and peace”; history also participates in that war (Foucault 171). Foucault attributes this formulation of history (he will go on to call it historicism) to the French nobility of the eighteenth-century. Defeated by an absolutist monarchy and its armies, these early historicists direct the energies of that defeat into a historiography devoted to undermining and de-legitimating the powers that be. From this unlikely source Foucault takes up historicism in a late twentieth-century call to arms:

This. . . is our first task. We must try to be historicists, or in other words, try to analyze the perpetual and unavoidable relationship between the war that is recounted by history, and the history that is traversed by the war it is recounting (173-4).
The war, in other words, is not over or past; it “traverses” the very field of historiography. It is hard to overestimate the influence of this imperative, where war becomes the transcendent term (perpetual and unavoidable) arching over but also grounding the work of historicism. For Foucault in the 70’s, war is the general idea of history: “No matter how far back it goes, historical knowledge never finds nature, truth, order or peace. However far back it goes, historical knowledge discovers only an unending war” (172). By implication, however far forward it goes into the future, historical knowledge will only discover—and promote—unending war.

7.         The temptation here is to take Foucault’s language as figural. This war is merely metaphorical: no lives are lost in its prosecution, no states rise or fall. Foucault nevertheless wants to push his martial metaphors as close as he can to the literal, to insist we allow for the possibility that the writing of history may cost lives, and that states do win or lose legitimacy on the basis of this writing. He famously inverts Clausewitz’s dictum: “Politics,” Foucault insists, “is the continuation of war by other means”; and by “politics” he designates a full array of the discourses of power (165). Rather than suggest an analogy (what war does in one way, politics does in another) it announces that the work of war proceeds into, infiltrates, the work of politics—and therefore, for Foucault, infiltrates the work of history. The eighteenth-century French historian Boulainvilliers, whom Foucault takes as exemplary,

makes the relationship of war part of every social relationship, subdivided into a thousand different channels, and reveals war to be a sort of permanent state that exists between groups, fronts and tactical units as they in some sense civilize one another, come into conflict with one another, or . . . form alliances. There are no more multiple and stable great masses, but there is a multiple war. . . . It is obviously not a war of every man against every man in the abstract and—I think—unreal sense in which Hobbes spoke. . . . With Boulainvilliers, by contrast, we have a generalized war that permeates the entire social body and the entire history of the social body. . . . one in which groups fight groups. (162)
Foucault brings war as close as he can to history; he wants it to permeate history so that we understand history as the continuation of warfare in one more field, transferred but not essentially altered.

8.        And yet, even as the passage moves toward full equation—not “abstract,” not “unreal,” but real war—it falters: war is “sort of” a permanent state; the “tactical units” of this state “in some sense” engage in the activities of war. War becomes, as Foucault says repeatedly, “generalized”: “in some sense” everywhere. In fact, war itself must be transformed into an analytic category, an intellection, if it is to pervade history in the way Foucault’s historicism demands. War becomes the “grid of intelligibility” we have inherited; “war is basically [again a slight hitch in the equation] historical discourse’s truth-matrix” (164, 165). As grid or matrix, it helps map out a field, History, but a field one finds difficult to imagine being trampled or blood-stained or strewn with bodies. The only visible body on this field turns out to be the generalizable “social body.”

9.        How quiet by contrast the account of “the concept of history” offered by the German Koselleck, also writing in the mid-1970s. Like Foucault, Koselleck is interested in situating modernity, and what distinguishes our modernity is its “concept of history,” emergent “sometime between 1750 and 1850” when “European society began to think and act as if it existed in history,” identifying itself with and by its “historicity”(White x). Historicism in this case attends to “a social mode of being in the world marked by a particular experience of temporality”; that is, of social reality undergoing structural change (White xi). The historicism that takes such multi-layered change as its “great theme,” according to Koselleck, is “the history of the vanquished,” its great methodological and theoretical innovations introduced, as we have already seen, by the historians of the Scottish Enlightenment in the wake of Scotland’s defeat and absorption into Great Britain (Koselleck 80). Whereas for Foucault the losers bequeath to modern history an extension of warfare, an on-going battle focused on usurpations, invasions and bloodshed, in Koselleck’s account the vanquished appear to turn away from military contest altogether. Not war but larger and more abstract forces determine history. So, instead of armies and generals, “the social and economic situation decides whether someone is left behind or thrust forward” (80; emphasis added). We may need to be reminded that he is talking about Scotland in the eighteenth not Germany in the twentieth century, but the larger point is clear: historicism in this instance understands itself moving beyond and past the failed operations of warfare to a more detached perspective, to, for instance, the “social and economic.” Yet—and here is Koselleck’s great insight—in moving past the battlefield to this higher level of abstraction, historicism also moves away from experience per se.

