How (not) to communicate historical research
Mr D. is the History teacher to whom I owe my passion for the subject. A historian of Byzantium, he was nonetheless able to take us through late medieval civic government in the Low Countries, and the politicisation of historical memory in the twentieth century. Among his teachings, there was one I always struggled to relate to: his extreme diffidence towards Wikipedia. Recently, however, I am starting to think that he may have had a point.
In 2016, my undergraduate dissertation about the Mannerist artist Costantino de’ Servi (1554–1622) landed on the desk of a journalist. A series of coincidences had carried it all the way there, beginning with my College: wishing to advertise the availability of the research grant from which I had benefited, they wrote a brief article about the dissertation. This article was circulated to a few press contacts, and it unexpectedly caught the eye of someone at the Guardian. Talking to the press about my dissertation was a fascinating experience. On the one hand, it was difficult to convey the nuances of historical research. The journalist was particularly interested in the possibility that de’ Servi might have been ‘a spy’; I insisted that such a term would have been misleading, preferring to speak of an ‘informal diplomatic agent’. De’ Servi’s repeated crossings of confessional boundaries in his travels, and the expression of tolerant views in his correspondence, which I regarded as some of my most interesting findings, did not attract as much attention. On the other hand, I was aware of what an amazing opportunity this was to engage a wider audience. I strove to portray the alterity of early modern Europe in understandable, relatable terms, while attempting to give a glimpse into historical methodology, and the reality of archival research.
When the article was published, on Boxing Day 2016, a moderate flurry of interest in de’ Servi followed: a few other press outlets published articles on the topic, and some friends and acquaintances asked me new questions about my research. Recently I stumbled across a new Wikipedia page whose title, ‘Costantini de’ Servi’, is unmistakeable, despite having been misspelt (Citing as its main reference the Guardian article, the Wikipedia entry is a sort of summary of its main points, a few matters of detail are plain wrong but that is not the main issue. I spent three months researching de’ Servi; yet the man described by the Wikipedia entry is wholly unrecognisable.
This raises a question of subjectivity: all three actors in this story (the anonymous Wikipedia contributor, the Guardian journalist, and myself) have, as far as I know, written in good faith, giving readers an honest account of their understanding of de’ Servi. Is the difference in our accounts merely subjective? If so, who is to say which is more or less truthful?
One way to answer this question is to think about sources. Of the three, I was the only one who had the opportunity to engage with the primary material, de’ Servi’s correspondence. His image, which I had reconstructed from these sources, was then refracted twice through the prism of someone else’s understanding, and the result was arrestingly distorted, as if in a game of Chinese whispers. This is partly to do with language. Historical prose, like much academic writing, is codified; words which have a certain meaning in everyday life take on a much more precise one in a historical, scholarly work: take ‘sociability’, for example. This vocabulary allows us to communicate with each other; does it, however, prevent us from communicating beyond historical circles?
The Wikipedia entry on de’ Servi is a reminder that engaging wider publics is a complex process full of challenges. The slope between accurate, nuanced writing and sensationalist prose is a slippery one, down which it is possible to slide unwittingly. This should not be an invitation to engage less in public history, quite the opposite: we should do it more, so we can become more skilled at retaining nuance while communicating clearly, and our readers can grow familiar with historical vocabulary and its specificity. Public engagement and popular history could be taught more explicitly in university, while media outlets could step up their expectations for historical rigour and depth of analysis. In the meantime, we ought to heed to Mr D.’s recommendation: when reading Wikipedia, caution and scepticism are never superfluous.
Image: Miniature with the portrait of the Duchess of Eleonora de ‘Medici by Costantino_de’_Servi, via Wikimedia Commons.