On October 11, which marked the one-month since I’ve occupied the Kingdom of Cambodia without aggression or military force, this was the Oxford English Dictionary Online Word of the Day waiting for me in my inbox, and I thought I’d just go ahead and accept the email as divine counsel from the omnipotent OED on the future course of my profession.
I usually take a quick glance at the subject titles of these daily emails and then promptly delete them. But I opened and read this one. The word “historiated” made me think about the medieval illumination assignment we had in 7th grade art class. I remember drawing some obscenely curlicue-ridden form of my namesake T. I remember filling the empty spaces with leafy vines and flowers and fairies. It was juvenile and kitschy. It looked like a cheap souvenir from a Renaissance fair. But I didn’t care. I took an uninhibited delight in giving life to the bare, lonely letter on my bleak sheet of white paper – and that is the work of the historian: to historiate the forsaken stories.
As much as I like leafy vines and flowers and fairies, I don’t mean we as historians have the artistic license to go ahead and embellish the past with fantasies. Rather, we are commissioned with the responsibility to animate those stories that are lost so that the living can see them. So far in Cambodia I’ve sensed a preference for the new sometimes kills any interest in the old. This is just one of the reasons why we need people to historiate. In conclusion:
- Learn some vocabulary
- Start filling the world with leafy vines and flowers and fairies (literally and metaphorically speaking, as you so deem appropriate)