10.        Precisely because they have lost, because they have suffered history as an “unintended experience,” the vanquished are adept in developing historiographical methods that, in the case of the Scottish Enlightenment, enable the move to a detached view of “structural, long-term change” (80). Method, as Koselleck elaborates his account, serves as an alternative to experience, especially an experience of suffering, because methods “can be abstracted from the unique event; they can be applied elsewhere” (83). Historicist methods allow the transposition of loss into a form of knowledge where it remains, or at least this is the hope, “accessible beyond all change of experience”—unassailable (83). For Koselleck, historicism substitutes method and knowledge for the experience—often quite intimate—of war and its aftermath. In this way he understands Foucault’s “grid” or “historical discourse’s truth-matrix” not as another version of war but as a means of stepping outside of the suffering exacted by war. An unassailable method, the historicism developed by Scottish historians “might offer some comfort, perhaps a gain,” he suggests. But he ends more ruefully: “In practice, it would mean saving us from the victors. Yet every experience speaks against it” (83).

11.         Does the history of the vanquished, with its method and “production of theory that became an imperative of method” offer a viable alternative to war (81)? You have to read to the very end of Koselleck’s rigorous forty-page essay on “Transformations of Experience and Methodological Change” to arrive at the pathos of his project. Tonally his considerations could not be more different from Foucault’s and yet both tell us perhaps what a self-consciously post-war generation must: war is either history’s matrix or the experience that history wants to transcend; it is history’s internal or external limit. “History cannot get away from war,” writes Foucault, “quite simply because war itself supports this knowledge, runs through this knowledge and determines this knowledge” (173). Koselleck might sigh and say, “History has to try to get away from war, get off the battlefield to produce some other possibility for knowledge,” even as he admits that all “experience speaks against it.”

12.         The postwar thoughts of Foucault and Koselleck form a sort of resonating chamber for our contemporary thinking about historicism. Here war, history, knowledge and experience jostle and reverberate. As we carry such thinking into our contemporary wartime, we must wonder what it means to dwell within such a chamber, or indeed if the walls of the chamber will hold.

In the Field

13.         Another version of historicism has been given more recently by James Chandler, whose 1998 book, England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism also locates the origins of historicism and cultural history in the writings of the Scottish Enlightenment. Chandler’s characterization of historicism seems to side-step the question of war to focus instead on the development of systems of dating and periodization. But 1819 is markedly a postwar year, and barely so; its proximity to fields of battle threatens to disrupt these very procedures of dating and periodization, and open up its own echo chamber. We will return to that side-stepping and those echoes in a moment.

14.        Chandler meditates at length on the value of the “dating system” for the study of culture, even as he provides a powerful history and critique of the historicism emerging in Britain in the early nineteenth century. “What the dating system adds,” he suggests, “is a second order code, a method of translation from one textually constituted culture/character into another (Chandler 151, emphasis added). This second order code, developed as a characteristic of Romantic-era writing, derived in part from Scottish Enlightenment historiography. As a method of translation between different “states,” it makes possible both ethnography and historicism; it serves as a method for marking—and therefore comparing, coordinating and unifying—differences across the borders of time and geography (95).

15.        Thus for Walter Scott, the most obvious literary practitioner of historicism, “calendrical chronology functions as the medium in which different time-in-temporalities can be merged into a yet-higher-order calculus: a historian’s code” (132). The uneven rates of development between, say, Scottish and English culture, or between Saxon and Norman culture, can be specified and made visible. The idea of culture as an object of study requires such a code and with it the assumption that “operations of changing times and changing places are mutually defined” (132-3; see also 161). By locating his early novels at the borders of Scottish and English cultures, Scott could thus delineate such operations. In this way movement across a geographical border could send you into a different temporal state, to a culture “behind” or “advanced” according to some universal chronological measure.

16.        Like the writers he studies, Chandler lays particular emphasis on the term “state,” not allowing us to forget the resonance between cultural states and geopolitical entities with cultures to be defined but also defended, promulgated or potentially exterminated. The historian’s code then, as it coordinates heterogeneous temporalities into a system of calendrical dating, as it “translates” between “states,” claims for itself a diplomatic function, smoothing over inter-state differences or tensions so that, as Chandler says, their “operations . . . are mutually defined.”

