Listen carefully

Looking through an older London Review of Books today, I ran across a fascinating review by Charles Nicholl of The Merchant of Prato: Daily Life in a Medieval Italian City by Iris Origo.

Medieval Italy is most defintely, as we historians all too often have to say, “not my area”, but the book is now on my list.

I started my studies as a wannabe early-modernist with a focus on the seventeenth century, wrote my MA on the eigtheenth centry, and then my PhD dissertation (which became my first book) on the nineteenth. My second book considered the 1920s, and the forthcoming one concentrates on the 1930s and 1940s.

The relentless forward momentum is hard to overlook.

But more recently, I find myself more interested in returning to earlier periods, at least as a side interest. And Origo’s book sounds like it employs a kind of historical biographical approach that I’ve at least come close to in the last two books (my study of the Pace murder trial in 1928 and my forthcoming book on a British Christian intellectual group in the period around the Second World War).

Nicholl cites a passage from an essay on method from Origo (“Biography: True and False”, published in 1984 and originally written for a lecture in 1958).

Its main idea is one that I can very much second:

“The young biographer who has upon his desk his first intriguing pile of papers, will do well to arm himself with humility, and let them speak for themselves. Later on the time will come to sift, to compare, and to bring to life again; but first he should listen without interrupting. Then, as he deciphers the faded ink, a phrase may stand out which reveals the hand that wrote it. He may see – as suddenly as, at a turn of the passage, one comes upon one’s image in a mirror – a living face.”

The past cannot, of course, “speak for itself”.

But in writing about those who lived in it, one must, indeed, be a good listener above all.