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Response to Review no. 30a

Dr Purkiss’s review is too good, in both senses of the word, to provoke any direct reply to her points. It is generous enough to disarm the most prickly of authors, and perceptive enough to compel admiration in its own right. Indeed, I can hardly dispute her characterization of the overall strengths and limitations of my book, as I laid them out in its preface myself; it is a genealogy of custom, leaving little space to show the way in which specific seasonal rituals related to each other or to the societies of which they were part. Apart from the practical problem that tracing the evolution and fate of the activities concerned required 250,000 words, I am simply not sufficiently expert in medieval or modern social history to accomplish the necessary work; which is why I wrote a separate study of the early modern period, for which I possessed the knowledge.

I would instead like to consider two larger and more oblique implications of her comments, which I find especially interesting and challenging. One concerns the way in which academic disciplines now operate. The biggest single shift in historiography during my lifetime has been the almost complete collapse of the notion that political and religious change can be explained primarily in terms of economic and demographic developments. We have been left with the disturbing realization that ideas really do seem to have a life of their own; hence the rush into ‘cultural history’ in order to get a grip upon the problem by reconstructing complete mentalities of past social groups. Movements in population, price indices and rent levels were (relatively) easy to trace and analyze. To penetrate the thicket where instincts and ideologies interwove in past centuries is a much harder task for a scholar trained to write conventional political, religious, constitutional, military, administrative, or social history. It involves looking at materials and issues traditionally more familiar to experts in literary criticism, anthropology, sociology, and psychology.

This is, of course, why interdisciplinary dialogue and cooperation have become so fashionable, and so necessary The crucial question is whether narrative historians of the traditional kind not only need to look at materials and issues which have hitherto been the preserve of other disciplines, but to adopt their methodologies as well. If so there is a critical problem, because few of us in mid-career have the time to undergo a process of fundamental retraining. It might make better sense to accept that we have to use the differing skills with which we are equipped and which come most naturally to us, just as a range of specialist technicians now work side by side on an archaeological project.

I see little sign yet of this happening, nor even of a recognition of the problem. Instead, each time that I publish upon aspects of the past which have hitherto been more the concern of other disciplines, editors usually send the work for review to experts in those fields, who automatically fault me for not writing like one of them. Stations of the Sun has been a particularly good test case in this regard. The criticism tends to be one-way; I would not dream of denigrating an anthropologist for failing to cite Tudor parallels when discussing Indonesian customs. It may well be that historians are at present particularly vulnerable because they have been much more ready than other scholars to cross conventional boundaries. We really do need to grow past this stage to make co-operation meaningful.

The other aspect of Dr Purkiss’s review which especially seized my attention was her suggestion that modern popular culture, and especially Pagan culture, might be too deeply imbued with the romantic notions of Victorian scholars for the revisionism of contemporary academics to make much impact. There is a paradox here. On the one hand she recognizes that those same scholars persuaded the public to internalize their theories even though the latter were at first alien (and were wrong). On the other, she cannot believe that their present-day descendants, in an age of much better communication, can pull off the same trick. She may be right; but my own impression, based upon an extensive personal knowledge of modern Pagans, is that they are in fact adapting to the new information coming out of the academy. What is going on is much more interesting than a process of re-education; rather, Pagans have pushed themselves into the forefront of that post-modern religious culture in which sacred truth is regarded as a subjective commodity. They increasingly recognise that the legitimating historical claims which they have inherited with their religion are based mainly on nineteenth-century fantasy, and argue instead that by acting out the fantasies they are giving expression to deeply-felt cultural needs- perhaps in response to divine prompting. If I am correct- and I certainly am correct about a sample of Pagans- then something really remarkable, and admirable, is going on. This is where my own work intersects with that of Paul Heelas. Stations was not so much the closing of a trilogy as the completion of a framework which further research could fill out in detail. The area of it upon which I am now concentrating is precisely this question of how modern mythologies of paganism were made and are altering, and it shows uncanny prescience upon the part of Dr Purkiss to draw so much attention to it in her review.