17.        Scott himself, in the 1819 Dedicatory Epistle to Ivanhoe which lays out his methods, defines the area of cultural translation as an “extensive neutral ground”—and his terminology implies that in the absence of this neutral ground, past and present, there and here would confront each other on contested ground, the ground of battle (Scott 9). [3]  Translation on neutral ground thus involves a search for what Scott calls, in an echo of Hugh Blair, “manners and sentiments” held in common, “principles of our common nature,” in order to offset “indifference,” incomprehension, or (and he leaves this possibility unstated) hostility (9). Edging Scott’s own meditations on historiography and the study of cultures, and leaking into Chandler’s as well, are reminders of states not easily accommodated by diplomatic translation, and of cultures under threat. [4]  From these reminders we can begin to see how wartime and the state of war vex the work of historicism at its very roots.

18.        The focus on culture as a “field” which organizes and situates historical (and ethnographic) practice, and which Chandler, following Raymond Williams, understands as a product of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century, has this darker and more destructive aspect: the field of battle. The problem surfaces primarily in the metaphors of “ground” and “field” which Chandler borrows from Scott and which serve as the spatial correlatives of historical “periods” or “ages.” Though these are metaphors common enough in the study of culture, in the self-reflexive practices of Romantic historiography, in terms like “neutral ground,” they betray an awareness of forces otherwise poised to overthrow “states” and the cultures they support. The Dedicatory Epistle itself seems to question the ideal of neutral or common ground. Scott’s metaphor for historical-cultural translation recalls—maybe to repair—an earlier, unsettling moment in the Dedicatory Epistle which situates itself on the battlefield. There Lawrence Templeton, the English antiquarian serving as the fictional author of the Epistle, is straining to justify the work of the historical novelist, and he turns first not to neutral ground but to the gore-stained ground of war.

The Scottish magician, you say, was like Lucan’s witch, at liberty to walk over the recent field of battle, and to select for the subject of resuscitation by his sorceries, a body whose limbs had recently quivered with existence, and whose throat had but just uttered the last note of agony. Such a subject even the powerful Erictho was compelled to select, as alone capable of being reanimated even by her potent magic –
----- gelidas leto scrutata medullus,
Pulmonis rigidi stantes sine vulneris fibras,
Invenit, et vocem defuncto in corpore quaerit.

[_____ prying into the inmost parts cold in death, till she finds the substance of the stiffened lungs unwounded and still firm, and seeking the power of utterance in a corpse.]

The English author, on the other hand, without supposing himself less of a conjuror than the Northern Warlock, can, you observed, only have the liberty of selecting his subject amidst the dust of antiquity, where nothing was to be found but the dry, sapless mouldering, and disjointed bones, such as those which filled the valley of Jehoshaphat (Ded. Ep. 7).  [5] 
Chandler devotes a good deal of space to Ivanhoe’s Dedicatory Epistle, and to this passage in particular, rightly understanding it as a crucial “moment of reflexive theorization” in Scott’s novel (Chandler 136)—one of those moments of theorizing that reveal what Koselleck terms “the imperative of method” (Koselleck 81). [6]  To seek the power of utterance in a corpse, moreover, sounds like a close approximation of the desideratum of new historicism, famously voiced by Stephen Greenblatt when he wrote, “I wanted to speak with the dead” and likened himself to a “conjuror” (Greenblatt 1).

19.        Certainly the primary purpose of this passage is to differentiate the “time” of the Scottish historical novelist—witch or warlock—from that of the English antiquarian, not only by placing the Scots closer to the scene of violence (the visceral as opposed to the dusty “field” of historical research) but also by assigning them to different cultural systems: that of Lucan’s On Civil War, a verse history of the wars between Pompey and Caesar in the first century BCE; as opposed to the even more distant Book of Joel from the ancient Hebrew scriptures. The comparison of fields adds philosophical complexity as well to Chandler’s larger point about historicist dating procedures. “Templeton’s point, though couched in the macabre details of military carnage, might be said to depend on a familiar Rousseauistic paradox about civil society: that we must be forced to be free.” By this reckoning the Scottish novelist working on the recent past is like the witch “free to be forced” to choose her subject, while the English writer, trying to locate a similar “state” is “free to be unconstrained in his selection” (Chandler 169). The emphasis on social contract theory, though, does not sit easily with the macabre details of military carnage: Lucan is not depicting the operations of civil society but its breakdown in civil war. Warfare complicates (though the verb seems feeble) the field or ground of “translation” (from one state to another) that supports Templeton’s dating system; it complicates as well the issues of “force” and “freedom” involved.

