Writing Radically

Not Walking

In commissioning this new feature, editorial fellow Rachel Moss asked contributors: how can we radically re-imagine the writing of history? Over the next few weeks, our contributors reply with creative new methods, sources and forms that they are using to reshape what history writing can look like. In this instalment, Catherine Fletcher talks about (not) walking, and what it means for archival research when travel is not possible. 

Castello di Brescia; photo by the author

I know I’m a historian. Am I also a travel writer? How often is the subtext of my writing informed by having been there, having gazed out at a vista from some castle battlements, having seen for myself how hard this fortress must have been to storm? Lockdown has given a new focus to those questions. What can be done with a laptop and the internet when travel is on pause?

It’s made me conscious of just how far my own section of the discipline–Italian history–has often come coupled with an experience of travel. Prior to the professionalisation of history, numerous Grand Tourists entwined vignettes of the past in accounts of journeys south. When in the early twentieth century G. M. Trevelyan set out to write a history of Garibaldi’s campaigns, he walked their routes across the Italian peninsula: in fact, he wrote a whole essay on walking with praise for Italy’s stars, skies and ‘naked pagan earth’, not to mention the hospitality of its peasants. I wonder if the peasants were as enthused by these encounters as the wayfarer, but that’s another question.

The idea of an ‘archive of the feet’ is an attractive one. I tweeted about Trevelyan as I was sketching out a plan for a new project and numerous colleagues chipped in with views and comments on their own uses of walking in research. Although I often joke about travel to Italy being a perk of my job, there’s a serious point to this. Restrictions have given many of us a new appreciation of just how significant both place and movement are to historical research. Google Maps offers some visuals but no sound or smell or temperature, no sense of steps along the paving stones. There’s a story that Appius Claudius Caecus, patron of the Appian Way, tested his new commission by walking on it in bare feet. (The ‘Caecus’ in Appius’ name refers to his blindness.) That is not a virtual option.

I’ve almost always made a point of travelling to see the locations I write about and have lived for extended periods in the places that I study. That perhaps reflects–and has perhaps created–an interest in material culture, in households, in topography and travel. It also reflects the practical reality that Italy, unified only in the nineteenth century, doesn’t have a long-standing central national archive, and earlier documents are scattered around the different cities. One of the very large benefits of my PhD was a funding for a full year in Italy–fairly rare in the 2000s and even more so now. My first post-doctoral fellowship, ten years ago now, was at the British School at Rome. The whole premise of those fellowships is that residence in Rome is valuable for scholars and artists whose work engages with the city. Indeed, they echo an older context in which (without wanting to imply it was too much of a golden age), the favourable exchange rate between pound and lira enabled British academics to spend long periods in Italy at very little cost. Yet that itself has a difficult dynamic: the wealthy outsiders descending to spend their generous cash, like Trevelyan and his hospitable peasants.

Castello di Brescia; photo by the author

Even before the pandemic, travel had its problems. It’s always been the privilege of scholars from wealthier countries and/or backgrounds. That doesn’t just affect those of us who work in far-off archives, but anyone who wants to participate in the meetings where new scholarship is presented and discussed prior to publication. Visa refusals have dogged efforts to involve scholars from the Global South in UK academic conferences. As the climate crisis worsens, we know that repeated flying in and flying out is unsustainable. We might make the case for fewer, longer trips but that’s getting harder with the squeeze on research time as teaching spills into the summer. I’ve known numerous colleagues with children switch their research focus to digitised or printed sources, or at the very least to archives that don’t require an intercontinental flight. Access to archives remains inadequate for many disabled historians. Perhaps it’s time to reflect on the alternatives.

My first alternative during lockdown was traditional. I wrote up research from archive sources that I’d photographed last year. The hit-and-run approach to archives that photography affords has its advantages, but it’s much harder to follow up on leads when you’re not reading the documents on site. With libraries restricted to online, my writing’s necessarily been more focused on the primary sources, along with recollections of what I’ve read, snippets found online and speculation of where the remaining secondary literature might fit in. It’s been an interesting discipline: I’ve been forced into thrift, to write what I can with the available scraps. I’m conscious how much easier that is in mid-career with two decades of reading behind me. I might be out of date–and that’s less than ideal–but I can cite a lot from memory.

My second resort, however, was the feral opposite to that: an imagining of travel. I’ve planned a new book on the theme of roads to Rome, precisely about journeys and the past and memory, about travellers who look back (and sometimes don’t). I’d been thinking about the project for a while, and it took on a sharper aspect when travel was withdrawn. You don’t know what you had until you lost it.

What this period of lockdown might prompt us to do is ask questions about history and travel more explicitly: what role does travel play in the historical process? When is it essential, and why? What does it bring? If in an environment of limited resources we must limit our journeys in what circumstances can they reasonably be justified? And–in parallel– what can we do without them? Which creative processes can function without historians moving? How may we apply imagination? How might we do history with less, or better, travel?

For more on the archive of the feet, see David Gange, ‘Retracing Trevelyan? Historical practice and the archive of the feet’, Green Letters 21 (2017), 246-61 and Martin Polley, ‘“The Archive of the Feet”: Field walking in sports history’, Journal of Sport History 37 (2010), 139-54.

One Comment

  1. I fully agree that traveling to the places you write about will change and improve the perception and presentation of the author and the reader. Allows you to “relive” the story.

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