We Study Human Beings

Today I attended a seminar where a few truly remarkable people talked about their life experiences. One of them was a doctor, who did a few years of residency in New York before becoming interested in medical administration, and deciding to do a PhD in Cambridge.

Her talk was about what happens when doctors have an end of life conversation with their patients. She talked about the incredibly complex emotions that go in to both those conversations and the decisions that come out of them. Her presentation was gut-wrenching.

What struck me was that I work with the dead on a daily basis. Just the other week, I sorted through information about 500 skeletons from a dig at Wearmouth and Jarrow. I looked at they way they were buried, I looked at pictures of graves. They affected me, especially pictures of freshly unearthed skeletons, but they did not affect me nearly as much as hearing her talk today, even though the dying, in both cases, are complete strangers to me.

I wonder what this means. On the one hand, having that separation, being able to look at medieval skeletons and forget that they felt, and loved, and hated, and felt pain, is what makes it possible to do the research we do. On the other hand the people we study did feel, did love, and did hate – can we really understand them, what they did and why they did it, while separating ourselves?

Children are different. The first research project I ever carried out was on anomalies in the burial of infants and children in Anglo-Saxon England. My parents were horrified. When I told one of my professors that I was working on this – a professor who has two young children himself – he visibly shuddered. The reason I really want to get back to this research fairly soon is that I know I will never bring myself to come back to it when I have children of my own.

On the other hand, the most important lesson I have learned from that same professor is that we study human beings. Human beings in the full force of that word, who felt and loved and were capable of completely irrational actions because they were, in the end, human. Like you and I. Being able to separate myself, for now, means that I can study them and their burials – but can I possibly understand them?

Then again, bizarrely, one of the main debates in the study of infants and children is the question of whether medieval parents loved their children – a debate carried on by researchers who, I would presume, have children of their own. So in the end, does being able to relate, to see our subjects as human, really make a difference at all?

It should also be said that we are not exactly saving lives here – is there even a point in trying to relate to our subjects so deeply? Or is it just a pointless (and slightly vain) exercise?

The one blessing of working with Anglo-Saxons is that they were perfectly clear on one fact: they wanted their memories to live on, and they wanted their burials to be a reminder of themselves for posterity. At least when we uncover their graves, take their bones to a lab, and study them, we know that we are doing more or less what they wanted.

[…Though this is slightly tangential, on rereading this post I’ve realized my predilection for studying disease, death and burial makes me sound ever so slightly psychopathic. So, let me explain why I am interested in it: I believe that we cannot understand how people live, or why they do the things they do, unless we grasp how they understand their own death. Life and death, sickness and disease, are the most basic, most defining facts of life. This is especially true in the Middle Ages, when one’s fate in the afterlife was so much more important than anything that happened on earth.

There is a theory that one of the reasons Woodrow Wilson was unable to get his Fourteen Points fully included in the Treaty of Versailles was that he came down with the flu, and was too weak to argue for them persuasively. His medieval counterpart is Pope Gregory the Great, who mentions the crippling effect of his stomach pains in so many of his letters. Unless we can understand in what ways people were held back by their bodies, and how they understood the terms of their life, how can we possibly understand their actions?]

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