20.        Templeton does not show the historian revivifying just any old dead; he finds his dead on the contested ground of war. [7]  The past here is not what a generation of Scots historians (the historians Koselleck takes as his model) had assumed it ought to be: manners and morals, representative characters and social and economic movements are lost in the impersonal remains of the carnage. By grounding Scott’s previous novels in this bloody terrain, moreover, Templeton reminds his audience, if inadvertently, of the fragility of any construction of the “state.” The passage he glosses from Lucan, where Pompey’s son asks the Thessalonian witch Erichtho to work her magic in the near aftermath of battle, culminates a series of scenes in Book VI of On Civil War, which are keenly attuned to the problem of ground in time of war. In one early passage Lucan describes extensive fortifications erected by Caesar to encircle his enemy, then questions why "[s]uch an army of busy hands” could not have been set to work building bridges or canals, work analogous to Scott’s cultural translation on “extensive neutral ground.” Why not, he asks, build viaducts that would change “for the better some other region of earth?” Instead, Lucan laments, by the work of these hands

[t]he field of war was now contracted [ Coit area belli]; here is preserved the blood that will flow hereafter over every land; here the victims of Thessaly and the victims of Africa [two future battles] are penned up; the madness of civil war seethes within narrow lists." (VI: lines 54-63, p. 309)
For Lucan, war contracts time and space into a tight, seething circle, a vortex of tenses (“was now,” “is preserved,” “will . . . hereafter”) and locations (western Italy, Thessalonia, Libya). The blood of future dead in far-flung places is held in the grasp of this one far-from-neutral field; not translation but drastic reduction is at work. Repeatedly Lucan reminds his reader that the whole world, “every land” is present, forced onto this one particular field.  [8]  The freedom to be forced, upon which civil society bases itself, narrows drastically in time of war; freedom itself contracts along with time and space. In On Civil War, the field of battle collapses the possibility of other, different places or times as they are all forced into this tight, bloody spot which is also “the whole world.” In Lucan, that is, the totalizing power of war re-defines the ground or field, scrambling the historian’s code.

21.        It is perhaps then not remarkable that Templeton neglects one detail built into the story of Lucan’s witch. When she asks the newly-dead corpse to “give events their names, their places; and provide a voice,” Erictho is not asking, as a historian might, in order to establish the ground of past events. She wants to know the future spawned by this slaughter (VI: ll. 774-775, p. 361). The utterance emerging from the field of battle, this unsettled ground, tells of the coming fall of the Roman republic. Fittingly, as if the fall of that state takes with it the historian’s code, the prophetic utterance of the fallen warrior (which closes Book VI) further erases distinctions between different places and times in what might be called a trans-historical instability. In the end, the dead man announces, “the battle of the rivals [will] settle nothing but their place of burial” (VI: lines 811-12, p. 365). Prophecy intrudes upon history and finds that the only “state” is the unsettled state of the battlefield; its only settled ground a burial ground.

22.        The question of settlement—the settlement that became Julius Caesar’s imperium, the settlement wrought by Culloden or Waterloo—haunts Scott’s Dedicatory Epistle, no less in the field of Jehoshophat than the field of civil war. Again, Templeton appears to alter the significance of the field, in this case the valley of Jehoshophat, taken from the book of the prophet Joel. He makes it the site of a remote past. In scripture, however, Jehosophat represents the site of the future: it is the “valley of decision” yet-to-be—not the dusty cemetery of battles past. In Joel’s account, here God will “gather all nations” and proclaim to them the famous words:

prepare warre, wake up the mightie men, let all the men of warre drawe neere, let them come up. Beat your plowe shares into swords, and your pruning hookes into speares. (King James Bible, 1611; Joel 3: 14, 2, 9-10)
In the valley of Jehoshaphat, God promises to assemble and sit in judgment upon “the gentiles,” “the heathens,” the nations that have injured his people. “[A]nd the heavens and the earth shall shake,” the prophet tells us (Joel 3: 16). Jumpin’ Jehosaphat, in other words, is the ground of some final, apocalyptic overturning, after which “Egypt shall be a desolation and Edom will be a desolate wilderness. . . . But Judah shall be for ever, and Jerusalem from generation to generation” (Joel 3: 19-20). On the Day of Decision, in the valley of Jehoshaphat, only one state survives: this field reduces “all nations” to one.

23.        Even as he marks out the “extensive neutral ground” of cultural translation, even as he theorizes a “higher-order calculus” that will allow for comparative analyses of different states, settling them in their moment in chronological time, Scott’s Templeton ventures onto terrain that will not remain past or settled. Despite his insistence that the historical novelist charts “la vie privee of our forefathers Templeton–like Scott—begins his research on the ground of what we would now call state-sponsored violence where, as Hannah Arendt has explained, an “all-pervading uncertainty,” an insurmountable “arbitrariness” holds sway (Arendt 4-5). In war and through war, chronology is subject to upsetting forces, blasting open its orderly sequencing and synchronies. The Northern Warlock plies his trade on the battlefield of Pharsalia, in Thessaly; the southern, English antiquarian in Jehoshaphat, the borderland between Israel and Judea: some fields merge even as others are eliminated. In the process, the British state leans dangerously close to identification with the up-coming fall of the Roman republic, the historian picks about the bones of the yet-to-be dead in the earth-shaking valley of judgment in the Mid-east. Civil war and the apocalypse of totalizing empire form the horizon of Templeton’s world picture.

24.        Though Templeton does not admit it, Scott knows that the ground had shifted (again), the battlefield had recently come to England. In August of 1819, while he was writing Ivanhoe, British citizens peaceably assembling to press for Parliamentary reform were massacred by government troops at St. Peter’s Field, an event christened Peterloo. The very name, echoing Waterloo, suggests a dislocation in time and space, as if the recent wars with Napoleon had to end again and in a new, less distant place; as if history had not moved on from that earlier settlement, but would repeat itself and move closer. [9]  “The battle of the rivals settles nothing but their place of burial,” Lucan explains. There are always more burials, more fields consecrated and constricted by war.

25.        On the contested ground of the battlefield, neither the “expanse of the national past” nor the gathering of scattered remains can be taken for granted anymore than the survival of the state which these activities underwrite. Perhaps this threat explains why corpses on the battlefield are not asked to speak for what has passed, but for the possibility of a future (state): whether or not there will remain any fields outside the battlefield. In wartime, the “field” of cultural history may look like prophecy.

26.        Romantic wartime emerges from this problematic relationship between historicism and the battlefield. It considers, on the one hand, historicism’s need to keep the violence of war at a distance—the object of geographical and chronological mapping—in order to delineate that “extensive neutral ground” which becomes the field of cultural history. On the other hand, Romantic wartime attends to the totalizing impulse of warfare, acknowledged even as early as Lucan’s De Bello Civile, which refuses to honor historical and geographical distinctions, so that this war or that war are subsumed under something called War; remote causes satisfy present hatreds; and all the world is condensed into one field of battle. [10]  “How ought we to understand the metaphor of the “field’ on which the historical novelist’s [—and the cultural historian’s—] ‘subject’ lies?” Chandler asks, with characteristic acuity (Chandler 169). He wants to answer that question by examining the contradictory modes of interpretation sponsored by the metaphor, and calling attention to difficulties of historical representation. [11]  I do not want to minimize the importance of Chandler’s question or his answers. Rather I would like to ask how we ought to understand this crucial metaphor of the (cultural) field in wartime, when it contracts into the battlefield. So I will alter Chandler’s question: “How ought we to understand the metaphor of the ‘field’ on which the historical novelist’s [—and the cultural historian’s—] ‘subject’ dies?”

From Field to Body

27.        Anna Letitia Barbauld’s unfinished “Dialogue in the Shades” written in 1813 offers a singular answer to this question. Faced with the slaughter bench of on-going war, Barbauld puts aside the historian’s code of dating, searching for history’s scale and tempo instead in the fragile, impermanent form of the individual human body. Even more explicitly than Scott’s, Barbauld’s work situates this body and the wars it suffers within the emergent “field” of modern historicism, where historical practice finds it difficult to differentiate its field from the battlefield.

28.        Barbauld wrote her prose “Dialogue in the Shades” in the shadow of war and the aftermath of the critical firestorm that erupted around her anti-war poem, “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven.” As the title of that poem indicates, Barbauld was concerned there with locating the state of England in the higher-order calculus of dated, universal history and this meant removing it from the mortality of the human body (the poem ends with an ethereal “Genius” or “Spirit” traversing the globe). This process allows the sort of cultural translation advocated by Scott’s Templeton, and advocated as well in Barbauld’s essay, “On the Uses of History,” a text which, along with “Eighteen-Hundred and Eleven,” serve as touchstones in Chandler’s account (Chandler 115-19). [12]  Like the poem, “On the Uses of History” understands the mutual implication of geography and chronology in the study of History (they are “the two eyes of History”). In the way these linked texts theorize history, the turn to universal or what Barbauld calls “general” as opposed to “relative” history aims for a point of view outside and above the human body. By contrast the relative or “natural” mode of telling time derives from an individual’s present position and from memory: “in more familiar life [we resort] to this natural kind of chronology—The year before I was married,—when Harry, who is now five years old, was born,—the winter of the hard frost” (Barbauld 151). But this way of telling history (and for Barbauld it looks gendered and belongs, as her examples suggest, “to the annals of domestic life”) cannot survive “personal recollection” because it lives within a mortal creature. Even were such accounts recorded in writing, in a temporally coherent narrative, one would still want to know when the “natural” historian lived and died (151). To separate History from this mortal, embodied perspective, there must be some impersonal, “common measure” or “medium” for ordering events: one must “place them with respect to the history of other times and nations.” “General”—as opposed to “natural”—chronology, Barbauld maintains, “fixes every event to its precise point in the chart of universal time” (152). In other words, general chronology, as practiced in “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” and explained in “On the Uses of History,” can perform translations between nations and times because, like Hegel’s “general idea,” it does not suffer death. [13] 

29.        The prose “Dialogue in the Shades” follows “On the Uses of History” and reverses its tack, bringing us back to the field of battle: it recognizes the demands placed by the mortal body upon History, even as History aims to transcend it. (This seems the place to mention that “Dialogue” was not published until 1825, well after the settlement of the Treaty of Versailles, and after Barbauld’s death). In it Clio, the classical embodiment of History, but embodied in immortal form, complains to Mercury, the messenger of the gods, that she cannot possibly keep up with the accelerated flow of bodies pouring into the afterlife.

“I have had more business for these last twenty years than I have often had for two centuries; and if I had, as old Homer says, ‘a throat of brass and adamantine lungs,’ I could never get through it. . . . my roll is so full, and I have so many applications which cannot in decency be refused, that I see no other way than striking off some hundreds of names to make room . . .” (Barbauld, “Dialogue” 464)
Clio’s surprisingly bureaucratic sense of the change in History’s tempo (so much business, so many applications!) generates its own version of uneven development. Global war here functions as History’s accelerator, but also its principle of economy. Although elsewhere Barbauld adopts universal history as a means of measuring and coordinating different rates of development, here it poses as a system of limits, a restricted ground, within which something has to give. In the dialogue that follows, the muse of History searches for ways to “make room” for new names and new stories, threatening in the process to blot out the record of warriors and heroes from the ancient past. The ancients, she insists, “have been remembered long enough” (468). Modern war demands History’s revision.

30.        In some ways Barbauld’s “Dialogue” may appear a simple rehearsal of a long-familiar narrative of supercession, the old giving way to the new. Yet while characterizing the impressive features of the modern moment, Barbauld does not quite offer a vision of progress (a departure from her goal in “Eighteen-Hundred and Eleven”). Indeed, she suggests a homology between the work of modern history and the destructiveness of modern war, both feeding off the “taking of lives.” The increased scale and speed of the modern era (“[N]ow I am required to be in a hundred places at once” . . . “in all parts of the globe at once,” moans Clio) have indeed necessitated Clio’s streamlining of her art (470). But the stronger factor is modernity’s lethal power. Thanks to the enormity of deaths in the Napoleonic wars, History has had to take up a grim science of accounting:

“Here am I expected to calculate how may hundred thousands of rational beings cut one another’s throats at Austerlitz, and to take the tale of two hundred and thirteen thousand human bodies and ninety-five thousand horses, that lie stiff, frozen and unburied on the banks of the Berecina—. . . Nay, the human race will be exterminated if this work of destruction goes on much longer.” (471-2)
Barbauld suggests the Malthusian pressures that the on-going wars place not simply upon the future, but also upon the past and the future of the past. Mercury in fact invokes Malthus, “a great philosopher,” in order to placate Clio. For if “twenty or forty thousand men could not be persuaded every now and then to stand and be shot at,” then, by Malthusian “calculation,” “we should all be forced to eat each other” (473). Like Malthus, Clio has her eyes trained on universal scarcity and the vulnerability of the human body, but where he looks forward she looks back; where he fears the force of procreation, she reveals the destructiveness of the battlefield. Modern technologies of warfare take “the human frame, of curious texture,” to “wound. . . lacerate . . . and mutilate [it] with most perverted ingenuity” (472). By this reckoning, History, like futurity, is forced to play a zero-sum game.

31.        Not surprisingly, the muse of History must reconfigure her sense of time in the grip of this modern war. In the figure of History’s scroll, “long enough to stretch from earth to heaven” but grown “quite cumbrous,” Barbauld finds a handy way to give space and weight to the past. Yet in the age of print, History must economize: what had been written “all in capitals” and illuminated in gold must be squeezed into “small pica” type (470). In this newly economic, measured version of the past, History’s—and war’s—expansion into “all parts of the world” requires conversely a reduction, even miniaturization in print. Immortal Clio insists therefore on regarding humanity’s past according to the temporality of the mortal body: History—at least this modern history confronting her—unfolds in the span of a lifetime. “It takes a life, as mortals reckon lives, to unroll it [her scroll]” (464). History in 1813, in the opening of a new front in North America, in the wake of Napoleon’s costly campaign in Russia, unfailingly “takes a life.” To a certain degree, Clio restates Templeton’s comparison of recent and historically distant fields of battle: the ancient “shades” who talk to her are told they must make room on her rolls for fresher corpses. Rather than offering comparisons and translations, though, the “Dialogue” perversely mirrors a field of battle where there is not room enough for both the warlock’s and the antiquarian’s dead; one army or the other must give way.

32.        In her neoclassical “Dialogue” on modern history, Barbauld twists and transforms the emergent concept of a history measured by numbers—the numbers of chronological time, the years and dates so crucial to historicist understanding. For the mythical Clio, the more pressing numbers to be reckoned are statistics taken from the battlefield, the integers of destruction. Though forced to distinguish between the ancient and the modern, to expunge one to make way for the other, Clio nevertheless reminds Mercury—the god of news and wealth—that in the end she measures history not by the abstract markers of moments or periods, nor by conceptual fields, but by the force exerted to curtail the life of one human body. For her, modern global wartime demands this recognition of fatal economies.

33.        In Barbauld’s “Dialogue in the Shades” and Scott’s “Dedicatory Epistle” the practice of historicism in wartime is subject to uncanny, untimely forces. The clear lines that would plot the past in a determinable sequence are subject to vectors that pull in several different directions. When the “expansive neutral ground” that organizes Scott’s project of translating between different states finds itself too close to the battlefield, it simultaneously expands into the whole world and all of history and contracts into one disastrous moment. By turning to Lucan and Joel, Scott’s Templeton wants to situate various historical practices and hence various cultures in their proper moment, but his efforts are undermined both by the totalizing violence of the battlefield and by its affiliation with prophecy, rather than history. Barbauld, for her part, steps outside of human time to “place” the work of modern history. She, like Lucan, feels war contracting the scope of history, even as it expands the number of the dead: human mortality now governs the work of History. If History is a field, then Barbauld understands it as a field of blood-stained scarcity, measured in the final instance by countless dead bodies.

34.         But of course I have strayed onto these fields during our own time of war and have solicited my examples accordingly. Or have they solicited me? I have lost, I fear, the proper mediating distance.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1989. Print.

Barbauld, Anna Letitia. "On the Uses of History." Selected Poetry and Prose. Ed. William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2001. Print.

---. "Dialogue in the Shades." Selected Poetry and Prose. Ed. William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2001. Print.

Blair, Hugh. Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. Edinburgh: [n.p.], 1783. Print.

Chandler, James. England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Print.

Favret, Mary A. War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime. [n.p.]: Princeton UP, 2009. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-1976. Trans. David Macey. New York: Picador, 2003. Print.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Print.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm. The Philosophy of History. New York: Dover, 1956. Print.

Herbert, Christopher. Culture and Anomie: Ethnographic Imagination in the Nineteenth-Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Print.

Koselleck, Reinhard. The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts. Trans. Todd Samuel Presner et al. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002. Print.

LaCapra, Dominick. History and Criticism. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985. Print.

Lucan. The Civil War. Rev. ed. Trans. J. D. Duff. Cambridge: Harvard UP; Loeb Classical Library, 1997. Print.

Macauley, Thomas Babington. Historical and Miscellaneous Essays. 3 vols. New York: Albert Cogswell, 1859. Print.

Makdisi, Saree. "Colonial Space and the Colonization of Time in Waverley." Studies in Romanticism 34 (Summer 1995): 155-87. Print.

Phillips, Mark Salber. Society and Sentiment: Genres of Historical Writing in Britain, 1740-1820. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000. Print.

Scott, Walter. "Dedicatory Epistle." Ivanhoe. Ed. Graham Tulloch. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2000. Print.

Shaw, Philip. Waterloo and the Romantic Imagination. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Print.

White, Hayden. "Foreword." Reinhard Koselleck. The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts. Trans. Todd Samuel Presner et al. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002. Print.

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society, 1780-1850. New York: Columbia UP, 1983. Print.


[1] Macauley’s other examples climb down from this height, until we are “seated at the table” with “our ancestors” and “rummag[ing] through their old-fashioned wardrobes” (I: 308). Warfare thus posed a sticking point, an obstacle, to the practice of sympathetic insight (Verstehen) which, as Mark Salber Phillips argues, “came to be understood as the central feature of historical understanding” (Phillips 347). BACK

[2] On the emergence of the idea of culture in the late eighteenth-century, see Herbert, Culture and Anomie: Ethnographic Imagination in the Nineteenth-Century Williams, Culture and Society, 1780-1850. BACK

[3] The words in fact belong to the character Lawrence Templeton, an English antiquary and Scott’s persona as compiler of this novel as well as his apologist for the practice of historical fiction. Chandler, in his analysis of Templeton’s epistle in England in 1819, adds, “This metaphor of the neutral ground between the ancient and the modern presides over the rest of Scott’s analysis” (141). BACK

[4] On Scott’s re-mapping of violence in Scotland, past and present, see Makdisi. BACK

[5] Translation from Lucan, The Civil War, Bk. VI, ll. 629-31, 350-51. BACK

[6] Chandler’s larger discussion of the Dedicatory Epistle runs pp. 133-177. For Scott, the larger state of the world is suggested by his praise for the Arabian Nights Tales, a remarkable feat of cultural translation between “West and”East” (Scott iv). BACK

[7] In a footnote, Chandler remarks that Templeton’s musings about these two ancient battlefields suggests a “displacement” of the Battle of Culloden, the decisive event of Scott’s first novel, Waverley. “It is difficult. . . not to hear” in Templeton’s comparisons, “echoes of the Scottish reactions to the Clansmen who were slaughtered and denied burial by the Duke of Cumberland’s orders on Culloden Moor in 1746” (168, fn. 27). BACK

[8] So Duff translates Lucan’s word parasti (322). For similar images of a world at war, see Lucan, VI: 305-13, 327; 481-82, 339; and 819-20, 365. .Especially notable is the dead prophet’s comment that the “furious civil war’ in Rome has spilled over into the netherworld (VI: 780-81, 361), BACK

[9] Though he does not directly address the Peterloo massacre, Philip Shaw does helpfully analyze the psychic wound of Waterloo in Waterloo and the Romantic Imagination. BACK

[10] I pursue this issue more extensively in chapters 1 and 2 of War at a Distance. BACK

[11] Is the field an “expanse of the national past” from which we select a representative subject to speak, or is it a “moment or stage” from that past for which we hope to piece together a representation (Chandler 169)? Is the field to be understood diachronically or synchronically? Scott complicates the matter further by offering two examples of what it means to “speak for.” In one example, the fallen body (a body, we might add, with lungs and other body parts intact) “hails you, as it were, asking to be the representative”; in the other “the body has to be composed, or recomposed” out of scattered, neglected bones (170). Dominick LaCapra repeats a similar conundrum about historical representation, when he describes the historian’s “conversational” exchange with the dead as fundamentally uncanny, given that the exchange takes place via a dialogue pieced together “through their [the dead’s] textualized remainders” (LaCapra 36). BACK

[12] Barbauld’s “On the Uses of History,” is an essay in four parts, addressed to a young woman, Lydia, who has asked for advice on her education. BACK


It is not the general idea that is implicated in opposition and combat, and that is exposed to danger. It remains in the background, untouched, uninjured. This may be called the cunning of reason—that it sets the passions to work for itself, while that which develops it existence through such impulsion pays the penalty, and suffers loss. . . . the particular is for the most part of too trifling value as compared to the general: individuals are sacrificed and abandoned. (Hegel 33)